Icons And Their Success Factor With Dr. Ruth Gotian


There are a lot of people we look up to for being successful. That being said, these people were surely faced with different challenges toward their success. But what’s the one trait – that success factor – that allowed them to overcome these struggles? Weill Cornell Medicine’s former assistant dean of mentoring, Dr. Ruth Gotian, joins Tony Martignetti to tackle which characteristics are critical for icons to achieve their success. Listen in as Dr. Ruth unpacks a life’s worth of lessons and discusses The Success Factor that ignited her to pursue the field she’s in today.


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Icons And Their Success Factor With Dr. Ruth Gotian

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Dr. Ruth Gotian. Ruth is the Chief Learning Officer and Assistant Professor of Education and Anesthesiology and former Assistant Dean of Mentoring and Executive Director of the Mentoring Academy at Weill Cornell Medicine. She has been hailed by the Journal Nature and Columbia University as an expert in mentorship and leadership development.

In 2021, she was selected as 1 of 30 people worldwide to be named to the Thinkers50 Radar Lists, dubbed the Oscars of Management Thinking. She won the Thinkers50 Distinguished Achievement Radar Award, given to a thinker with the potential to change the world of theory and practice, segmented her place as the number one emerging management thinker in the world.

She is also a semi-finalist for the Forbes 50 Over 50 list. In addition to publishing in academic journals, she's a contributor to Forbes in Psychology Today, where she writes about optimizing success. Her research is about the mindset and skillset of peak performers, including Nobel laureates, astronauts, and Olympic Champions. Her new book, The Success Factor, was released in January 2021.


I want to welcome you to the show, Ruth.

Thank you so much. I'm excited to be here.

Thank you so much. I feel like I’m a bit tongue-tied. Hopefully, we'll be okay to roll with it.

We need more caffeine around this campfire.

Truly, your intro says it all. There is so much that you've accomplished. You're working with true game-changers, and the accolades that you've accumulated speak for themselves.

Thank you.

As we often say on the campfires, people don't show up. There’s an evolution, a path that you've been on to get here. What we're going to do is we're going to spend some time and unpack your story and find out what happened along your journey.

I'm nervous and excited all at the same time.

Success always has some dark sides to it but there are ways to overcome that dark side, and that’s what's so important.

That's the way we want to roll. We do that through what's called flashpoints. These points in your journey have ignited your guests in the world. You can start wherever you like. There could be one or there could be many. As you're telling your story, we’ll pause along the way and see what themes are showing up that we'll tap into. With that, Ruth, I'm going to pass it over to you to take it away.

My Bachelor's and Master’s are in Business. Like all good business students, I dip my toe in Finance and International Banking. I quickly realized that because you're good at something, doesn't mean you enjoy it, so I was faced with a dilemma, “What do I do?” I realized that I always loved working with students but I had worked with undergrads before. If you went to college, you lived on campus and there was a hall director. I was one of those. I did that and kept remembering all the disciplinary issues and decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. I said, “What do I’ve got to lose? That's who I want to work with.”

I found that the most prestigious graduate program that I could find was something called a Combined MD-PhD Program. Now, I didn't get those degrees. My students did. I ran that program. I did everything cradle to grave, recruitment, admission, student affairs, budgets, operations, grants, marketing, alumni affairs, crisis management, and fundraising. You name it, I did it. I did that for over twenty years. I loved that program because it had a 3.5% acceptance rate. You had an easier time getting into Stanford than you did to get into this program.

I was very involved nationally in the program. These are what we call Physician Scientists. If they see a problem in the clinic and they want to find a solution or a treatment in the lab, I bring it back to the clinic to the patient. I realized that they were thinking and doing things differently. Even amongst this group, there were those who rose to the top. Nationally, we kept talking about those who were leaving the profession because it's a 7 to 8 years sprint. It's hard and it's not for everyone. People were leaving. We call that the leaky pipeline. I was more interested in the other end of the spectrum. I thought the solution was not on finding ways to retain those who don't want to be there but rather look at the ones who are outperforming everyone else.

How can we create more of those people? That's where my interest in success and high achievers. I think that was where it was ignited. One of my mentors, who ran all MD-PhD Programs at the NIH, told me when I decided I was going back to school to get my Doctorate while still having the job. He said, “Do something important, not interesting because if it's important, it will have an impact. If it's interesting, it's interesting to you. Nobody is going to care, and you spent all this time and money on a Doctorate.” That's when I started learning everything I could get my hands on about success and all these things that would matter. Before I started my dissertation research, I went to Columbia University to Teachers College and loved every moment of it.

