The 4 Factors Of Success: It’s About Mindsets, Not Habits With Dr. Ruth Gotian

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TBT 174 | 4 Factors Of Success

Do you want to know what makes Olympians, Astronauts, and Nobel Prize Winners extremely successful? The 4 Factors Of Success! Penny Zenker introduces Dr. Ruth Gotian, the Chief Learning Officer and Assistant Professor of Education in Anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Ruth talks with Penny about how success is about mindsets, not habits. Meaning, everyone can make it! It’s just a matter of incorporating these 4 factors into your life. If you’re passionate about success and you want more of it, this episode’s for you. You wouldn’t want to miss it!

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The 4 Factors Of Success: It’s About Mindsets, Not Habits With Dr. Ruth Gotian

Research From Olympians, Astronauts, Nobel Prize Winners, And More

We are always looking for experts and leaders in their space to help you to work smarter, not harder. I know you’ve heard that many times. We don’t do what we know. We want to work smarter. Somehow, it’s not that we don’t know, but it’s in our psychology that knocks us off track. I am super excited to have an expert on success. Dr. Ruth Gotian is the Chief Learning Officer and Assistant Professor of Education in anesthesiology and former Assistant to the Dean of Mentoring and Executive Director of the Mentoring Academy at the Weill Cornell Medicine School.

She’s going to tell us a lot more about herself. Interestingly enough, she was selected as 1 of 30 people worldwide to be named on Thinkers50 Radar, dubbed as the Oscars of management thinking. She was shortlisted as the top eight emerging management thinkers in the world. She has a book called The Success Factor, and we’re going to learn more about it.

Welcome, Dr. Ruth.

Thank you so much. I get excited when I hear that other people are excited about success because I’m obsessed with it. I love to hear that others want to know more about it as well.

TBT 174 | 4 Factors Of Success

4 Factors Of Success: Success is all about mindsets, not habits, which means we can all do it.


Tell us why you’re obsessed with success. What’s up with that? Was it overbearing parents or something?

Black Hawk helicopter parents. I’ve always been surrounded by extreme high achievers. I used to run what’s called an MD PhD program for over twenty years and that program had a 3.5% success rate. These people were the crème de la crème. These were the best of the best. Even within that group, you see that some people even rise further to the top. What I was realizing was that every academic article, every conversation at the national meeting, all the money that was being funneled into the programs were focused on retention, “How do we keep these people? How do we prevent them from leaving the workforce?”

I kept thinking to myself, “Those people are going to leave anyway, no matter what you do. Why don’t we look instead at the other end of the spectrum, the people whose work is brilliant, magnificent, productive, and effective that they will more than make up for anyone who’s leaving?” Fun fact, high achievers produce 400% more than the average employee.

At the age of 43, while working full time, raising a family, and having eldercare for my parents, I decided, “Let’s add one more thing to the list.” I decided to go back to school and get my Doctorate. I did and I looked at the most successful physician-scientists of our generation. These are physicians who are also scientists. After I finished that degree, I said, “These four things that I found in those people, which were Nobel Prize winners, surgeon generals, and NIH directors, I wonder if other extreme high achievers do the same four things.”

These are not habits. These are mindsets, which means we can all do it. I started interviewing astronauts, Olympic champions, Fortune 500 CEOs, senior government officials, and people of that caliber. I quickly realized that it doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympic gold medalist or an astronaut, it’s the same four things that they’re all doing.

You said something extremely important. I’m impressed with all of those people that you’ve studied and had access to, which is amazing. You said that it’s not habits, it’s mindsets. I want that to sink in for people, it’s not habits. None of us want to create new habits. It’s the thought of people thinking that they’re going to have to create new habits, new mindsets. Everything starts in the mindset. What we do is driven by the mindset. I want people to let that sink in that “we are our worst enemies.” We can also be our greatest coach and driver by simply shifting our mindset.

That’s true what you’re saying. I’m a morning person. I wake up before sunrise. I can get more work done by 10:00 than most people can do before their first cup of coffee. At 10:00 PM, I am done. You are not getting anything out of me. There are some people who are night owls, who want to be up all night and working. I could never do that. I pulled one all-nighter in my entire life and that was enough to last me my entire life. I can’t do it.

