7 Habits Employed by the World’s Top Entrepreneurs
The envelope looked official. Clearly not junk mail. But I had no idea what was inside.
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It landed on my desk on a fall day in 1996 at my office in suburban Detroit. The return address was for Ernst & Young, a prestigious national CPA firm. I decided to finish my call before opening it, but I admit I was distracted wondering about its contents.
I was about to get a very happy surprise.
The letter was an invitation to a luncheon in Lansing, the state capital. I had been nominated for Michigan’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
“Hold on! They don’t know the truth,” I thought. I was only 32, eight years out of business school, and three years into my first startup. I felt in no way qualified to be part of this elite group.
They asked me to fill out some paperwork, do a brief phone interview, and come to the luncheon to see if I went from nominee to Finalist. I filled it out and showed up in Lansing a few weeks later.
I recall that I crushed a lemon into my ice water and watched in horror as its contents squirted across the table into another attendee’s eye. I couldn’t have planned a shot like that (and I haven’t been able to repeat it in two decades around the dinner table with my kids).
I truly felt out of place.
“How did I end up here?” I asked myself and my wife over and over.
I got the good news that I had advanced to Finalist, and I was invited to the big gala in Detroit where they would announce and celebrate the winners in several categories. I had no idea what to wear.
I actually felt relieved that night when I was not selected as the winner. Sure, it would be great publicity… but I’d feel like a fraud.
After all (I reasoned), I had stumbled into this company. I was following the path carved out by my mentor. I was at the right place at the right time, and we had chosen a business model that happened to skyrocket in popularity the five years we ran the company. The rising tide lifted our boat along with many others.
Our little startup had some great things going for us, though. We had servant’s hearts, and we lived by the Golden Rule: We knew what it meant to treat our customers as we wanted to be treated. But we knew very little about what it actually meant to be successful entrepreneurs.
I was a finalist for the same award the following year, and we sold our firm to a publicly traded company later that year. I felt like a huge success in my mid-30s, but I still had at most just an inkling of what was involved in being a truly great entrepreneur.
In the decades since then, I have launched quite a few ventures. A few were wild successes. Some failed miserably. I’ve written two real estate investing books, been a guest on dozens of podcasts, and launched a podcast on entrepreneurial success and failure called How to Lose Money.
Through podcasts, books, and conversations with hundreds of successful people, I’ve learned many secrets that top entrepreneurs consistently employ on their path to success. Though there is obviously a wide variety of practices out there, it has surprised me to see how a certain group of habits consistently make the list of the entrepreneurial greats.
You may choose to employ the wish and a prayer method, like I succeeded with in my 30s. But you will drastically increase your odds of success by incorporating these seven habits into your routine.
7 Habits Employed by the World’s Top Entrepreneurs
I recently spoke to my friend and business partner from the ’90s venture above. He had just made an unsuccessful run for Colorado governor, and had been rubbing shoulders with quite a few billionaires and other uber successful entrepreneurs.
He observed that most of them had set their sights on a goal at a young age and had consistently run after that goal for decades. They had said, “NO!” to the shiny object syndrome that most entrepreneurs fall prey to. They would usually not describe themselves as serial entrepreneurs who started an array of companies in a variety of industries.
They focused on one thing, learned everything about it, and stuck with it through the ups and downs of market cycles, economic crashes, good news and bad.
My friend said he would trade his jet, his home, and his entire net worth to go back to his 20s and apply this one lesson well.
Gary Keller has succeeded wildly as a man of focus. In his must-read book The One Thing, Gary says that saying yes to your big life goal means saying no to a thousand other potential distractions. Gary teaches us that saying YES to your one thing and NO to distractions is both a lifelong pursuit and an hour-by-hour choice as you decide how to allocate your time.
If you get this one lifelong and daily habit right, you will be well on your way to entrepreneurial success.
2. Commit yourself to lifelong learning.
For years I fell into the trap of thinking that I was far too busy as an entrepreneur to read many books. And in recent years, too busy to listen to podcasts.
Sure, I knew the saying that “All leaders are readers” but who really has time? I was already working long hours.
I needed to make time. And you should, too.
If George W. Bush could read up to 96 books annually while in the White House, what excuse could I possibly have? Who are some other successful readers?
- Bill Gates reads an average of one book every week
- Mark Cuban reads more than three hours daily
- Elon Musk is an avid reader and says he learned to build rockets through reading books. (Will he have more time for that now that he’s stepping down from Tesla’s board?)
- Oprah chooses one book per month for her book club members to read and discuss
Warren Buffett spends up to 80 percent of his day reading. When asked about keys to success, Buffett pointed to a stack of books and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”
Reading was a tough habit to create, but this has been even tougher. I was already getting up early to spend time to pray and meditate, so I surely couldn’t squeeze this in. Besides, I worked out voraciously from age of 12 to 18, so shouldn’t those hours count toward my fitness in my 40s and 50s?
But I noticed that most top CEOs I knew were in great shape. And I learned that some of the busiest people on the planet make exercise a priority.
Richard Branson says that his exercise routine adds four hours of productivity to each day. Mark Cuban devotes an hour each day to cardio.
Exercise improves overall health, reduces stress, releases toxins, improves focus, and enhances creativity.
I heard that the healthiest people on the planet do a lot of walking. There’s no way I could carve out time to walk for hours a day without some serious multi-tasking. And though I believe most multi-tasking is evil, I found a way to do it that increases my productivity while allowing me to walk between five and ten miles each day.
Check it out…
I installed a treadmill desk in my office. I had mine custom-built, but you can buy one cheaper online. This has been worth its weight in gold and helps me stay focused during almost every activity in my workday. I have reduced my coffee intake (it’s hard to get sleepy while walking), and it feels great to tally up 25 or more miles a week on my pedometer.
I also bought a rebounder, and I multiply my morning jumping time by listening to audiobooks and podcasts during my brisk 30-minute routine. (Sorry, my wife thought one picture of me was enough, and she said I wasn’t exactly rockin’ the look in that one.)
I could write thousands of words about exercise, but you already know I’m right. Now it’s time to carve out time to make it a reality.
4. Start your day early.
Studies show that those who start the day early can ward off distractions and get more done.
- Virgin CEO Richard Branson gets up at 5 am to exercise
- Apple CEO Tim Cook is awake and sending company emails by 4:30 am
- Disney CEO Bob Iger is up at 4:30 am and uses his quiet time to read
- Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is up at 4:30 am (he has his first coffee by 5:45)
- PIMCO CEO Bill Gross is up at 4:30 am and at the office by 6 am
When I start really early, I have time for meditation, exercise, and often feel that I’ve achieved more by 10 am than I do in most full days. But it’s important for me to not use these morning times to catch up on emails or surf the web. It is a great time to think and to move the ball forward toward my big life and business goals.
It takes different forms, and looks differently for everyone, but most top performing entrepreneurs build time for meditation into their schedules.
Some who practice forms of Eastern meditation believe in emptying the mind. I personally believe in filling it. I try to fill it with what I want to learn and become. Like a cow chewing its cud, I like to regurgitate what I’m reading and think about it again and again, in different ways including journaling.
When researching his new book, Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferris sent 11 interview questions to 140 people at the top of their fields. One consistent response surprised him. He found that the vast majority had a morning practice of meditation or mindfulness.
Ferris told Business Insider: “Despite the fact that these are people from tennis to surfing to cryptocurrency to fill-in-the-blank, like any field you can possibly imagine – some type of morning mindfulness or meditation practice would span I’d say 90 percent of the respondents.”
I recently interviewed Cameron Herald for How to Lose Money podcast. He’s a success coach and author of Double Double and The Miracle Morning for Entrepreneurs. One thing that stood out to me is that Herald said top entrepreneurs have a consistent practice of meditation. He detailed this in his Miracle Morning book.
What does this look like for you? For me it looks like prayer, reading, reflection, and journaling. I don’t focus on my business during this time, but if I get ideas about business I don’t shut them down. This is where some of my best ideas are born.
Comment below on your meditation or other morning routines.
6. Schedule thinking time.
Perhaps you’re familiar with meditation, but do you schedule times just to think about your business? My favorite new business book is The Road Less Stupid, by Keith Cunningham. Keith teaches the importance of arranging intentional 30- to 60-minute blocks of time into our schedules to sit quietly with a pen and blank page to think deeply about our businesses.
Keith teaches us to ask questions like, “If my business could talk to me right now, what would it say?” Then just sit and think until answers bubble up. Then journal. It’s a powerful technique and I wish I’d learned it years ago.
Back to Richard Branson again. Richard has never had a desk or a traditional office setting. He’s known to lie in a hammock on his island, pen and notebook in hand, and just think. After hours of staring at the sky and thinking, he reportedly has pages of written notes that he hands off to an assistant to implement.
If Sir Richard has time to pull this off, with dyslexia and the burden of his many companies, then I think you and I can squeeze in the time to do the same. (Personal island and hammock not required.)
7. Find your high achiever network.
Jim Rohn famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” He’s also been quoted as saying, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”
An ancient proverb says: “Bad company corrupts good character.”
You probably know this is true, but do you know how powerful this truth really is? It is much broader than just the five people you hang around. Research using data from the Framingham Heart Study, one of the most thorough and longest running studies ever, shows that this truth extends out to a wide circle of people you’ve never even met.
The study published in the New England Journal of Medicine said that if your friend becomes obese, you are 45 percent more likely to gain weight in the next four years or less. Surprisingly, the study said that if a friend of your friend—even someone you don’t know—becomes obese, you are 20 percent more likely to gain weight. But that’s not all. If a friend of a friend of your friend becomes obese, you are 10 percent more likely to do the same.
The same researchers found a similar pattern in a study on smoking. You are 61 percent more likely to smoke if your friend does, 29 percent more likely if it’s a friend of a friend, and 11 percent more likely if it’s a third level away.
And it’s the same with happiness – you are 6 percent more likely to be happy if your friend’s friend is happy. While 6 percent may not seem significant, consider that a $10,000 raise would trigger only a 2 percent increase in happiness.
What’s the lesson here? You can draw your own conclusions, but I’m concluding that your social network is really important.
But is this really a habit of successful people? I think it is. Because you and I can make a habit of who we hang around. We can select the clubs we are part of, and whether we invest time at a local non-profit, church, or synagogue.
We can make choices about what parties to go to. If you know you should stop drinking, you know which parties and people you should avoid.
You can intentionally invest time and money in good habits.
For example, you could decide whether spending $20,000 on a powerful mastermind is over-the-top or a bargain. I just visited a high-level real estate mastermind called The Collective Genius. I asked many of the members if they thought it was worth the price, and almost every member said it has paid them back many times over — year in and year out.
After spending three days there, I could see why. Just being in a room with people who were doing more deals annually than most investors do in a decade was inspiring and challenging. I had to fight a little discouragement and self-doubt, too, but I’d rather hang around people performing at a higher level than those who think the status quo is good enough.
Successful entrepreneurs and investors hang around with successful entrepreneurs and investors.
Who are you hanging around? Are they practicing the seven habits of highly successful entrepreneurs? Or are they too busy just getting by?
Which practices do you think are most important? Which ones do you plan to implement in your life?
Share in the comments below!