Skip to Content

Childhood: Shirley Temple

Before the age of 10, Shirley Temple enjoyed four years as the top box-office draw in America, earning an unprecedented $50,000 per film from 20th Century Fox in the late 1930s. She gave definition to the term child star, which was the title of her autobiography.

But early success often comes with the cost of devoting your childhood to hard work rather than play. Temple acted in four films a year at an age when ordinary children swing in the playground and master cursive writing.

“The early young chargers are willing to sacrifice freedom and choice at a young age,” says Bruce Tulgan, New Haven-based consultant and author of It’s Okay to Be the Boss. “They put in a huge amount of time and energy in a focused pursuit at a very young age.”

Although Temple retired from movie-making at age 22, that early sacrifice gave her the platform and name recognition to become active in politics, serve on corporate boards, and fill the role of U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

Adolescence: Nick D’Aloisio

How many pimply-faced adolescents salivate over a story like Nick D’Aloisio’s? He taught himself to code at 12 and at 15 created a news summary app that prompted investor Li Ka Shing’s Horizons Ventures to invest $300,000 in the technology. After a few more rounds of funding and a name change to Summly, D’Aloisio sold the app to Yahoo (YHOO) for a reported $30 million in March 2013, joining the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based tech giant from his home base in England. Now 17, he hobnobs with investors and advisers like Ashton Kutcher, Vivi Nevo, and Yoko Oko.

“I try to maintain a level of humbleness to this,” he told the Guardian newspaper, adding that his motivation wasn’t simply monetary reward. “Because the motivation was technology and product, this is just the beginning of what I want to do.”

Research by University of Chicago economist David Galenson finds that innovators who make their mark early on in their careers tend to accomplish conceptual breakthroughs, as opposed to those who innovate through experimentation and laborious research — which can take decades.

“There are two very different kinds of people who make innovations. The people who are traditionally regarded as geniuses are the people I refer to as conceptual. They have a brand-new idea,” says Galenson, author of Old Masters and Young Geniuses. “The ability to form new abstractions tends to be greatest early in your career.”

20-something: Jackie Joyner-Kersee

“Success for me is never quite completed,” says Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a six-time Olympic medalist and Sports Illustrated’s pick for the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century. “There are successful moments from the standpoint of the goals I set and was able to reach. That doesn’t mean the work is done.”

At 24 years old, Joyner-Kersee became the first woman to break 7,000 points in the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow. The challenge was not only in physically being able to master all seven track and field events, but also in standing up to the mental pressure. Since then, Joyner-Kersee continues to set new goals, in her community work and personal relationships.

“You’re always looking for new challenges. You’re always looking at what’s going to be the next roadblock. It’s those roadblocks that help me get up in the morning and keep working every day,” she says. “If you have nothing to work for, you’re asleep all day.”

A relentless pursuit of progress is typical of people who become and stay successful, says Richard St. John, author of The 8 Traits Successful People Have in Common. Such achievers must maintain that drive. “The ones who are successful throughout life don’t change. They stay the same,” he says. “If you’re following your passion, keep following it.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this slide incorrectly stated that Jackie Joyner-Kersee broke a world record in the heptathlon at the 1986 Olympic Games in Moscow. Joyner-Kersee broke that record at the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow.

30-something: Richard Branson

Long before he launched an airline or grew interested in mobile technology, Richard Branson made his mark with the music label he co-founded, Virgin Records, introducing groups like the Sex Pistols and Culture Club in the 1970s and 1980s. He began as a magazine publisher and mail order distributor of music records, and now heads a company with hundreds of different business lines.

“I don’t like to get too comfortable. I like to push and see what I’m capable of, and I think people get more satisfaction if they live their lives in that way,” Branson told author St. John, who divides success into inward and outward categories.

Inward success might be beating your personal time in a marathon. Outward success might be — in Branson’s case — overseeing a venture capital conglomerate, being the fourth-richest U.K. citizen, and receiving a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.

While financial rewards may seem to be a driving motivation, money and power are actually just a means to an end. Such things buy successful people the freedom to decide how they spend their time, where and how they live, and with whom to build relationships, says author Tulgan.

“Success means different things to different people,” says St. John, who spent 15 years interviewing people on success. “When you ask them about money, they’re not that interested. The minute they talk about the passion, they light up … I haven’t talked to any really successful person who doesn’t love what they do.”

40-something: Erika Leonard

Last summer, it was impossible to avoid the success of the Fifty Shades erotic romance novels, a trilogy about the relationship between college student Anastasia Steele and millionaire business-owner Christian Grey, featuring elements of bondage, dominance, and sadomasochism. Publisher Vintage reaped more than $200 million in sales, according to Publishers Weekly, selling more than 40 million copies in the U.S. and 70 million copies worldwide of paperback and e-book versions. Universal and Focus Features reportedly paid $5 million for film rights to author Erika Leonard, who writes under the pen name E. L. James.

“When you set out to do those things, you don’t anticipate this type of success at all,” Leonard told The Hollywood Reporter. “I make very conscious decisions to say, ‘Where am I? What am I doing now? What now? This is amazing.’ Just enjoy it. Feel it. What’s happening around you, just take it all in and enjoy this moment, and I do that.”

Leonard, a married mother of two teenage sons, began the novels as fan fiction inspired by the Twilight vampire romance books and movies, drawing a following of readers who gave feedback on her writing and recommended it to friends. She eventually recast the books to stand alone, eliminating the Twilight characters and setting, and moving them to her own website in late 2010. In 2011, an independent publisher in Australia, The Writer’s Coffee Shop, published the trilogy in e-book and print-on-demand versions, where the popularity of the series led to interest from film studios.