People have different abilities to do different types of things. There’s no way you’re going to get good productive creative work out of me at 2:00 AM. I could do amazing work at 7:00 AM, which might sound the most terrific thing to other people. If you are not a morning person, don’t do my habit. Do the habit of what works for you. The mindset, you could do it on any time of the day and that’s critical.

Achievers produce 400% more than the average employee. Click To Tweet

Let’s peer open the curtain and let’s better understand what those mindsets are. What is behind this high level of success?

Intrinsic Motivation

There are four things that all of these people had in common. The astronaut is like the Olympic champion. If that’s the case, it means all of us can do these things. These are learnable and teachable. I want to be clear, nobody started their career saying, “I want to win the Nobel Prize.” Nobody said, “I’m starting my career wanting to win an Olympic medal.” No one said, “I like Physics. Therefore, I’m going to be an astronaut.” It didn’t work that way.

The way it worked and these are all four things and you have to do all four things together is you have to find what you were put on this earth to do. You are passionate about it and love it so much that you would do it for free if you could. We call that in adult learning intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation means you are doing it for yourself. There is a question, a burning desire inside of you and need to have it answered.

This is different from extrinsic motivation, which means the fuel to get you to do something is based on recognition, an award, a diploma, a promotion, or an atta girl. If that is your motivation, it will get you through a period of time. It’s not sustainable. You will burn out or fail out. If you have intrinsic motivation, no matter if there’s a pandemic, forest fires, floods, civil unrest, you will still push through because this is what you were born to do. You can’t see yourself doing anything else.

Someone I heard posed an interesting question that goes along with what you’re saying. They said, “What is it that you cannot help but doing?” You must do it. You can’t stop. You can’t shut your mouth. You can’t not get involved. It’s one of those things where you wish you would stop but you’re propelled to do that. It’s that kind of thing.

Constantly Learning Through Informal Means

You can’t stop and frankly, you don’t want to. That’s the first. The second thing is you’ve heard of the billionaires, Mark Cuban, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett. They all read 3 to 8 hours a day. They devour books and newspapers. That works for them. I don’t want you to think that you can copy that habit of reading 3 to 8 hours a day and you’re going to be a billionaire. That is not what made them a billionaire.

What did make them a billionaire was that they recognize that they don’t have all the answers. They don’t know everything. They are open to new knowledge. What are the ways that you can be open to new knowledge? I’m an academic, so I love to read and if I had 3 to 8 hours a day, I would. I don’t think most people love to read 3 to 8 hours a day or don’t have 3 to 8 hours a day to read.

What are the other ways that you can consume new knowledge? You could listen to a podcast such as this one. I hope I’m dropping some nuggets for everybody. You could read articles, read blogs, watch YouTube, or you could go on social media with people that you trust and gain new knowledge. The other thing is all of these extreme high achievers had not one mentor but a team of mentors that they could get additional perspective.

That’s the word that came into my mind, look for others who have seen this success and model them. Get mentors. It’s interesting. Have a team of mentors. I always think of Michael Jordan, who had six coaches. People were like, “Why do you have so many coaches?” It’s because he wanted to get all those different perspectives. Daniel Pink, in his book, talked about one of the core drivers of motivation being mastery. Would you call this the search for mastery type of thing? Is that what this point is?

TBT 174 | 4 Factors Of Success

4 Factors Of Success: If you have intrinsic motivation, no matter if there’s a pandemic, forest fires, floods, civil unrest, you will still push through because this is what you were born to do.

Strong foundation

I do reference Daniel Pink but it’s not so much the search for mastery, it’s the unquenched desire to learn more, do more, and achieve more. You’ve never fully going to get there, which is why they keep going for it and keep going for it more and more. That’s about learning through informal means and constantly being open to new knowledge. The third element is the strong foundation, which is constantly being reinforced.

