How to Be Successful in Life: 12 Principles to Live By

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Let’s talk about your success.

How would you rate your success in life up to this point? What does the term “success” look like to you in your future?

How Do You Define Success?

There are many different ways in which people define this loose term. To some, being successful means earning a lot of money. To others, it may describe overcoming a fear. And still, to others, it means simply achieving happiness in life.

But no matter how you define true success for yourself, the principles of how to be successful in life remain the same. 

The one thing that everyone’s definition of “success” has in common is achieving a goal of some sort. On the surface, this seems simple. But when you see people you view as very successful, do you ever wonder how they got there?

I remember being in graduate school, looking up to people who were well beyond my years who were making a huge impact in our industry. Those whose names were commonplace both in the classroom and out in the field. But I wondered what steps they had taken to get from where I was sitting to where they ended up and how I could follow that same path.

Sure, it took hard work for these people to become successful, plus probably a good bit of networking and maybe a little luck, but what are some principles or guidelines on how to be successful in life that people don’t consider quite so often? What are some of the not so obvious guidelines for achieving this elusive goal of success?

There are many definitions of the word “success,” but no matter how you define success for yourself, the principles of how to be successful in life remain the same.

This post will explore how to be successful in life in ways that you may not have considered before.

Let’s get started.

How to Be Successful in Life: 12 Principles

1. Stop Handling Yourself with Kid Gloves

It is only your actions that will bring you results. However, when your actions fail to generate your desired results, you may decide to be gentle with yourself, take a break, and not pressure yourself too hard. Instead of pushing forward, you wait around for better timing or for the right opportunity to come along–all while driving yourself into a state of stagnancy.

While working in moderation is okay, and self-care is important, you have to maintain the drive needed to get yourself to wherever you want to go. This means that you have to get out there–even when you don’t feel like it–and challenge yourself.

Do something that will help you progress, despite your potential fears. Address the fears that are holding you back. Is facing and overcoming your fear worth the potential reward? Is it worth it to make this fear a stopping point to your success? Do you fear success? Focus on the excitement that comes along with uncertainty–that boost of adrenaline that chases complacency away and invites an opportunity for you to learn and grow.

For example, let’s say you pitched an idea to a new client, and it was a flop. Take some time after the meeting to recollect yourself and then move on to the next client. Don’t go home and binge-watch tv and reconsider your entire career because you think you failed. Get up, get over it, and move on.

For more inspiration, here are some Eric Thomas quotes on motivation and success.

RELATED: 12 Good Morning Routine Habits

Want to build a success-focused morning routine? Well, watch this video to learn about the 12 morning routine habits of the world's most successful people.

2. Experiment

Start making small changes in the same permanent conditions in which you’ve always lived. If you start by changing yourself and developing good habits, then everything in your life can begin to change–and often, the thing you need to change about yourself is your perspective. And the important thing to note here is that there can be a subtle difference between success and failure. Your path to success may be blocked by a few small judgment errors that you repeat daily.

You may think to yourself, “I took the elevator instead of the stairs again today, and it still hasn’t impacted me, so it’s fine.” However, this mindset and error in judgment will lead to the eventual development of chronic diseases down the road. These small mistakes will cost you in the end.

Now let’s look at someone who experimented with small changes that lead to career success, perhaps the top sales rep at a company or a real estate agent who is in high demand. These people may have implemented some small changes to their routine such as writing personal thank you notes to their clients or following up several months later to ensure their client is still satisfied. These small decisions can add up and make a huge difference.

The only thing that this kind of career success requires is discipline, which is essential for advancement. You have the unique ability to influence change in your life. You just have to make a conscious effort to engage in actions that can compound and succeed in the long run. And the truth is, you need to put in some work every day for years before you become successful in life.

You won’t find your ultimate success in an ad you see online for a three-day conference or a new “proprietary blend” supplement that promises to melt fat away. If these things worked, everyone would be successful.

Finding success doesn’t come at a single magical moment when everything simply falls into place. It’s more about the smaller (and sometimes seemingly insignificant) moments that happen in between. It’s in the moments when you’re happy, and you’re soaking in your surroundings because you feel a sense of gratitude for your life.

And the fact of the matter is that these moments can happen even if you are currently in a career or situation far from your ultimate long term goal. Without taking these baby steps to achieve success, you can’t be sure if what you’re chasing is something you truly want or something you just think you want.

3. Look at Your Challenges Objectively

We tend to perceive our challenges in an instant by projecting our fears and experiences onto that challenge. This frequently results in errors in judgment that lead us to respond to the obstacle in a non-constructive way, even though we all know that assumptions and preconceived notions are often wrong. This tendency leads to overreactions and apprehension.

