Success ingredients of top achievers

Success ingredients of top achievers

'Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play," the German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said. Do you have both theoretical knowledge and practical experience in what you do? And can these two ingredients alone lead you to professional success?

Today, let me share with you the key success ingredients of a first-rate professional with the help of a Venn diagram. It illustrates the three bases of professional success, the three intersecting mid-levels of success, and the success peak where all bases intersect.

Base 1. Knowledge ("I know and understand"): "The natural desire of good men is knowledge," said Leonardo da Vinci. The first base of professional success, knowledge can be defined as facts, information and skills acquired by a person. Typically, if you start as a novice in a professional domain, you first build up foundational knowledge and skills that allow you to become a practitioner in your chosen field.

Base 2. Experience ("I do and apply"): "There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realised until personal experience has brought it home," said the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Experience is the second base on which professional success is grounded. You acquire practical experience over time while working in a particular profession.

Mid-Level A (Intersection 1-2): Competence and expertise ("I know how to do this well"): "To know and not to do is not yet to know," goes a Zen saying. Apply your knowledge in reality to move to a higher professional level and become competent in what you do. Competence is the ability to do something successful or efficiently.

If you master the discipline to diligently continue learning and applying, you build up more professional expertise. But apart from discipline, you need a third success base.

Base 3. Talent ("I am a natural at it"): The third -- and arguably most important -- base is talent, which is a natural aptitude or skill for your chosen pursuit. When something is EEE (easy, effortless and enjoyable) for you that is DDD (difficult, drudging and de-energising) for most others, you have a talent for this pursuit. Developing the latent qualities that constitute your natural gift may lead you to future professional success.

Mid-Level B (Intersection 1-3): Scholarship ("I am a natural and know all about it"): When you have a natural aptitude for a domain and study it hard, you become a learned scholar. Scholarship is academic study and achievement on a high level, and it is driven by curiosity. The more curious you are to learn all about "your" natural domain, the harder you will study, the more you will learn and understand on a theoretical level.

But scholarship alone won't bring you to the very top of your professional domain: as long as you don't practise what you preach, you still lack the practical experience to reach the peak. Accomplished career academics tend to play -- and stay -- on this level.

Mid-Level C (Intersection 2-3): Self-actualisation ("I am a natural and can do it"): Self-actualisation means the realisation of one's talents and potential. Some people notice early on that they have a knack for something -- and then, driven by passion and enthusiasm for their gift, they just start doing it without having been formally educated in it. For example, many natural entrepreneurs start a venture without any formal theoretical education in entrepreneurship.

The Peak (Intersection 1-2-3): Success, harmony and ingenuity ("I am a natural at it, know all about it, and know how to do it"): If you combine all of these elements of professional success, you eventually will reach the peak and become one of the acclaimed top leaders in your professional domain.

At this point, who you are, what you know and what you do are in perfect harmony. You can regularly experience the peak state of flow at work, which drives you forward as a reward in itself but also supports moments of peak creativity.

If you work for a longer time on a particularly tough challenge, you may even experience a Eureka moment of peak creativity.

Albert Einstein provides a good example. For years he had been at the scholarship level (1-3); he had a talent for physics (base 3) and knew all about it in theory as an accomplished academic (base 2). However, he was only able to resolve the creative puzzle leading to his relativity theory after closing base 3.

Einstein acquired practical experience while working as a clerk in the patent office in Bern, where he gained fresh practical stimuli from reading technical patent applications and doing imagination experiments on his theories. All these stimuli ultimately connected to his groundbreaking theory, a Eureka moment that came to him while hiking in the Swiss Alps.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Ltd (, an ideation and innovation company in Asia, and an adjunct associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at

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