The same thing that’s being done in a junior high gym is the same thing that you would see in Olympic Village or the NBA court. It’s the same thing and drills. I don’t know of a single Olympic champion, and at this point, I know a lot of them. I don’t know a single Nobel Prize winner, who stopped doing science or stopped doing their warm-ups because they reached the elite level. It doesn’t happen. They got to that elite level because they never stopped doing the basic drills. You always have to do that and constantly reinforce it.

Before you get to the last point, I like to add my two cents in here. I can’t help but do it. On that third point, it makes me think of karate. It’s one of the great sports that you’re still doing those same basic forms. As you go up through the belts, you’re doing it with more precision and more control. It’s the nuances in the tweaks that you put on those basics that are the difference between the novice and the master.

I love that karate example. Those katas that you start with are the same ones that you do later on. It does not stop. Speaking of karate, what is the black belt?

There are multiple levels of blackbelt. “There’s never an end,” they always say that. They’re humble.


There’s always more. One of the things to understand about being a black belt in any martial arts is that there are white belts that never quit. What you see with these extreme high achievers is that they don’t quit. They look at challenges differently. They have such a strong work ethic. They work hard. When they’re faced with a challenge, they never say, “I can’t do this. It can’t be done.” They never say that.

Instead, they focus on, “What do I need to do to overcome this challenge?” They know they’re going to overcome it. They’re going to go over it, around it, through it, they’ll get to that other side. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of how. They shift their entire mindset to focus on strategies to overcome a challenge. That’s why so many of them were so productive during the pandemic.

I always say that too, we can decide. That’s my whole focusology. Being a focusologists, we get to decide to control and direct our focus. Do we want to be focused on those strategies and what we can control? Do we want to exhaust ourselves focusing on what we can’t control? Whichever one we decide to focus on is going to decide our outcome.

Extreme high achievers don't quit. Click To Tweet

I love that you said that because extreme high achievers focus on controlling what they can control.

I want to go back. I know you’ve got a lot more to share. A lot of people are saying, “I know that. I get this.” There’s always the, “Yeah, but.” “Yeah, I do that but it doesn’t work that way. I haven’t seen that level of success.” We talked about it being a mindset and never quitting and the repetition of the fundamentals and always looking to be better. There are a lot of professional athletes anyway who have burned out also professional scientists across the board. You can burn out from that much passion too. For people who are obsessed with success or the result of making a difference, how do they keep from burning out?

It’s interesting. First of all, a fun fact, I knew what burnout was before I ever knew what work was because Dr. Herb Freudenberger, who coined that term over 40 years ago, was a cousin of mine. We heard about it long before we ever knew what work was. I find that fascinating. What’s interesting with all of these people, it was never about the medal or prize. Of all those people I interviewed, only two had their medals on display. If you ask most Olympians where they keep their medals, it’s in a brown paper bag in a sock drawer. It’s in the nightstand, it’s in my mother’s basement. It is not on display.

It’s in a sock drawer.

It’s in a safe under the bed. Few have it on display because they all tell me that it’s one chapter in their lives. It’s not their entire story. It was never about the metal. The metal was a goal but there’s always another goal after that and that is what has kept them healthy. It’s always having another goal and always having another aspiration. It’s always being able to work towards something else. If you look at Apolo Anton Ohno, the most decorated winter Olympian of all times, he has done so much since he retired from short track speed skating. Everything from Dancing with the Stars to being an angel investor. He’s done so much. That is one of the things. It can never be about the medal.

What I found interesting is that from a young age, I started my own business, and I built it up to a multimillion-dollar business and I sold it to a public company. There was so much stress after that because it was like, “Now what?” People have high expectations of me. I have such high expectations now of me. What if I don’t live up to those? What if I don’t create something? I went through a couple of years where I was, my identity got caught up in that success? Have you seen that with people that you’ve talked to and how do they deal with that?

The ones who I have spoken to are good at compartmentalizing. Their identity is not around their achievement, but they also surround themselves with people who keep them humble. That is what has created such a healthy outlook for them. That is why they didn’t burn out. They were surrounded by other people. It’s not just surrounding yourself with people who tell you how wonderful and magnificent you are and that you can do no wrong, but these are the people who will give you the real deal. Those people, that inner circle of theirs, has been with them for years, for decades and that is what is so healthy and that’s what prevents them from crumbling.

