Matt Bodnar
Mar 30, 2018 · 7 min read

I’ve spent my life studying world champions, billionaires, and tycoons.

In fact, I’ve been obsessed with peak performers for as long as I can remember.

It’s also why I’ve spent so much time and energy interviewing top experts from around the world including neuroscientists, astronauts, FBI hostage negotiators, eminent psychologists, and more.

And I’ve discovered that there are a ton of simple commonalities that many of these top performers share.

Here are five things top achievers spend their time on vs an average person:

  1. They use contemplative routines to determine what’s most important to focus on
  2. They harness the power of compounding by building on their knowledge and getting 1% smarter every day
  3. They focus on and study things that don’t change or change very slowly over time — master the principles and they can invent the tactics
  4. They follow the path of worldly wisdom and focus on acquiring multidisciplinary knowledge across academic disciplines like psychology, mathematics, and biology
  5. They build a toolkit of mental models so that they can better understand reality and achieve their goals.

Contemplative Routines

Lets borrow some wisdom from Charles Duhigg the author of Smarter, Faster, Better and The Power of Habit.

In a recent podcast interview, Charles discussed how research shows that the most common rituals that highly successful people share are what he calls “contemplative routines.”

What actually seems to correlate with success is that the people who are most productive and most successful, they tend to have what researchers refer to as contemplative routines, as habits in their life that push them to think more deeply.
Journaling is a great example of this, because the act of journaling often times forces us to sit down and to try and make sense of how we spent our time recently.
What our goals actually ought to be as opposed to what we happen to just get obsessed with or fixated on right now, and how we should arrange our life so that those priorities, so that our energy and our activity is actually focused on our priorities rather than instantly responding to life’s many sort of busy work request. The basic insight here is that, particularly now, being busy and being productive are not synonymous.”Charles Duhigg on The Science of Success

The Power of Compounding

The more time and energy you invest in your thinking ability the more it continues to build and build on itself by harnessing the power of compounding (a mental model, which we will discuss in a moment).

It cascades through everything you do. It’s not incremental growth in your knowledge, it’s exponential growth. Einstein described the power of compounding as the “eight wonder of the world” — and if you’ve ever crunched some numbers on a compound interest calculator you know how powerful compounding can be over time.

If you get 1% better at thinking — at understanding how the world works, how human behavior works, how economic systems function, and understanding your own brain — that 1% improvement impacts everything you do. You’re not just going to benefit at work, but when you deal with your spouse, or negotiate the purchase of a new car, or decide where to invest your savings. You’re entire life is essentially a long chain of decisions.

These small incremental improvements in decision-making aren’t noticeable at first, but they eventually result in a huge transformation in how you think, act, and understand the world.

Here’s a quote from Warren Buffett, when asked what the key to success was he 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.”

Master The Principles So You Can Invent The Tactics

A key piece of building a compounding machine of knowledge — that over time will let you vault over almost everyone on the planet in terms of sheer brain power — is focusing on knowledge that doesn’t change or changes very slowly over time.

Many people focus their time and energy on learning rapidly changing tactics, the minutiae, highly specific actions and pieces of advice without a broader context. As Sun Tzu once said “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat” and Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

People gobble up the latest article “10 Things You Can Do To Improve Your Email Opt-In Rate” but the problem with studying knowledge like that is that it changes — it doesn’t give you something to build up and build upon over time — in 18 months all of the advice in that article will be useless.

But if you flip that, if you study the strategy — spend your time mastering the core principles that underpin psychology and human behavior, reading things like the book Influence by Robert Cialdini — you can invent marketing tactics on the fly — because you understand the bigger picture. And that knowledge changes very slowly over time — it’s a core foundation that you can build upon and grow from.

This also means that the best kind of knowledge to focus on and spend your time investing in is not ephemeral junk like facebook, twitter, and buzzfeed, but the core pillars of human knowledge and the major academic disciplines, which brings us to the principle of Worldly Wisdom.

Cultivate Worldly Wisdom

The next key component is cultivating what Charlie Munger (the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett) called Worldly Wisdom.

Here’s a great description of the concept of worldly wisdom from Robert Griffin’s book “Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor:

Munger has adopted an approach to business and life that he refers to as worldly wisdom. Munger believes that by using a range of different models from many different disciplines — psychology, history, mathematics, physics, philosophy, biology, and so on — a person can use the combined output of the synthesis to produce something that has more value than the sum of its parts. Robert Hagstrom wrote a wonderful book on worldly wisdom entitled Investing: The Last Liberal Art, in which he states that “each discipline entwines with, and in the process strengthens, every other. From each discipline the thoughtful person draws significant mental models, the key ideas that combine to produce a cohesive understanding. Those who cultivate this broad view are well on their way to achieving worldly wisdom.”

Being multidisciplinary means collecting knowledge from lots of different disciplines and areas of life and building an approach to understanding the world that integrates all that knowledge into a cohesive framework.

A multidisciplinary approach intertwines and strengthens itself by enabling you to pull from different disciplines of knowledge and bring the exact tools necessary to understand and solve tough challenges and to achieve complicated and difficult goals.

A Framework of Mental Models

A mental model is simply a concept, an idea, a tidbit of wisdom that in some way explains how the world works. Mental models are one of the cornerstones of high leverage thinking. In fact, Charlie Munger puts it pretty bluntly:

“Developing the habit of mastering the multiple models which underlie reality is the best thing you can do.”

When a billionaire tells me something is “the best thing I can do” — I listen. And I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time studying billionaires, people like Charlie Munger, and mental models so that you don’t have to.

A few examples of mental models would be concepts like the 80/20 principleand compounding, both of which we discussed earlier, as well as concepts like expected value and base rates from mathematics, notions such as confirmation bias, anchoring, and social proof from psychology, the prisoner’s dilemma from game theory, or the concept of natural selection from biology.

Elon Musk has another great way of describing this.

“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves / details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” — Elon Musk

While this may seem a bit overwhelming, the good news is that you don’t have to become an expert in physics and chemistry. The whole idea is to master the big ideas. Take the major principles from a 101 textbook and combine them into a framework of mental models that offers a rich and deep tool kit to look at, understand, and manipulate reality to your ends.

If you enjoyed this…

I study strategies for evidence based growth. Drop your email here to get my guide on “4 Steps To Making Better Decisions” which gives a TON of specific books, resources, and recommendations on being happy and successful.

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

Matt Bodnar

Written by

Host of The Science of Success Podcast, Investor, @Forbes #30Under30

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade