Ep 195: The Mindset of Success

Episode Summary

Ruth Gotian, author of The Success Factor, explains how teens can cultivate the right mindset for success. Plus, how our kids can figure out their life’s purpose and find strong mentors to guide them.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

We want our kids to be successful: find and excel at their passions, achieve remarkable things and of course, make enough money to be independent from us! But how can we help them get there? Some teens have plenty of ambition but can’t quite match it with work ethic. Others seem pretty apathetic to their future career, and some just don’t know what to do with their lives! 

Whatever situation your teen is in, the road to success is bound to be a rocky one. 

Luckily, there are ways we can help our teens make success a reality! Teens can achieve anything–if we just guide them towards developing the right mindset. There are tools we can use to help lost teens find their spark, and bring already ambitious teens even closer to their dreams and goals.

Our guest this week is here to share some incredible tips for cultivating a prosperous life! Her name is Ruth Gotian, and she’s the author of The Success Factor: Developing the Mindset and Skillset for Peak Business Performance. Ruth is the Chief Learning Officer and an Assistant Professor of Education in Anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine. Her work is featured regularly in Forbes, Psychology Today, and the Harvard Business Review, and she is internationally recognized as an influential thinker in the world of management and leadership.

In our interview, we’re talking about how teens can develop the right mindset for success. We’re also discussing how we can help teens find their life’s passion and why mentors and social circles are so critical to finding success.

How Our Mindset Can Make or Break Us

When we talk about becoming successful people, we tend to talk about habits. We imagine waking up at 5 AM to exercise, mediate, drink green smoothies and watch the stock market. Then we try all that….and it we just end up tired, hungry and still far from successful! While these habits can help some people, they’re realistically not for everyone, says Ruth–especially not for teens! With the grueling schedule of high school, homework and extracurriculars, these kinds of habits are only going to exhaust them, not bring them closer to success.

Instead, Ruth suggests that we help teens emulate the same mindset, but figure out their own habits. She recommends we prompt teens to evaluate their schedule to figure out the hours in which they’re the most productive–which is likely not 5 AM! Ruth refers to these as “peak performance hours”, when teens can do the most challenging active tasks. Then, during times when they typically get more tired, they can schedule in some passive tasks like answering emails or reviewing flashcards! Figuring out how to optimize productivity is one of the most essential parts of having a success-oriented mindset.

In the episode, Ruth and I also discuss how the right mindset can help teens block out negativity! Ruth explains how we can act like either teflon or velcro when someone tries to bring us down. If we act like velcro, we allow their negative words to stick to us all day and make us feel less than. But if we decide to adopt a teflon mindset, we can deflect their comments, and let them slide off of us without a care. Easier said than done though, right? In our interview, Ruth shares some tips for adopting this teflon mentality.

Even if teens have the ambition and mindset for success, they might not know what to apply it to! It’s not always easy for teens to find their purpose, but with Ruth’s help, we can guide teens to figure out their life’s passion.

Helping Teens Find Their “Why”

It can be frustrating when teens seem to quit everything they try, leading us to wonder if they’ll ever figure out what they’re passionate about. Ruth encourages us to be patient and let them try lots of things until they discover  what’s right for them. Doing this allows teens to find their “why”, which Ruth defines as the underlying motivation for anything and everything they do. In her work with med students, Ruth has found that those with the strongest “why” are the ones who persevere through every challenge.

For some people, their “why” is self-improvement, pushing them to become great athletes or musicians. Others may have lost a loved one to an illness, and want to join the medical field to help others in need. Some are angered and saddened by injustice, leading them to become lawyers or politicians. The sooner your teen can figure out what gets them out of bed in the morning and motivates them to work hard, the sooner they’ll start seeing successes in their lives. 

In the interview, Ruth and I talk about how teens often don’t feel passionate about what they’re learning in school–and how we can change that. As an educator and former PhD student herself, Ruth knows what makes students thrive or struggle. She explains that subject based learning, where teens master facts and numbers, doesn’t quite stick the same way as applied learning. When young adults understand how they can actually use the information being taught to them, they’re much more likely to retain it. We discuss this further in the episode!

If teens have the right mindset and a passion-fuelled goal to work towards, they can also benefit immensely from having mentors and the right social circle.

