Successful People Avoid This Terrible Advice, Says Bestselling ‘Atomic Habits' Author: It's ‘a Very Common Pitfall'

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At some point in your life, you've probably been told to find a role model.

That's terrible advice, says bestselling author James Clear: Instead, you need to find 100 role models.

"There's a very common pitfall that I have certainly fallen into many times, which is, you see someone who is successful, who is doing the thing you hope to do or that you aspire to do, and then you think, 'You know what, I'll imitate what they're doing,'" Clear told organizational psychologist Adam Grant's "ReThinking" podcast on Tuesday.

The problem with imitating your role models is that you can't always recreate the exact factors that led to their success — from befriending the right person in the workplace to getting lucky playing the stock market at the right time.

In other words, the choices and actions that worked for your favorite business mogul or role model may not work for you. Clear's solution: Find a plethora of role models and assess the similarities between them.

"What I have gradually learned to do after making many mistakes, is you want to look at 100 people who are doing the thing that you want to do and then you try to find the commonalities or the patterns between them," he said.

This requires you to "become an organizational anthologist," Wendy Murphy, an associate dean at Babson College, wrote in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article.

As you identify potential role models to add to your list, Murphy — who teaches about organizational behavior, leadership and negotiation — recommends asking questions like:

  1. How do they conduct themselves?
  2. What skills do you need to polish to successfully perform their roles?
  3. What do they do that makes them a leader in their field?

Another similar strategy: Create a "personal board of directors," Lisa Skeete Tatum, founder and CEO of career coaching company Landit, told CNBC Make It last year.

Assemble a curated group of people who know you well, and can help you with advice and decision-making. Their role: Expand your network and "introduce you to new ways of thinking," Tatum said.

In Tatum's case, she surrounded herself with five people:

  • A mentor
  • A close friend
  • A "sponsor," who vouches for her strengths and capabilities when she's not present
  • A "connector," who's willing to facilitate relationships on her behalf
  • A "point expert," who often has answers to her burning questions

When you analyze the feedback you get from those people, you can find patterns. Maybe they recommend similar resources for your professional development, or provide you with the same constructive criticism.

Identifying and following through on those connections can help you better yourself, Clear said: "If you have a pattern, then there's some signal and not just noise."

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