I share the story in the introduction of the book, The Success Factor, about a fellow student who stopped me in the hallway. We were talking about our career plans and what we're going to do. He said to me, “Why do you want to be a thought leader?” I said, “I don't even know what that means. What's a thought leader?” He said, “What are you seen as the expert in? What do people come to you for? Something that you know how to do and you have a deeper understanding than anyone else.” I thought, “I'm not sure but we're about to find out.”

I went on this deep dive. My original research was on the Most Successful Physician Scientists of our Generation. Since then, I have been looking at other extreme high achievers, astronauts, other Nobel Prize winners, Olympic champions, senior government officials, and CEOs to figure out what made them so successful and how the rest of us mere mortals can learn how to emulate that.

It's not about emulating their habits. It's about understanding their mindset so that we can embed that into our own everyday lives. That's what I started doing with a vengeance. Once I understood that an astronaut is like an Olympic Gold Medal Figure Skater, I knew I was onto something and all of them did the same four things. That's when I was laser-focused on getting the word out and becoming a thought leader in that area, so here we are in Virtual Campfire.

This is amazing. I love what you shared so far because there is something about it that is powerful. Your own journey to figuring out what you're meant to be doing led you into this path of becoming laser-focused on the elite of the elite. It’s not like you could say, “It's going to be these people who are successful, great.” These aren't regular successful people. These are super successful people. They exhibit skills that you don't see in all people. You're not making them into these odd ducks. You're seeing what is about them that makes them special, that you can create another people. One thing that comes to mind for me is that, did you notice that there were some flaws that were common in a lot of them too like their success had some dark sides to it?

Success always has some dark sides to it. I devote some time. In Chapter Two of The Success Factor, to talk about the downside of extreme success, I think the bright side outshines the dark side. There are ways to overcome that dark side. That's what's important. It talks about controlling the people who are around you and your time and your calendar.

If you can do that because controlling your time, your space, your ideas, and the people who are trying to influence your idea, take away your time, your freedom, the bright side will definitely outshine and any dark side. When you are laser-focused on doing something, on achieving something, on understanding something, and on getting to the next point of something, most people around you don't understand that. They don't understand that world that you're in, and it can become very isolating.

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This doesn't matter if you're an Olympian training for the Olympics, spending all their time, workouts, and everything related to getting ready for the Olympics, or if you're a scientist. At the cusp of some big breakthrough, you're not dropping your pen at 5:00. You need to understand that’s the will for most people, “What do you mean? We're having dinner at 6:30. Why aren't you home?” That's why. It’s because you're almost there. You got into that state of flow, and you can't let it go. They need people around them who understand that.

Something bubbling up for me around this clarity of vision is what creates this ability for them to feel free to focus only on the things that are important to them that everything else falls away. It becomes irrelevant to them.

That's what flow is. You’re so laser-focused on what you're doing that everything else melts away. When I tell people that they outwork everyone else, it's not that they're working 18 to 20 hours a day. That's not. They're leveraging the right hours of the day. They maximize their rest time as much as they maximize their work time because they know that if you have proper rest, you will be more productive. Ask any of the top athletes. They understand that. This is why you can't copy somebody's habits. I'm a morning person and I wake up at 5:00 AM. I start getting to work by 10:00 AM. I've probably done a good day's work, super focused, and that's when I do all of my cognitive work in the morning.

You don't want me doing cognitive work at 3:00 in the afternoon where my brain starts getting fuzzy. That's when I do the passive tasks. That's responding to emails, hallway conversations, Zoom meetings, etc. I don't ever, as much as I can help it, use the morning hours for passive tasks because I know my focused hours are in the morning. Now, if you're a night owl and you only go to sleep at 3:00 AM, you can't copy my habit of waking up at 5:00 AM because maybe your focused hours start at 10:00 at night. What works for you may not work for me, but you do understand that you have your focused hours. Whatever they are for you. Your focused hours is that you need to learn how to leverage that. I think a lot of the high achievers did.

Thank you for sharing that because I think that is something that we may have heard before but we often forget. We get stuck in these patterns where we continue to say, “This thing has to get done, so I'll keep on doing it. I’ll keep on working through this,” but if you pause and rethink your schedule and the way you're doing things, you will find that you can find that leverage is there. I'm going to do some rewinding in your story because I want to find out what kind of a child you were. Did you ever think that you would be doing this type of work? When you were a child, did you have a dream of doing something different?