Why Mentors and Peers Make a Difference

It can be pretty hard for teens to find strong mentors, but it’s often because they’re not looking in the right places, says Ruth. Teens often search for people with whom they share many similarities, but oftentimes those people aren’t going to help teens break out of their comfort zones and consider new perspectives, says Ruth. Ideally, teens should have lots of different mentors from different industries and corners of life. Together, these people can shape your teen in individual ways that are altogether greater than the sum of their parts.

Ruth advises against asking someone outright to be a mentor. This can make people feel nervous or uncomfortable, and they may not feel like they have time for another commitment in their busy life! Instead, she suggests that teens simply ask them for help with a specific task, and demonstrate how interested they are in the achievement at hand. For example, if teens want to become educators, asking a teacher for some college teaching program recommendations could be a great way to show a possible mentor that they’ve got ambitions and may need some advice!

Ruth and I also talk a lot about how the right social circle can either elevate a teen to success or bring them down. When they’re spending time with other high achievers, they’re constantly surrounded by a high standard. This encourages them to push themselves towards their full potential. Teens who spend time with slackers might not see the value of striving towards success when the standard set by their peers is lower. Finding the right set of peers is one of the most important parts of becoming a successful individual, says Ruth.

In The Episode…

Ruth has a lot of great advice, whether your teen is a go-getter or still needs a little push to reach their potential. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about….

  • What Astronauts and Nobel Prize winners have in common
  • How high achievers are 400% more productive than average
  • Why teens should be using social media
  • How teens can complete a “passion audit”

If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more from Ruth on her website, ruthgotian.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!


Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: We have a book here called The Success Factor and it is about developing the mindset and skillset for peak business performance. Can you talk a little bit about where this came from, because it sort of emerged from kind of research you were doing and you started noticing some trends, but then the book itself has research, but it also has these interviews. You’ve gone and interviewed athletes and really successful people from all walks of life. So it’s a huge project clearly. What was the spark?

Ruth: Yes. I always felt that people do not wake up in the morning aiming to be average. I really think people want to be successful, and they don’t really know how, and they try all these random things, right? They are going to wake up at 4:00 AM because they heard that’s what the successful people do or they’re going to read five hours a day because that’s what the billionaires do and it doesn’t work, and the more it doesn’t work, the more frustrated they get. I was a mom of three teenage boys, so I needed to figure this out, if not for myself, then for them.

Ruth: I’ve always been obsessed with success, who has it, how they got it, how they maintain it, how they retain it, how the rest of us can get it. And I have been working around high achievers for a very, very long time, for decades. And I could see immediately that the way they approach things is very differently. The way they take problems apart is very different. The way they synthesize information is very different.

Ruth: So at the age of 43, while working full time and raising my family and having elder care for my parents, I went back to school to study this and it started with physician scientists, those who have the MD and also do research and over the years, it expanded to other extreme high achievers, astronauts and Nobel prize winners and Olympic champions and NFL hall of Famers and NBA champions and senior politicians, because I realized that they all have the same four mindsets that they do. So we’re not copying habits, we’re emulating mindsets, very big difference. And once I realized that the astronaut is just like the Olympian, that was my aha moment. I said, if that’s the case, these are learned skills and if they’re learned skills, I’m an adult educator, I can teach them and I reverse engineered the path, created a blueprint, go all over the world speaking about it and wrote the book, The Success Factor about it.

Andy: So that’s so interesting, the difference between behavior. So much of writing on success is focused on just getting the right habits and here’s what you need to do and just do it more consistently and just do it for 30 days, then it’ll become a habit and then you’ll be successful.

Ruth: But you know why habits don’t work?

Andy: Why not? Seems great.

Ruth: Seems great, right?

Andy: Yeah.

Ruth: We can’t copy other people’s habits. What works for me is not going to work for you because we’re different people. We have different stressors on our lives, we have different personalities. So if it says wake up at 5:00 AM, because that’s what the successful people do, that’s great. Right?

Andy: Right. Yeah, they all do it and then you got to meditate first thing.

Ruth: Yeah. Well, I like to wake up very early and I’m sharpest in the morning and that’s when I focus, so that’s fabulous for me. But if you’re a night owl, the way many teens are and they don’t go to bed till two o’clock in the morning, they can’t start waking up at five o’clock in the morning and be functional. That’s not going to work. So what we need to do is not copy that habit, but emulate the mindset.

Ruth: So it’s not about waking up at 5:00 AM. It’s they have figured out their peak performance hours. They have figured out when they are most productive and that’s what they leverage it. They leverage the time when it’s quiet in the house when no one else is up, where they can sit with their cup of coffee and focus and that’s great and that works for me. And to leverage that time, for example, if those are your peak performance hours, you have to do peak performance tasks.