However, it is possible to increase your objectivity when faced with a hurdle. Looking at your challenges objectively means seeing and accepting them as they are and responding to them thoughtfully and intentionally without projecting your fears or past experiences onto the current situation.

When you approach your challenges with a solutions-focused mindset, it activates your brain’s creative process of examining alternative courses of action instead of staying trapped in false beliefs about why things can’t change, ultimately leading you to an even greater accomplishment.

Write down an obstacle you’re facing on paper and put your negative feelings about it aside. With the emotion connected to the roadblock out of the way, you can view the challenge objectively. You can look at what you’ve done right and wrong and create an action plan.

Pick a challenge that is holding you back and draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. On one side, write down the problem that is associated with the challenge. On the other side, write possible solutions. To come up with possible solutions, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What are my assumptions? What past experiences have I had that are influencing these assumptions? How can I address this differently?
  • What research can I do to discover how other people have overcome this challenge in the past?
  • Is there anyone I know that I can talk to about this? Who can I turn to if my research falls flat?

Doing this will help you cope more effectively with the challenges you face, reducing the number of roadblocks that keep you from achieving success. You cannot allow your success to be blocked by external forces because there is always a way to bypass any issue you face–and the issue is most often a mental barrier that only you can control.

4. Seek Out Mentors

While you may think you can gain all of the knowledge that you need in books, the truth is, most authors don’t reveal everything about their experiences or struggles in the books that they write. Instead, making a personal connection with someone can boost your self-confidence and reassure you.

Find people who are already “successful” in your mind, no matter what that looks like to you. If you think being successful means finding life-long love, do some research on the habits of the happiest couples who have been together for decades. If you want to start your own business, find some successful entrepreneurs whose businesses have taken off from where they started.

Having a mentor or a role model will give you a personal guide to achieving the greatness that you desire. When you learn through other people’s experiences, you can learn from their mistakes and their success stories. Many people that the world views as being successful today started with a mentor. In fact, one study found that 80% of CEOs report that they had a mentor before achieving their success.

However, don’t confuse having a mentor with having a boss. A mentor isn’t there to pick up your slack or give you so much feedback that they are essentially doing the work themselves. Essentially, they give useful and constructive criticism so you can help yourself.

The important thing about your success is that you’re creating it in the unique way you want to. Having your mentor make decisions for you means you are giving up the freedom of creating your journey.

While you do want to hear about someone else’s mistakes who have already been in your shoes, you won’t learn from them in the same way you will learn from your mistakes. You want to completely own your wins and losses, so get inspiration from your mentors and consider their advice, but remember that your life and choices ultimately need to be made on your own terms.

5. Be Optimistic

Don’t surrender yourself to the negative energy that comes your way each day. You will consistently witness greed, anger, hatred, arrogance, and many other forms of negativity. But negativity only generates more negativity, and if you live with this detrimental attitude, you will attract people who whine, complain, and have a defeatist attitude.

Choose to be optimistic by practicing gratitude, patience, humility, and kindness. Of course, you can’t expect yourself to be happy and positive during every moment of every day, but when you are faced with the choice of having one attitude over another, choose to look on the bright side as much as you can.

Having a positive attitude is a choice, and the more you feed into that positivity, the more optimistic you will naturally become.

6. Check-In With Yourself Regularly

To increase your chances of success in life, you need to consistently monitor, evaluate, and adjust your approach, methods, and work to avoid complacency and continue to meet your greater standards. You also need to check in with yourself to ensure that you’re still passionate about what you’re doing and all of the work you are putting forth will ultimately be worth the time you have spent.

One of the best ways to stay motivated and keep yourself accountable is to write down the specific tasks involved in demonstrating exceptional work that will guide you toward your definition of success. Then, write down what a complacent execution of work would look like.

Finally, describe the actions steps you plan to take to stay away from the lesser of the two habits. Check in with this list regularly to see where your work falls in this range. (Keeping a journal, like many successful and famous people do, is also a good way of checking in with yourself regularly.)

Having power over your direction in life means that you have to set your own standards for performance that lie somewhere on the spectrum between complacency and perfection.

7. Act Now

One thing that often separates successful people from unsuccessful people is simply taking action. Those who achieve success may not be smarter than those who don’t, but they make a plan and stick to it. As soon as they feel motivation or a strong emotion toward something, they take immediate action.

The Law of Diminishing Intent is what happens when you wait to take action. This concept suggests that the longer you wait to act after feeling a strong urge to do something, the more your intention will diminish and the less likely you will ever do something to make your intended progress.

This means that to be successful in life, you have to act on the motivation or inspiration when the idea is clear and powerful. No matter how small your first steps may be, turn that emotion into disciplined efforts.

