3 Traits that Help Build Long-Term Success


Walking up to Vernal Fall

We’ve all heard that success doesn’t happen overnight.  A lot of articles have already been written on the subject.

It’s generally agreed that it’s much better to take the long-term approach to success.

And that makes sense.  Big goals and achievements take time.  It might take months or even years to reach some of the biggest goals.

Since success means looking into the long-term, it’s important to ask what qualities you’ll need to sustain you in order to reach them.

The Long Way to Overnight Success

These qualities are going to have to overcome the big fundamental problem to long-term success: time itself.

It’s easy to set down a small goal in the short-term and meet it.  It’s quite another thing to make one for months or years down the road.

With a short-term goal, you’re more likely to find the motivation to do it.  The finish line is right in front of you.  Getting there doesn’t take much energy.

In order to meet a long-term goal, you have to keep yourself motivated even if you can’t see the finish line.  It means putting in a lot of time and energy into an unknown future.

That’s hard for a lot of people.

Long-term success is like a marathon.  You have to keep going even when you’re telling yourself to stop.

That means the traits most important to long-term success are those that keep you going all the way to the end so you don’t end up calling it quits too soon.

They are:

1. Grit & Determination

You have to be completely committed to seeing a long-term goal all the way to the end.  If your goal takes years, you won’t make it if you’re only determined enough to do it for a few months.  The math just doesn’t work.

Be realistic with the time you expect a goal to take.  It’s bad to underestimate this time since it sets up an unrealistic expectation.  When you don’t meet it, you feel de-moralized.

I try to overestimate the time it takes me to accomplish long-term goals just to give myself a little bit of room.  This puts me in the right frame of mind by getting me to think in the long-term.

Just imagine a writer who wants to get his works published.

He may know the first one will get rejected.  He probably knows the second and third ones will too.  But is he prepared to handle a fourth and fifth time?

I once read that Edison tried 1000 times to create the light bulb before finally making it work.

His long-term goal meant slogging through 999 unsuccessful attempts.

That’s what I call grit.  Being so determined that you’ll always come back and try again.

If determination is your fixed intent, grit is the passion and perseverance to see it all the way through.

2. Ability to learn/Flexibility

Those who succeed in the long-term constantly re-examine their strategies.  Being able to self-reflect and analyze what went right and what went wrong is very important.

Edison once said that he didn’t fail 999 times to make the light bulb work.  He just found 999 ways that didn’t work.

With each bulb, he noted what did and didn’t work.  Then he brought those findings into his subsequent attempts.

This approach requires a lot of flexibility.  It’s easy to become too rigid in one approach and think you can somehow make it work.

There are going to be times when you can (and should) make the world fit you instead of the other way around.  But it’s important to realize when something isn’t working.

Lacking this flexibility and willingness to learn is a sure-fire way to become frustrated.  That means bringing on a lot more pressure to simply give up.

The last thing you want to do is give up too soon.

3. Effective goal-setting skills

The problem with long-term goals is that it’s too easy to focus on the big picture.  There are a lot of smaller goals we should also be setting along the way.

There’s an old proverb that asks, “How do you eat an elephant?”  The answer is one bite at a time.

It’s intended to remind you that big accomplishments are met by completing a series of small ones.  Make enough bites and eventually you’ll eat an elephant.

Reaching success means balancing between your long-term goal and your short-term tasks.

Think about athletes training for the Olympics.  Their big long-term goal is to get into the Olympics and win.  In order to do that, they have to complete a series of tasks such as training every day, eating well and practicing.

Effective goal-setting means consistently working on those small goals so they all add up to your big overarching long-term one.

When you focus too closely on the big picture, you stop paying attention to what you need to do at that moment.  You might also forget how far you’ve come and instead focus on how far you still need to go.

That can be demotivating.

But you don’t want to focus too closely on your short-term tasks.  You might forget what you’re doing them for and get off track on your long-term goal for a while.

It’s a balancing act.  You have to keep the entire elephant in mind with each bite.

What long-term goals do you have?
photo credit: Woodlouse

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  1. antaeus says:

    Out of your list, I believe 3 might be the most important because I suffer from that sometimes. I sometimes forget to look at how much I have improved. That’s the problem with having so much determination and grit. Its so easy to look past what you have accomplished on your way to your goal. The journey can be more important than the actually goal.

    For example with losing weight. It easy to get caught up in judging yourself only by how much weight you lose and think thats the only thing that matters. What’s more important is the fact that you are exercising, feeling better about yourself and eating better.

    • That’s the trouble with a long journey. It’s easy to only look to how far you have to go and forget how far you’ve already gone.

      Like your example shows, it’s important to keep in mind all the things you’ve accomplished along the way.

  2. Steve – yes, breaking the goal down into smaller chunks, like the pieces of the elephant or 1-mile intervals of the marathon, take the ‘this is daunting’ feeling out of it.

    I’d add that there has to be an emotion attached to the goal to give it meaning.