Ruth: So for example, for me, that’s writing and editing, things that take a lot of focus, budget work. It’s not when I answer emails, it’s not when I’m making a social media post, it’s not when I go on Zoom, those are passive tasks that don’t require the same focus, attention and energy. Now, for me, if I am waking up at 5:00 AM or 6:00 AM, and as the day goes on, my energy starts to wane and by two o’clock in the afternoon, I’m kind of sluggish. Well, that is not the time to do your peak performance tasks because your sluggish, it’ll take 10 times as long on behalf is good, but what you can do are your passive tasks then.

Ruth: So for example, that is when you can have your Zoom meetings, that is when you can do your social media posts, that is when you can do your response to emails or following up with a text with someone or a phone call does, that does not require the same focus and attention as some of the other tasks. So it’s not about waking up at 5:00 AM, it’s about leveraging your peak performance hours. And that’s why I say you cannot copy other people’s habits, but you can emulate their mindsets and that’s what we need to do.

Ruth: And that’s what we have to realize, that what works for us is not going to work for teenagers who have different pressures, they keep very different hours from us, their active tasks are very different from our active tasks. Their cognitive load, the pressures that they have are very different from ours. So we’re worried about our job, our health benefits, our mortgage. They don’t know from mortgage, they don’t understand health benefits, but they understand they have their classes and they need to get an A and are they in the honors, and we have college applications. Very, very different, very different cognitive load.

Andy: So you talk in this book about the leaky pipeline, people leaving career paths and a lot of people are talking about how can we fix the leaky pipeline, but you actually are not so in favor of that. You write that we seem to be so focused on holding onto people who do not want to be there. Instead, or in addition, we just spend more time on developing and retaining the high achievers, those whose work and productivity can more than compensate for those who leave the pipeline. That is an interesting way to think about it. I like that.

Ruth: Yes. I wrote that when I first started seeing it with the physician scientist, which, I used to run an MD PhD program for 22 years and I would see people who would compromise and give up on so much in order to get admitted into this program that has a three and a half percent acceptance rate. They get their MD and their PhD simultaneously and by the way, totally free, your tax dollars pay for both the MD and PhD degrees. So it’s a three and a half percent acceptance rate. You have a better chance of getting into Stanford than you do into this program.

Ruth: And people have sacrificed so much to get into it and then a few years into it, they want to drop it, they don’t want to do it anymore. This is a problem because these are the people who are really bridging what we call bed to bedside, right? They see a problem in the clinic, they try to fix it in the lab or vice versa. As a result what’s happening is that we don’t have enough people who are doing this work, and every conference I had attended for physician scientists talked about this problem, books were written about the topic, articles were written about the topic and in 22 years, the needle hadn’t moved and I was getting really frustrated.

Andy: Wow. Yeah. Right.

Ruth: And I kept saying to myself, “I think we’re looking at the wrong problem. Instead of focusing on those who are leaving, why don’t we focus on those who are staying? And not just anyone who’s saying, let’s look at the cream of the crop.” So even within this three and a half percent admitted students, these are the best of the best, there are those who are floating to the top. How can we make more of those people? And that was really the catalyst for all of this research. And now that’s why I said, if we can make more of those people, their productivity will more than make up for those who are leaving. And it turns out those high achievers are 400% more productive than an average employee, so we don’t even need as many.

Ruth: Now this was long before COVID when I first started researching this. And it’s the same thing we’re seeing now. So maybe we shouldn’t worry about those who are leaving. Maybe we should be focusing on those who are staying and maybe we should double our efforts, not on the low performers, but maybe on the high achievers. How can we get more of those? How can we get them to really optimize their performance? How can we get high potentials to turn into high achievers? We need to start focusing on those people and the book, The Success Factor, really helps those who want to do it for themselves, really get there.

Andy: Oh yeah. What then if you feel like you’re one of those people or if you have a teenager who’s in a program or doing something on a team right now and is feeling like wanting to quit and, “Maybe this isn’t my thing.” Should we just double down and try to get some of these skill sets that you talk about in this book instilled there or is that maybe not the right thing for them and they should be more focused on trying to find passion somewhere else?