50-something: Julia Child

For someone whose kitchen has been reproduced in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Julia Child’s outlook on success was remarkably personal. “Sooner or later, the public will forget you, the memory of you will fade. What’s important are the individuals you’ve influenced along the way,” she told Esquire in 2000. “The measure of achievement is not winning awards. It’s doing something that you appreciate, something you believe is worthwhile.”

That something for Child, as we all know, was food. In her mid-30s, she moved to Paris as the trailing spouse to her husband Paul Child, assigned there as an officer with the U.S. Information Agency. She fell in love with French cuisine, studying at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, learning from master chefs and eventually teaching cooking classes with French friends Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The trio published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, which became a bestseller and launched Child into a successful food-writing career.

In the 1960s, she starred in the award-winning cooking show The French Chef, teaching a generation how to cook in a distinctive, low voice and unassuming manner. In subsequent decades, her kitchen became the setting for several other TV cooking shows.

60-something: Adele Douglass

As a congressional staffer, Adele Douglass toured a farm and was horrified by the crowded and unsanitary conditions of the animals being raised for food. If average shoppers knew, she thought, they would be horrified and outraged. The experience lingered with her and prompted her to cash in her 401(k) — about $80,000 at the time — and launch a campaign to certify humane treatment of farm animals.

For years, she worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day as executive director of the nonprofit organization she founded in 2003, Humane Farm Animal Care. The group sets standards for treatment, feeding, and other practices on farms that want to be labeled Certified Humane®. Humane standards go beyond organic standards, which do nothing to ensure the animals’ comfort or treatment but merely limit antibiotics and the kind of feed that can be given to animals.

In 2007, she won the Purpose Prize for social entrepreneurs who are 60 or older, and in 2008, she was elected an Ashoka fellow. The recognition brought much-needed publicity to her cause and gave her a community of other like-minded campaigners. But the milestone she values most is in the numbers: 76.8 million animals raised under the Certified Humane® program last year, up from the 143,000 animals certified in the organization’s first year of existence.

“That’s what I consider success. I created a market for this type of product to show producers and suppliers that consumers want it. They individually can help make change,” she says.

70-something: Warren Buffett

In a decade when many successful businessmen are thinking only of tee times and spy novels, Warren Buffett played a role in the economic recovery, advising top administration officials under Presidents Bush and Obama as well as testifying before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission about the causes of the meltdown. He was one of the few investors to make money during the recession, unloading Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac securities well before they tanked and investing in Goldman Sachs and General Electric when nobody else was willing.

Buffett attributes his success to the joy he takes in his work. “Money is a by-product of doing something I like doing, extremely well,” he has said, describing his attitude as “tap dancing to work.”

He transformed Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) from a small textile manufacturer into a powerful holding company throughout the 1970s and 1980s, becoming a billionaire when the company began to sell class A shares in 1990. He’s famously humble, considering he’s one of the world’s wealthiest men, living in the same five-bedroom Omaha home for decades and driving his own car.

80-something: Virginia Hamilton Adair

Imagine writing poetry your entire life but publishing little, going blind from glaucoma, and then releasing a blockbuster volume of poetry that garners critical and public success. That’s the story of Virginia Hamilton Adair, an English professor who had poems accepted by The Atlantic and The New Republic in her 20s, but then grew disenchanted with the publishing process and stopped submitting.

“I was quite competitive. And I either wanted to be very good at it, or just to let it alone,” she told PBS Newshour in 1996. “And I was doing a lot of other things. I was enjoying teaching tremendously. I taught for about 25 years in, I think, five different colleges or universities. And that was a full-time job, and I had a full-time husband and three full-time children, and there just wasn’t — wasn’t time to think.”

Adair actually wrote more poetry after she went blind than before, because she had more free time. In 1995, her friend and fellow poet Robert Mezey encouraged her to collect her best work in a book, which he secretly sent to The New Yorker. After The New Yorker published a few poems and an admiring essay about Adair, Random House published the collection as Ants on the Melon, which has had four publishing runs and has sold an unusual number of copies for a poetry volume.

University of Chicago economist David Galenson’s research has found that experimental innovators peak in creativity late in life, when the accumulated experience and time spent honing their craft coalesces into brilliance. Just look at the careers of Virginia Woolf, Paul Cézanne, Fyodor Dostoevsky, or John Darwin, all of whom made tremendous contributions after a long career. “These are people who work by trial and error, work uncertainly, and they become great later rather than early,” he says.

90-something: Jacques Barzun

At age 93, Jacques Martin Barzun published From Dawn to Decadence, a cultural history tracing Western life from 1500 to the present, which became a New York Times bestseller. The tome was a fitting capstone to Barzun’s career, during which he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor and published more than 30 books on subjects ranging from science and medicine to literature, art, and classical music. Barzun’s 1945 book Teacher in America influenced education in the U.S. for many years.

Raised in Paris, Barzun moved to the U.S. in his teen years and earned a bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, where he was later a professor and dean of the graduate school. Many credit him with creating the field of cultural history. The American Philosophical Society awards an annual Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History.

In a 2001 interview with C-Span, he said he never expected to be on the bestseller list in his 90s. “It’s been a long stretch and probably illegal. Nobody ought to carry on as long as I have,” he said. He died more than a decade later at age 104.