Do you think it’s that group that helps them to reset the expectations? I found that the interesting thing is, you want to set your goals high but at the same time, you don’t want to get bogged down with expectations. You can reach incredible things, especially when you let go of expectations. Maybe you get even higher than you had ever expected. Expectations can be that limiter.

Remember, success is a moving target. That’s what most people don’t realize. You probably see with your worth. People set these goals, they’re never able to achieve them but sometimes we don’t even want those goals anymore but we’re so fixated on them. We have vision boards for them and we have posted notes about them. We have all seen during the pandemic that our pre-pandemic goals are likely different in the midst of the pandemic goals.

I’m not even going to say post-pandemic because we’re not there yet. Our goals have changed. That is one of the things that we need to understand that we need to be flexible. Success and our goals are moving target and if we don’t move with that movement, we’re going to be stuck and we’re going to go chasing after things that we don’t even want anymore.

It doesn’t make sense anymore or they aren’t good for us.

One of the people who are interviewed is a two-time gold medalist in judo for the United States. She won the gold medal twice but during that second time in Rio, she didn’t have it in her anymore. She said that and she knew this was going to be her last time. Every single Olympian I have spoken to says, “I know this is going to be my last time. I need to do something else.” They switch to something else. Kayla, the one who does judo, switched to mixed martial arts and she said that judo was her first love. The mixed martial art is her adult love. You need to be able to move with that and understand that there is a moving target and you need to move with it.

TBT 174 | 4 Factors Of Success

4 Factors Of Success: Success is a moving target, and that’s what most people don’t realize.


It’s reminding me of my daughter who made a big choice, a switch where she wasn’t enjoying soccer. She’s been playing soccer forever at a high level. She felt like she wasn’t enjoying it anymore, so she decided to play something else. High achievers a lot of times people think, and I even got caught up in this, I’m like, “What? Are you going to quit? You’ve been playing all these years. You could get to that level.” I find that so healthy and that she was so clear for herself. How do people give themselves permission to let go of a goal or to pivot and not and not be held back?

That’s so hard and you need to give yourself permission to do that. That’s where surrounding yourself with a group of mentors is so critical. When I coach people, I’m looking at them, and I’m listening so carefully to the sound of their voices and they’re talking to me about their goals. I work with someone and she had to switch what her goal was because she’s talking to me about what she wants to do.

I said, “I’m not hearing the joy in your voice.” We realized that’s what she felt she had to do. That’s not what she wanted to do. I said, “What are you doing in your free time? What do you do on weekends?” I do passion audits with people and surely, we figured out what she loves doing. All of a sudden, her whole demeanor changed. Her face lit up. There was joy, there was a bounce in her voice. She was lighter and freer. I know she’s going to do great things with that.

Something you said earlier strikes me in this part of the conversation. You said that they’re doing it for themselves. It’s intrinsic. If you notice that you’re doing it for someone else, and that’s where my daughter was clear, it wasn’t fun for her anymore and it didn’t matter what her coach wanted or what other people thought she should be doing. She was clear on her internal guidance system and that’s so important for people to get clear for themselves as to what it is they want versus what other people want.

As soon as you get crystal clear on that, things will open up.

Do you have a question that people can ask themselves or an exercise in their free time? Is there something that people can tap into?

Absolutely. I talk people through what’s called a Passion Audit. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that you enjoy doing it, it doesn’t mean you have to do it anymore like your daughter with soccer. I take people through a passion audit, which talks about listing all the things you’re good at listing all the things you would give away for free if you could, if your title or salary didn’t change, what you love doing that you would do for free.

The research has shown that we only need to spend 20% of our time doing what we love at work in order for us not to be bogged down by the other 80%. I talk to people through this exercise and we fine-tune everything. If your readers want to download that worksheet they can. It’s on my website at If you go into that passion audit and download it for free, you will figure out quickly what it is you love doing and what you can do without.

