3 Surprising Qualities of Successful People

There are 3 traits that successful people seem to consistently have – delayed gratification, empathy, and determination. Learn why these qualities are the key to success in your life.

What determines success? Money, fortune and fame? From a business perspective, things like academic background, social skills and IQ are often considered to be the most important. However, not all geniuses are entrepreneurial millionaires, just like not all graduates of top colleges are commercially successful in their field. What then, are the qualities or traits that contribute most to one’s success? According to new research, they are: delayed gratification, empathy, and determination.

Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!

Imagine if you will, the following scenario: there is a room full of children. In front of them are placed a variety of delicious snacks like cookies, pretzels and marshmallows. They are told they can eat one immediately, or they can wait 15 minutes and have two. How many are able to wait? Some immediately eat their snack, others try to wait and give up and the third group is able to successfully hold out until they receive a double snack. Which group do you belong to?

This experiment, conducted at Stanford University during the 1970s, was critical to understanding how “delayed gratification” works. Follow-up studies with the same children in 1988 and1990 showed that those who were able to control themselves were more competent with higher test scores.

In 2005 Joachim de Posada wrote about this phenomenon in his popular business/self-help book entitled “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow – Yet!: The Secret to Sweet Success in Work and Life.” This helpful book further illustrates how important delayed gratification is for businessmen and woman to be successful. Those who are able to self-regulate are more likely to resist and persist until they reach their goals.

Empathy and Emotions

Recall the scenario above with the children and marshmallows. Imagine one child crying after realizing they ate their snack too soon and cannot have another. Is it best to scold and explain the logical consequences of actions, or offer sympathy and empathy?

The answer is empathy – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place and understand their point of view. The business world may be competitive and cut-throat but that doesn’t mean that businessmen and woman have to treat each other poorly. Conflict and differing viewpoints are an normal part of communication, negotiations and work processes. Diversity brings strength but at the cost of stress and conflicting opinions.

People who are empathetic can reduce tension, help solve problems and strengthen relationships. Instead of saying “I know you are wrong,” one says, “I understand what you mean.” The typical reaction to conflict is to be defensive and protecting of opinions and world views. But through showing empathy, businessmen and women are able to create a constructive atmosphere that allows for honest and respectful communication. Genuine empathy is the key to building and maintaining harmonious relationships.


Delayed gratification deals with temptation and control while empathy deals with self awareness and concern. Determination, or grit, is what brings the two together. Psychologists refer to this as the “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset is when we see the world in black and white: are we failing or succeeding? A growth mindset is when we believe we are getting closer to success. Research from professor Carol Dweck shows that the brain develops new neural pathways if it persists through a problem. Therefore, persistence means eventual success.

Overall, delayed gratification, empathy and determination are the key personality traits that determine the difference between success and failure.

This content is inspired by the article ‘3 Qualities More Important than IQ for Success’ by Thai Nguyen, first published at entrepreneur.com.

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