My dream was to be a nurse and then a doctor. I thought that's what I would be until I sat in on one Chemistry class in college. Not a course but one 40-minute class because I was good in Math. I thought, “Chemistry has a lot of Math.” No, I didn't like it. I felt I could probably do it if I worked hard enough but there was no joy. Management came easier and more naturally to me, so I transferred over to the business school, and it worked.

I was always that square peg in the round hole. I think it's only not long ago that I started to figure this out but that's a benefit, being a unicorn. If you know how to leverage that, it can be a benefit. The challenge is most people don't understand what to do with it because you don't fit neatly into any column. It's showing the benefits and it's taking me a lifetime to figure it out. I'm still figuring it out. Hopefully, I will always figure it out. Always work to figure it out.

I love the way you say that. There's something about that. You said the benefit of being the unicorn and you now work with, let's call them unicorns because in some ways, that's what they are. They're these unique people, but you are too. That's the great thing about this to say that you are able to see not fitting in is an advantage because you see things differently. You get to see it from the perspective of, we don't have to follow any particular track or path. We can create our own path by doing it our own way. It’s nice.

It's interesting you say that because I always tell people I'm not a high achiever. I study high achievers. When I got the Radar Award, which was such a shock, I still don't have a full recollection of what I said or what they asked me. I'm too scared to watch the replay, but I vaguely recall them saying, “What are you going to do next? I better start thinking about that. I need to study more of these great high achievers.” This expectation to do more, I never thought I was going to stop but now I realize people are watching, so it's interesting.

I tell all these people, “I am not interested in what I can google about you. I don't need to have this conversation with you. I want to know what it took to get there.” To me, that is fascinating. I realized that all of the extreme high achievers who I've studied and written about in the success factor all had the same four elements. I'm honored that they trusted me with those stories you can't google.

What it was like for Zaza Pachulia, the two-time NBA Champion, to come to this country not even understand the tax rules and have to figure that out. We know him as the NBA Player, not as someone who came here as a “foreigner” and had to figure out tax rules. Who did he go to for help? Before he went to an accountant, he went to other players. Those were his people. You can't google that. That's what's so fascinating to me.

Not fitting in is an advantage because you don't have to fall on a particular path. You can create your own path by doing it your own way.

What I think about what this book is going to do is allow you to open up the door to even more depth of what else is out there. This is like an entryway to further exploration. That's what's interesting about writing a book like this.

I think you're right. I've interviewed my heart and my work started within the sciences. I have a lot of Nobel Prize winners, but I also have a lot of other physician-scientists in there that, if you're in the field, you have heard of. Even if you're not like Dr. Tony Fauci, which everyone has probably heard of at this point. There are a lot of his stories and his profile in the book as well. I also have the Olympians, the NBA player, some NFL players, and some Tony Award Winners. It would be nice to expand it to other fields as well because there's so much that we can learn from other fields while I have the undersecretary of the Navy. How great if we had other high-level military officials there? How great if we had some Grammy Award Winners there? When Thinkers50 said, “What are you going to do next?” Maybe that's what I'll do next.

You're focusing a lot on people that I would assume have deep expertise in one area, but then there are a lot of people who say like, “It's better to have a portfolio and a range that goes across multiple disciplines.” That way, you're more like a polymath. What are your thoughts around that to go deep versus wide?

You want to be an expert. They were all experts in one thing, but here is the important part. They were experts in one thing but they surround themselves with people who are experts in other things. It doesn't matter what award, accolade or recognition they may get, they will always seek out help, advice, guidance and mentorship from other people. They will never say, “I have all the answers.” They were always looking to learn more. In fact, that's one of the four elements. It’s always learning continuously through informal means. One of those ways is having a team of mentors, so they will surround themselves with a team of mentors.

One of the stories in the book is Dr. Chris Walsh, who was at Harvard Med. He said he needed to learn molecular biology for something he was working on. He was a big deal in his field. Do you know who the best molecular biologist was around him? Somebody who finished school two years earlier. He said, “That person knows more than I do.” He went up to that person said, “Teach me everything you know.” That's what he did. They're not afraid to say, “I'm the senior person. I know everything.” They will go to that person and that's what makes them so successful.