Ruth: Well, it’s interesting. When we were really young kids, I always laugh, we had a closet filled with every uniform for every sport because we tried all these things out until we fell in love with one sport and one activity. You don’t have to do everything. You need to find what it is that you truly love and guess what? It’s okay to change. It’s okay to change and especially when you have transitions in life, that’s when you really need to start looking at those changes and really that’s what COVID taught us, right?

Andy: Yeah.

Ruth: But I think we always have to get back to our why. Why are we doing this? So when I had students who would come into my office and say, “I think I want to drop out. This is not for me. I just want to get one degree. I don’t want to do both,” I would literally pull out their essay from their medical school application, their MD PhD application and it says, “Why I want to be a physician scientist,” and they would read it and I said, “Don’t give me an answer now. Here’s a copy of your essay. I want you to think about it,” and they would think about it and most of the time they would stay because they needed to be reminded of their why.

Ruth: Sometimes we lose track of that north star. Why are we doing this? Why are we so interested in it? It’s not just that you’re interested in a topic. There’s something bigger. There’s something bigger. You have to get into that why and finding that why is a lifetime commitment? And guess what? Our whys change over time, they change because we have other variables in our life that now we find interesting and that’s okay, but we need to know how to constantly find those passions.

Andy: So what do you mean when you talk about having a valence of Velcro versus Teflon?

Ruth: Yeah. So that’s one of my favorites. It’s an adult learning, actually group dynamics concept. And this is really especially… it’s good for everyone, teenagers included. You know how when somebody says something negative to you or they don’t respond to your text message or they roll their eyes or they don’t give you a like on social media or any of those things, that is a form of rejection and hurt and you can have it stick to you.

Andy: Yeah. It ruins your whole day, maybe your whole week.

Ruth: And you’re going to focus on that negativity because it sticks to you and sticks to you and sticks to you like Velcro. Everything is sticking to you and the problem with that is when you have all these things sticking to you, it starts to weigh you down and you lose perspective. Now that’s a valence of Velcro. You could switch to what’s called a valence of Teflon, where those eye rolls and the sucking of the teeth and the turning around and not liking your post on Instagram, just glides off of you like Teflon. Like it doesn’t matter, “It’s not going to ruin my day, my hour, my minute, you’re not paying rent, you are not taking up real estate in my head.” That’s Teflon, right?

Andy: Yeah.

Ruth: Now I used to be the queen of Velcro. The queen of Velcro, everything I took personally, and then I went to this group dynamics conference with a bunch of officers from West Point where the Kings of Teflon.

Andy: Ah, okay.

Ruth: I have never seen anything like it in my life and I would watch how, even when there was negativity, they just let it glide off because they said, “Nobody died, so it really doesn’t matter. We’re all alive,” and I was like, “Oh now that’s perspective.”

Andy: Oh yeah.

Ruth: So I was at this conference with them and I said, “You know what? I don’t really know a lot of people at this conference. I’m going to try on this valence of Teflon for the weekend,” and I tried it and I never went back to Velcro because it is so liberating when you don’t let other people’s opinions and thoughts and negativity weigh you down, you wind up being so much more productive. Those naysayers just don’t matter anymore. They just don’t matter and I saw that with those who were Teflon, that their productivity has increased, their happiness has increased. They’re more grounded and it’s the kind of person I want to be.

Andy: So it’s as simple as just flipping the switch or telling yourself that you’re going to do it differently?

Ruth: Well, I say try it for a day because it’s hard to say for your whole life, that’s a big thing. We’re not losing 50 pounds, we’re just losing one pound 50 times and you know what? Try that one pound. Try it one day, one day and see what it feels like at the end of the day. You like it, continue, you don’t like it, go back to where you were.

Andy: Go back to Velcro.

Ruth: You’ve got nothing to lose.

Andy: You talk about looking for non obvious mentors.

Ruth: Mm-hmm.

Andy: I like that because I think so often when we’re thinking about mentors or looking for a mentor, we focus on the really obvious options.

Ruth: Yep.

Andy: How could we help teenagers to expand their mind a little bit or broaden their search for people who can act as mentors.

Ruth: So very often we’re, we’re looking for people who look like us, and the problem is we already know how they think, right, we’re raised in that environment. So that’s not really giving you another perspective. It’s a perspective, but you need… and at any age you should have this, all my sons, I tell them to have a team of mentors, people from different backgrounds, from different industries, who can give you very thoughtful advice. It’s important to have that because they will be able to help you and give you insights that you didn’t even know that you need. So of course your teachers, for sure. Friends of your parents, coaches from a sports team you’re a part of, your drama teacher, your ballet teacher, people from your house of worship, people from a volunteer organization, all of these people could help mentor you.