    What was Edisons emotional reason for reaching his goal of inventing the light bulb? A sense of achievement. Being remembered as a figure in history because he changed people’s lives forever?

    If they reason isn’t strong enough, no amount of strategising will sustain motivation.

    – Razwana

    • Knowing Edison, his reason for inventing the light bulb was probably to make money. But you’re right though, finding the reason behind what you’re doing helps.

      For example, saying that you want to lose weight isn’t enough. You should want to do it to live longer or feel better about yourself. The more reasons you have to do something, the more likely you’ll stick with it.

  3. I agree with Antaeus that when caught up in a long-term goal, it is so easy to disregard the advances that have already been made. Seeing how far there is still yet to go is even more demotivating without realizing that you are already well down the path. It’s all about perspective.

    • That’s the problem with only focusing on the end goal. We take our mind off where we started. So instead of seeing our accomplishments, we only see obstacles. You’re right, it’s all about perspective. So keeping everything in mind like that helps prevent us from getting demotivated.

  4. This reminds me a lot of becoming a Strongman. Strongman is by far the hardest sport (except maybe Triathlon, we should do them both together one day) and you do have to have patience and just keep going! You know, never give up and do evertthing you can! EVERYTHING like you do for this site!

    • Becoming a Strongman would be tough. I lift a lot, but I don’t think I have that much power behind me. I’m more interested in doing a Triathlon. I’ve been thinking about training for one too so maybe that will be my next long-term success story. It will be a tough challenge, but I think I’m up for it.

  5. I believe if you have a clear goal and create a doable plan to achieve it, you are already half way to success. Then you will have motivation and determination to do it. The main thing is to never give up but be realistic!

  6. This…

    Be realistic with the time you expect a goal to take. It’s bad to underestimate this time since it sets up an unrealistic expectation. When you don’t meet it, you feel de-moralized.

    Probably my biggest goal-setting success hurdle. Of course, I also grossly underestimate how long it takes to get to the supermarket in traffic, too, so clearly this is a skill I need to hone in general.

    And this…

    It’s a balancing act. You have to keep the entire elephant in mind with each bite.

    Simply produces an incredibly entertaining visual for me. Not to minimize your thoughts here – I think it’s great. As a teacher, I learned somewhere along the line that if something is particularly gross or particularly funny, kids will remember it. So thanks for the elephant! :)

  7. Steve, you have such a delightful way of writing about how to get “there” it really makes anything seem possible. I will refrain from reinstating my dream to be a tennis star because I’m 42, and let’s be honest, my serve sucks.

    One of my long-term goals is to be debt free. If there is any goal that needs small steps, it’s financial ones. I have a better chance of poking myself in the eye with an ice pick in Siberia than winning the lottery. We are tackling one loan at a time. It’s amazing what can be done once you start. We paid off two loans in one year – two loans we’d been paying 15+years on…and all it took was attention. Being able to focus is key, and I love how you really break this one down!

    • You’re right about financial goals needing small steps. When I saved up money to travel, I made a lot of small changes that eventually added up. There aren’t many big huge changes that will help you save money right away. The only one I can think of is the lottery (which like you said is extremely unlikely).

  8. Great points, Steve. Also glad you focused on three rather than like 5000 points for long term success.

    Anyway, I think goal setting is huge. Napoleon Hill had it right, but there are some Catch-22 type situations in my opinion. A real burning desire for a particular goal can help your subconscious to pick up the information/skills required to make it happen. However, placing too much emphasis on the outcome rather than the process can really make it difficult for your subconscious to shine. As Gary Bencivenga (copywriter) says, your subconscious is really like a little scared kid. If you’re too hard on it, it will not come out to play!

    • 5000 points would be a huge post! Could you imagine trying to read that?

      I haven’t heard the subconscious referred to a little scared kid before. I can see how being hard on yourself (or your subconscious) can hurt your efforts. It’s easy for that negative thinking to turn into demotivating behavior.

  9. I have a long term goal of growing my career coaching business. I’m off to a much faster start than I expected, but it is still a very long road. I’ve found being flexible to adapt as I learn more and things change to be very helpful in keeping at it for the long term.

    • I can see how being flexible would be important for a business like that. I imagine that there’s always new information coming out and different ways of doing things.

  10. Ahhh . . . grit. One of my favorite words. It says so much.

    Grit says you’ll put in the hours. Even when they’re long hard ones.

    Grit says you’re up for the challenge. Even when you have to struggle.

    Grit says you’ll achieve your goal. One way or another, you’ll see it through.

    Unfortunately, grit is something that is quickly disappearing in today’s society. It’s been eroded by our fixation on instant gratification.

    But, I guess that just means those few who understand the power of grit and determination will go that much further than the rest.


    • Grit is great word. It captures all those things you mention. I think it’s disappearing too as we just get accustomed to having things instantaneously. No one wants to put the time and effort to get places anymore.

  11. I’ve found perseverance and determination essential when it comes to success and achieving anything of value. To chose and determine to keep moving forward no matter what happens to or around us. Great thoughts here!


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