The Seven Attributes That Matter

A while back, I sat down to make a list of the attributes of the people I consider to be great people. I could give you a long list of them, from Theodore Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi to my dad, but the point isn’t so much the list of people but the attributes of those people.

The people I admire are usually people who made something great from auspicious backgrounds or stepped up to the plate during challenging moments or were able to find incredible success in different areas. Some of them were rich and others were poor. Many of them paired traits I admired with traits that I didn’t (like Steve Jobs).

I was trying to figure out what made each of them great. In each case, the list was somewhat different. I would try to think of several traits that would make one person great, then find myself making a different list for another person.

When I was doing this, I found myself looking for patterns. I found no two people had all of the same traits, but I began to find lots of overlap between people. I’d see some of the same traits popping up over and over again.

Eventually, I began to realize that there were seven traits that kept showing up again and again in the people I admired the most. None of them had all of these traits, but they were shared so often among the people I considered that I began to see them as seven attributes that really matter. If you have these attributes inside of you or, even more importantly, are willing to work to improve yourself in these areas, I think you’ll find a path to whatever your dreams may hold.

Lately, these seven traits have become something of a self-improvement checklist of mine. I hope they do for you, too.

Self-belief simply means that you believe you can accomplish things. When you see a difficult task before you, do you start convincing yourself that you can’t do it or do you start looking for a way to make it happen? Self-belief is, of course, the latter.

Without self-belief, it becomes very hard to take on large challenges in your life. Instead, you’ll avoid the challenges, seeking easier paths which won’t be particularly rewarding.

How can you build self-belief? The easiest way is to show yourself that you can do it. Start challenging yourself with personal projects that aren’t easy (but that are actually achievable). Can you walk 2,000 miles this year? Can you write a novel before the end of March? Set that plan down and focus all your energy on making it happen. The more you achieve, the more your self-belief will grow.

Of course, it’s easy for self-belief to turn into arrogance, which is a dangerous trait to have. You can easily begin to believe that you are the secret sauce that makes things happen and that you make the world go around.

Sorry, it’s not true.

Humility simply means that you understand that the world doesn’t begin and end with you. Virtually everything in your life is a collaboration. As I type this post, I’m relying on software from Microsoft and Apple and several open source projects. The ideas that flow through my head came through countless sources. The inspiration for this post was other people. I know that I am merely a small part of the reason for the success of this site or this article, and without those tools and things created by others, I wouldn’t be here and there would be no Simple Dollar.

A good way to practice humility is to think about how many people had to be involved to bring you the things you take for granted. Start with the device you’re reading this on. Who made it? Who wrote the software that runs on it? All of those people deserve some credit for making what you’re doing right now happen. You’re actually just a very tiny part of that exchange.

Let’s turn this rock over again and look at another facet: self-reliance. Self-reliance simply means that you’re able to come up with solutions to problems with as little direct outside help as possible. A self-reliant person is willing and able to fix their own toilet, grow their own food, and figure out what they’re supposed to do next.

Self-reliance combines well with self-belief. Self-belief means you think you can do anything. Self-reliance means you’re able to start coming up with methods to actually do it without someone guiding you.

How do you improve self-reliance? Start taking on tasks that you think might be difficult. Yes, you might mess them up. Yes, that’s okay. The key is that you’re trying to do things on your own and, more often than not, you’re succeeding at them. Self-reliance becomes something of a snowball rolling down the mountain, where you start to tie achieved tasks together and before you know it, you’re planning large projects on the fly.

Love of Learning
A key part of one’s ability to succeed in any area is knowledge acquisition. Do you know what’s going on in that area? Do you know the people involved? Do you have a thorough base of knowledge upon which you can interact with other people driven to succeed?

Obviously, one can acquire knowledge without enjoying the process, but a love of learning certainly makes the process easier. If you love learning, then the thought of tackling something new in order to understand it in depth sounds exciting. You can’t wait to get started!

My perspective has been that a love of knowledge is often a snowball effect. If you start off just picking one topic you really want to understand and focus on learning more about that topic, you often tend to slowly spread into other topics. Eventually, learning itself becomes a joyful journey.

Situations change. Opportunities appear and disappear. One day you find yourself in a scientific research field, another you find yourself being a writer on financial topics (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…).

Some people are able to roll with the punches. If the problems and the situations change, then they change their tactics to go along with it. Others just lock down in uncertain and changing situations.

The more adaptable you are to change, the more likely you are to succeed at whatever life throws at you.

Adaptability, of course, draws on self-reliance, but they differ in one key aspect: adaptability sometimes causes you to inherently rely on others. Self-reliance, in a way, is just a key tool for adaptability.

How do you build adaptability? The key is to watch your own behavior. When a situation changes, do you respond by retreating into your shell? If you do, make a very focused effort to come out of that shell and just deal with the new situation. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

By passion, I mean that whatever it is that you choose to be doing, you get swept away in it. It consumes your thoughts. It brings you incredible joy when you’re doing it, particularly when you see improvement at it.

When you wake up in the morning, you’re raring to get started on that thing you’re passionate about. When you go to bed, it fills your thoughts until you go to sleep.

Some people are prone to passion. Others are more withdrawn. Yet, time and time again, when I witness someone doing something great, passion is at work.

How can you build passion? The key, really, is just letting go of a sense that you shouldn’t dive in deep. So often, I see people afraid to be passionate because of the cultural constraints around them. They don’t want to be a “nerd.” So often, though, the people who do amazing things are nerds. Their passion drives them to do something special. Let go. Be a nerd.

Detail-Oriented Focus
When you work, do you find yourself focusing hard on the project at hand? Do you often notice details that other people miss? Do you want the details to be right when you care about a project? Can you get so involved with a project that wild horses can barely drag you away?

A person who can answer “yes” to those questions has detail-oriented focus. They have the ability to take something they’re working on and make it great.

Detail-oriented focus can be built by training one’s attention span. Start by eliminating all distractions when you’re working on a project. When you find yourself daydreaming, take a break and do something else for a while, then go back into focus mode. The more you practice this, the better you’ll get at focusing. You’ll eventually be able to reach what I call “the zone,” where time just seems to slip away as I focus on a project.

These seven traits pop up in some combination in every great person that I know. They’ll lead you to success, too.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.