Andy: How do you create that dynamic or relationship with someone who you think would be a good mentor?

Ruth: Yeah. So the key thing is you never actually asked them to be your mentor because when you ask them-

Andy: Yeah, “Will you mentor me?”

Ruth: Yeah. See, that’s not a good thing because if you ask them, you’re actually ask them to take on another obligation, another job, and nobody’s got time for that. But if you ask someone for their perspective and say, “You know, Andy, I’m working on this project and I’m stuck on this one part, and I know you have experience in this. Do you have 15, 20 minutes that I could just ask you some questions to help me get over this hurdle?” Well, now you’re excited because now I’ve actually tapped into your ego. You’ve got experience in this.

Andy: Ooh, “Yes, I am good at this,” yeah.

Ruth: Now you don’t need to be the world expert, you just need to be the expert in the room. You need to know more than me and now you’re going to notice that I’m asking good questions. I have good insight and then you’ll say to me at the end, “You are really on the right track. Let me how it’s going. Let me know if you have any other questions,” and the start of a beautiful relationship.

Andy: Especially what you’re talking about with being the expert in the room, it really ties in with finding a team of mentors as well, because it’s like you don’t have to find someone who’s a perfect human in all areas. You can just find people who are good at certain things.

Ruth: Who the hell’s a perfect human, right? Who? We’re not, so how can we expect someone else to be? But you can create your own version of perfect by taking pieces of different people and their sum is greater than their individual parts.

Andy: You talk about creating a learning development plan for yourself because it’s not necessarily the case that it’s going to be done for you. You talk about this guy who was trying to learn leadership, he became the director of the U.S. National Park Service.

Ruth: Oh, John Jarvis. Yep.

Andy: Yeah and the National Park Service didn’t have a leadership development program, so he created his own.

Ruth: That’s right.

Andy: Yeah. I thought that was so cool and just such a good example of how sometimes we need to take our own growth into our own hands because constantly growing is one of the biggest keys to thriving in life and we can’t necessarily just expect that other people are going to teach us everything we need to know.

Ruth: Absolutely.

Andy: We have to identify what those are and plan that.

Ruth: Absolutely, and one of the ways to do that is really to go outside of your school, outside of your children’s school. So the children’s school will send you emails about things your teen can participate in, but they are only sharing information that comes into their inbox. If you want other information, you can actually do your own searches and find out.

Ruth: So for example, one of the places where I volunteer is called The Mentor Project and The Mentor Project is a nonprofit that has over 100 volunteer mentors who are leaders in their field. There’s an astronaut and there’s an inventor, an artist and all of these other people, they have hackathons, like all this stuff is free. It’s free, but how are you going to know about it if you’re only waiting for the emails that come to you? So you can start searching out other activities as well and there’s so many things. Some are paid, some are free, but there’s so many things that are out there that are available.

Andy: Yeah. And a lot of those are then good places to find mentors as well.

Ruth: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Andy: And likewise, then mentors can recommend other opportunities to you.

Ruth: That’s right and that’s actually one of the things that we do in that nonprofit I was telling you with The Mentor Project, is we also realize that everybody learns differently. So some people want to have regular meetings with a mentor, other things, there are webinars, there are podcasts. There are conversations with an astronaut. We have a college advising expert who actually gave a whole tutorial about applying for college.

Andy: Wow.

Ruth: Another one is very interested in public health and got to talk to somebody about public health. Somebody else is interested in journalism and the editor at large of Psychology Today is one of the mentors.

Andy: Wow.

Ruth: There’s photographers, there’s so many people who are out there to actually offer that mentorship.


About Ruth Gotian

Dr. Ruth Gotian is the author of The Success Factor.

Ruth is also the Chief Learning Officer,  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 mentored thousands of people, including undergraduates and nearly 1,800 Cornell Medicine faculty members.

She is a contributor to Forbes and Psychology Today where she writes about ‘optimizing success’. She also has a weekly show and podcast by the same name where she interviews high achievers about how they became successful. 

 In 2021, she was one of 30 people worldwide to be named to the Thinkers50 Radar List, and is a semi-finalist for the Forbes 50 Over 50 list. Dr. Gotian is regularly published in such journals as Nature, Scientific American, Academic Medicine, Psychology Today, Forbes and Harvard Business Review.

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