The value that you get from that first action will inspire you to continue onto the next, and the next, and so on.  So take some sort of action on your plans right way, because if your plan is worthy, the results will be extraordinary.

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If you want success, planning is good… but action matters more. Do something to move you closer to your goals… now!

People often set goals and have dreams for things in their lives, but their goals are never realized because they fail to take action to work for what they want. Rather, people put things off until tomorrow, and then the next day, and then nothing ever ends up getting accomplished. The important thing is to take the necessary steps today.

Learn how to set the right personal goal. Check out this post on 35 SMART goals examples for all areas of your life.

8. Take a Break

There is a difference between taking a break and avoiding doing work. You will easily experience burnout if you do not take the necessary healthy breaks to rejuvenate your mind. Learn how to recognize the signs of mental fatigue and take the time to rest and recuperate.

You can allow your mind and body to rest by scheduling breaks into your calendar, just as you do with meetings. Make these breaks a priority and treat them as firm appointments.

You can do anything you want during these breaks, as long as they take your mind off your goal. This can be anything from going for a short walk in the middle of the day to going on a week’s vacation. Just as long as you don’t spend every waking hour solely concentrating on the success that you crave.

9. Learn How to Brainstorm

I’m sure you’ve heard this term a lot, but do you know what it really means? One of the guidelines for how to be successful in life involves letting your brain go–whether that is by yourself or in collaboration with others. This means you release all of your hang-ups and objections, take an idea, and run with it. Don’t plan out your train of thought or its final destination; just think freely.

Brainstorming is done to generate ideas, engage in creative problem solving, and learn through inquiry. When brainstorming is used for problem-solving in a team environment, it incorporates team members' diverse experiences to increase the depth of the ideas being explored, meaning you can typically come up with better solutions to problems than when you’re thinking on your own.

When you’re inquiry learning, you’re going through the process of exploring the targeted issue by asking questions, making new discoveries, gaining a new sense of understanding, and fulfilling your own curiosities. (Read our post on idea generation to learn about other ways to develop new ideas.)

If you’re having a brainstorming session with a group, you have to let go of your ego or fear of saying something completely unrealistic. Your outlandish thought could trigger someone else to morph it into an effective idea. This collective thought process will allow you to develop your ideas through a diverse range of thought processes.

However, for a brainstorming session to be effective in a group setting, everyone has to be comfortable enough with each other to be willing to share–otherwise, someone may be holding back on saying just the thing that will actually solve the problem.

Group brainstorming is great for generating ideas that may not arise during a normal problem-solving conversation. However, studies have suggested that doing your brainstorming solo may result in more and even better ideas than when you’re working with a group.

If you’re brainstorming alone, you simply have to get your brain to think outside of your normal routine by considering ideas without taking their practicality into account. By thinking without boundaries, you may come up with a solution that initially seems completely unreasonable; however, the process lets you open up your range of thought, which can eventually lead to the right solution.

This can be done more effectively individually than in a group setting because groups can often be distracting when people don’t follow a brainstorming protocol of behavior. Also, if you’re paying all of your attention to others in the group, you may not generate your own ideas.

To leverage your individual brainstorming, make sure to find a place where distractions are minimal, and you can focus. Brainstorming sessions can truly spark success in your life because it is during these times when you may have a “lightbulb moment” that improves your entire method of working.

After your brainstorming session, whether it is with a group or by yourself, you will be left with a lot of ideas to sort through. Pick the best ones and analyze them to see if they can be integrated somehow. If you can’t find a purpose for all of your ideas at that moment, write them down for later use. (To learn more about this concept, check out these six rules you should use for each brainstorming session.)

10. Stop Seeking Validation

If you want to know how to be successful in life, you’re not going to find it if you rely on everyone around you to approve your work and ideas. When it comes to your success, do it your way. If you feel like you’re on the right track, you don’t need other people to validate that for you.

Simply ask yourself if you are living the life that you want. If you believe that you are, it means you’re achieving success. If you decide that you’re not living the life you want, figure out what changes you need to make and implement them.

However, don’t let other people who may have their own biases impact your thinking. While people may think they know what the best thing is for you, you’re the only one who actually does. You need to trust yourself, and you will recognize that you know exactly what you’re doing.

Instead of validation, keep on the lookout for inspiration. Here are 15 short inspirational stories with a motivating moral.

11. Surround Yourself With Greatness

You have probably heard the suggestion that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. If you surround yourself with successful people, you will also become successful. People don’t succeed on their own; they need supporters, partners, and other people who inspire them.

The key to picking the people you spend the most time with is to ensure you choose those who are exponentially superior to you in several ways. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re losing out on the opportunity to challenge and improve yourself.

