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How Successful People Think

By John C. Maxwell | August 7, 2009
How Successful People Think

What’s a successful person’s greatest resource in difficult times? Good thinking!
Good thinkers are always in demand. A person who knows how may always have a job, but the person who knows why will always be his boss.

Good thinkers solve problems, they never lack ideas for building an organization, and they always have hope for a better future. Good thinkers rarely find themselves at the mercy of ruthless people who would take advantage of them or try to deceive them, people like Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who once boasted, “What luck for rulers that men do not think.”

Those who develop the process of good thinking can rule themselves – even while under an oppressive ruler or in other difficult circumstances.  In short, good thinkers are successful.


I’ve studied successful people for forty years, and though the diversity you find among them is astounding, I’ve found that they are all alike in one way: how they think!

That is the one thing that separates successful people from unsuccessful ones.  And here’s the good news.  How successful people think can be learned. If you change your thinking, you can change your life!


Do you want to master the process of good thinking? Do you want to be a better thinker tomorrow than you are today?  Then you need to engage in an ongoing process that improves your thinking.  I recommend you do the following:

1. Expose Yourself to Good Input

Good thinkers always prime the pump of ideas. They always look for things to get the thinking process started, because what you put in always impacts what comes out.

Read books, review trade magazines, listen to CDs, and spend time with good thinkers. And when something intrigues you-whether it’s someone else’s idea or the seed of an idea that you’ve come up with yourself-keep it in front of you. Put it in writing and keep it somewhere in a favorite place to stimulate your thinking.

2. Expose Yourself to Good Thinkers

All of the people in my life whom I consider to be close friends or colleagues are good thinkers. Now, I love all people. I try to be kind to everyone I meet, and I desire to add value to as many people as I can through conferences, books, audio lessons, etc. But the people I seek out and choose to spend time with all challenge me with their thinking and their actions. They are constantly trying to grow and learn.

The writer of Proverbs observed that sharp people sharpen one another, just as iron sharpens iron. If you want to be a sharp thinker, be around sharp people.

3. Choose to Think Good Thoughts

To become a good thinker, you must become intentional about the thinking process. Regularly put yourself in the right place to think, shape, stretch, and land your thoughts. Make it a priority. Thinking is a discipline.

Recently I had breakfast with Dan Cathy, the president of Chick-fil-A, a fast food restaurant chain headquartered in the Atlanta area. I told him that I was working on this book and I asked him if he made thinking time a high priority. Not only did he say yes, but he told me about what he calls his “thinking schedule.” It helps him to fight the hectic pace of life that discourages intentional thinking. Dan says he sets aside time just to think for half a day every two weeks, for one whole day every month, and for two or three full days every year. Dan explains, “This helps me ‘keep the main thing, the main thing,’ since I am so easily distracted.”

You may want to do something similar, or you can develop a schedule and method of your own. No matter what you choose to do, go to a special thinking place, take paper and pen, and make sure you capture your ideas in writing.

4. Act on Your Good Thoughts

Ideas have a short shelf life. You must act on them before the expiration date. World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker said it all when he remarked, “I can give you a six-word formula for success: Think things through-then follow through.”

5. Allow Your Emotions to Create Another Good Thought

To start the thinking process, you cannot rely on your feelings. In Failing Forward, I wrote that you can act your way into feeling long before you can feel your way into action. If you wait until you feel like doing something, you will likely never accomplish it. The same is true for thinking. You cannot wait until you feel like thinking to do it. However, I’ve found that once you engage in the process of good thinking, you can use your emotions to feed the process and create mental momentum.

Try it for yourself. After you go through the disciplined process of thinking and enjoy some success, allow yourself to savor the moment and try riding the mental energy of that success. If you’re like me, it’s likely to spur additional thoughts and productive ideas.

6. Repeat the Process

One good thought does not make a good life. The people who have one good thought and try to ride it for an entire career often end up unhappy or destitute. They are the one-hit wonders, the one-book authors, the one-message speakers, the one-time inventors who spend their life struggling to protect or promote their single idea. Success comes to those who have an entire mountain of gold that they continually mine, not those who find one nugget and try to live on it for fifty years. To become someone who can mine a lot of gold, you need to keep repeating the process of good thinking.


This article is an excerpt from the introduction to my latest book, How Successful People Think. Available now from booksellers in the United States, it’s derived from my book, Thinking for a Change.

Edited and distilled down to the bare essentials, this book is designed to help you expand your thinking and achieve your dreams with the following…

11 keys to successful thinking:

1.         Cultivate Big-Picture Thinking
2.         Engage in Focused Thinking
3.         Harness Creative Thinking
4.         Employ Realistic Thinking
5.         Utilize Strategic Thinking
6.         Explore Possibility Thinking
7.         Learn from Reflective Thinking
8.         Question Popular Thinking
9.         Benefit from Shared Thinking
10.       Practice Unselfish Thinking
11.       Rely on Bottom-Line Thinking


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Be the first to comment on "How Successful People Think"

  • Shevy says: July 29, 2020 at 4:25 am

    Amazing practical thoughts of life are embedded in this book.Good thinker not only solve problems either they swiftly solve them immediately it’s been perceived.

  • Sergei says: March 17, 2021 at 12:50 am

    This bloke never worked in government bureaucracy

  • Think // Plan // Do – Dr. Stephen R. Graves says: April 19, 2021 at 1:28 pm

    […] But keep in mind what the author John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” And there are, in fact, ways to improve your thinking. […]

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