Surrounding yourself with a group of mentors is so critical. Click To Tweet

I love that you brought in the 80/20 Rule, which I’m a huge fan of. Being a focusologist, I practice stepping back and recognizing the 20% that makes 80% of the difference. I hear that here too. As you’re saying that it works if we have 20% of what makes us happy and is in our passion zone. What I’m hearing about is going to make up for everything else. That’s awesome. I love that. Is there anything else that we need to know about your book is? Is there something else that you wanted to share that I didn’t yet ask you?

The book is called The Success Factor and it talks about these four elements of success and it has real-life stories that you never heard from these extreme high achievers, some of whom you know. They are household names, and some you’ve never heard of before but should be on your radar. It takes you through exercises and ideas of how you can implement these four elements into your own life so you can start improving your success immediately. The book is written so you can read it pages at a time. You don’t even have to go in sequence. Use it as you need to, especially as you go through transition. It’s now available wherever you buy your books, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I’m excited for everyone to read it.

I’m excited to get to read it as well. Before we sign off together, let me ask you a couple of quick questions that I ask many of my guests. I’m curious, coming from this perspective, how do you define productivity and why?

TBT 174 | 4 Factors Of Success

The Success Factor: Developing the Mindset and Skillset for Peak Business Performance

Everyone, including myself, has lists of post-it notes of all of these things they have to accomplish. It’s our to-do list and 80% or 90% of the stuff never gets done. On those days that I can block off time on my calendar to accomplish the tasks on my to-do list and when I finish them that success, that’s a productive day.

When you check those things off your to-do list, that’s a productive day. What is the most important life lesson that you’ve learned?

It’s something that my mentor told me, and it’s pushed me to take this work and make it as big as it’s become. He said to me, “Do something important, not just interesting.” If it’s important, it’ll have an impact. If it’s interesting, it’s a hobby. I want to leave this world better than I found it. I feel that my way to do it is to raise the bar and teach people who want to be successful, how to be successful because I don’t think anybody wakes up in the morning aiming for average. That’s my goal.

Thank you all for being here because you know that there is this, this desire inside to be more and that doesn’t mean we’re using success as a word here but that means whatever it means to you. We want to make sure that we’re clear for all of you who are reading. Success doesn’t necessarily mean an Olympic medal or a Nobel Prize. For some people that might be in the potential, and for some people, maybe not. Success means different things to different people but that doesn’t mean that you can’t leave the world a better place than when you came in.

It means you can add meaning in your life and have that purpose and, and be able to live a happier, more impactful, and meaningful life with that level of success. I wish that for all of you. Do check out this Passion Audit. You’re going to get some insights there as to what you love to do or maybe what you don’t love to do anymore and you didn’t even realize that you were doing it for someone else. It’s a great time.

Do something important, not just interesting, because if it's important, it'll have an impact. Click To Tweet

Pandemic especially, it’s a perfect time to step back and to look at the things that we do, what’s working, what’s not working, why we do it, and reset our priorities. That’s what being a focusologist is all about. It’s stepping back to reset and make sure that we’re focused on the areas that give us the greatest level of happiness, joy, direction, and passion, etc. Thank you all. We’ll see you in the next episode. My name is Penny Zenker and this is Take Back Time.

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About Ruth Gotian

Dr. Ruth Gotian is the Chief Learning Officer and Assistant Professor of Education in Anesthesiology and former Assistant Dean of Mentoring and Executive Director of the Mentoring Academy at Weill Cornell Medicine. She has been hailed by the journal Nature and Columbia University as an expert in mentorship and leadership development. In 2021, she was selected as one of 30 people worldwide to be named to the Thinkers50 Radar List, dubbed the Oscars of management thinking, and by August, was shortlisted as the top eight emerging management thinkers in the world. She is also a semi-finalist for the Forbes 50 Over 50 list. In addition to publishing in academic journals, she is a contributor to Forbes and Psychology Today where she writes about ‘optimizing success’. Her research is about the mindset and skill set of peak performers, including Nobel laureates, astronauts and Olympic champions. Her forthcoming book, The Success Factor, will be out in January.


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