As you find yourself in new stages of your journey to success, your 5 main people may come and go. For example, the people with whom you spend the most time during the inception of your vision of success will probably evolve along the way as their roles change and you make new contacts.

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You are the sum of the 5 people you spend the most time with. So if you want success, surround yourself with successful people who achieve great things.

Your lifelong friendships will always be there for you, but you simply need to focus your relevant time suitably when it comes to achieving success. If there are people that you know who can help teach you, inspire you, or help you improve, make it a point to spend time with them.

Alternatively, if there are people in your life who do not share your values, are negative, self-absorbed, or detrimental to your success in some way, gracefully cut them out.

12. Improve 1% Every Day***

I put stars next to the title for this one to highlight the importance. Daily incremental improvements are the most powerful tools for success.

If you want to know how to be successful in life, you have to realize that you must take on the role of being a life-long learner. You won’t achieve success overnight. You have to take consistent action, test various ideas, fail, get back up, and slowly see your growth. Just like in finances, the power of compounding your own growth is an unstoppable force.

But how do you define 1%?

Well, you don’t. But this really just refers to improving yourself just a bit every day. While it is hard to measure, think of it this way: if you improve 1% every day, this adds up to be a 3800% improvement in one year. Alternatively, if you become 1% worse every day, your value will decrease by 97% in that year.

Maintaining this growth mindset allows you to take every opportunity to be a better employee, student, spouse, parent, doctor, writer, or whatever. Success never happens in one day. But if you continue to improve yourself every day, you will be successful.

Let’s look at an example. You want to be successful by completing a marathon. Here is what most people would do (and how it breaks down):

  • Start training by running 10 miles a week
  • Increase that to 12 miles a week about a month later
  • Life happens and interrupts training
  • They start to go for a run “whenever they have time”
  • Eventually, running dips to nothing as it stops being a “habit”

Now, let’s look at what a successful marathoner would do:

  • Run at least a mile every day for one week
  • Increase that to 1.5 miles the following week
  • Even when life interrupts, get a minimum of 1.5 miles running in daily. (running is a priority, not an afterthought)
  • As soon as ability enables an increase to 2 miles a day.
  • Keep increasing mileage weekly until you can easily do 10K a day. Then start mixing up training (still increasing distances) in preparation for a specific marathon.

The important part of these is that the “normal” view is trying to make running an “addition” to a routine. The second (successful) plan views this as an essential habit to the daily routine. No different than showering in the morning and brushing your teeth. Something you do when up, down, depressed, angry or busy.

While it may be easier to just do what is needed to get by, if you take advantage of every opportunity that can create extraordinary returns and boost the quality of your work, you will find that success is in reach.

You don't need earth-shattering improvements. 1% every day will reach any success goal in the long run.

The Importance of Success

Many obsess about success and what it takes to become successful. If we don't succeed in our lives, we may find ourselves looking to the past with utter disappointment regarding everything we could have accomplished but didn't.

Personal growth and our success depend on what we believe our greater purpose is and how that will impact ourselves and others. So, what is the importance of success?

Success makes us more confident and secure. It provides us with a greater sense of well-being and allows us to contribute on a higher level. It allows us to understand hope and leadership. Without success, our goals, dreams, and passions may not survive.

The Value of Positive Thinking for Success

When learning how to become successful in life, we also have to consider the benefits of positive thinking. Positive thinking has been shown to lower depression rates, distress, and pain. It improves our overall mental health and physical well-being. We need to continue to strive for success in our lives.

Dispel negative emotions, and don't become frustrated when you don't experience overnight success. As Richard Branson has said, “I know I'm fortunate to live an extraordinary life, and that most people would assume my business success, and the wealth that comes with it, have brought me happiness. But they haven’t; in fact, it's the reverse. I am successful, wealthy, and connected because I am happy.”

When we maintain a positive outlook on things, we can be happier, healthier, and more successful. Whether you are looking for financial success, aspire to meet high career goals, or just want to be a happy person – focus on positive thinking and encourage positive emotions.

Final Thoughts on How to Lead a Successful Life

Your success ultimately comes down to your actions, perceptions, and attitudes. There are a lot of tips out there on how to be successful in life, but unless you are proactive in doing the work that is required, you will find yourself settling for a life that wasn’t what you dreamed it to be. Remember: Having a goal is half the battle. You need to have a plan and take action.

Now that you have finished reading these guidelines on how to be a more successful person, take advantage of the ideas that sound unique to you and tailor them to fit into your own success plan. I hope that using these principles helps you find fulfillment in your endeavors and helps you achieve what you believe to be is the epitome of success.

Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.

Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.

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