Right there, that's the price of admission for us to say, “We have to get this book.” You have to get this because this is why it's important to understand the factors that made these people successful. You'd imagine that they're wired to say like, “I'm the expert in the field,” but experts don't have to know what all.

That's right. In fact, they never know it all, but they surround themselves with people who know more than they do and are willing to teach them and not judge them. They're willing to do the same for others. All of these high achievers give back in some way. It could be a one-on-one or a one-to-many model, but they will all give back.

Dr. Charlie Camarda, who's an astronaut, he headed up engineering at Langley. He flew up on a shuttle after the Columbia tragedy. He went on the return to flight mission. When he retired from NASA, he started a foundation called Epic Education Foundation. He wants children and adults to understand that there are epic challenges. If we get these people together and think differently, we can solve these epic challenges. He is on a mission to reach people all over the world.

He has done these where he does these training. He has these ways that you get to learn from astronauts. He is giving of himself as he started this nonprofit to give back in some way because he said when he went on the return to flight mission, he was in the garage of his friend. They had to build something, and NASA said it wasn’t necessary. They said, “We think it is,” so they did it on their own time, their own dime in their friend’s garage.

They took it to space with them and they used it. It was because of that he said, “People need to fear not trying.” That was something that I found with all of the extreme high achievers. They feared not trying more than they feared failing. They felt they had to try. It was because of that fear, not trying more than you fear failing, and that helped them succeed each and every time. It should be like a t-shirt.

The next t-shirt design is going to be that. Bringing this back into your story. When did you ever feel like you were unsuccessful in accomplishing something that you wanted to accomplish? I want it to be a little vulnerable. I know that it's probably multiple times you'll think of, but share something where you stumbled, and you had to come back from that along your journey.

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Every day. How far back do you want to go? I think you asked me how I knew I was different. I want to tell you the story of how I started playing soccer in the fifth grade because it's very telling. This is a lesson. Now I realize it's a lesson from high achievers that when someone tells them no, all they hear in their head is not yet. They don't hear no. They hear not yet. What is the strategy I haven't thought of yet in order to get over this challenge? This is something I obviously learned through the research but looking back. There was something in fifth grade where I realized, “I did that.”

I grew up before we had separate boys' and girls' athletics. When I grew up in the fifth grade, the boys played soccer and the girls traded stickers. If you had those googly-eyed stickers, that's a hot commodity because they had moving parts. I was not interested in the high commodity sticker exchange. I wanted to kick a ball. I went up to the teacher and I said, “I want to play soccer.” He said, “Girls don't play soccer.” I said, “Okay.” This is before the internet. I went to the New York Public Library and I took out every single book that had pictures of girls playing soccer. I come to school, I put a 2 to 3-foot pile of books on his desk. I said, “I'd like to revisit the issue of girls not playing soccer because here I have evidence that they do.”

From that day forward, I played soccer. There wasn't a girls’ team, so I had to be on the boy’s team. They did not like that I was playing with them. I don't think so but they treated me like anyone else that I think made me better because I continued playing. All throughout high school, we did very well but that was part of it. If someone tells you, “No, you have a decision.” You could say, “Thank you,” or you can come back, strategize and say, “What is the strategy I haven't thought of yet? How can I implement that?”

There are a ton of stories in The Success Factor of people who have done that like Dr. Peggy Whitson, the former NASA Chief Astronaut, who had to apply for ten years before she was accepted as an astronaut. She became the Commander of the International Space Station, not once but twice, and became Chief Astronaut for NASA. She didn't get accepted the 1st time or the 2nd time. She had to apply for ten years. One of the astronauts who was interviewed how to apply multiple times never gave up.

I love that. The … yet, you have to add that to pretty much everything where people are saying, “No.” I always see that as like the lens that they're seeing the world through is their world, not yours. You have to always be careful not to subscribe to everyone else's views. Even when there is no precedent or you feel there's no precedent, you have to continue to push on and say, “I could be the first.”

That’s right. “Why not me?”

You brought us back into your childhood, which I love. It is a powerful one. As you got into your career further along, now you’re a Chief Learning Officer at Weill Cornell. Tell me more about what drives you now in terms of the work you're doing in that role.

I tell people, “I have the best job in the world.” My job is to make people successful. I am surrounded by high-achievers and high-potentials. My job is to think out the high-potentials and bring out their greatness, which is already inside of them, and say to them, “Why not you?” We get them to do that. We're in academic medicine. We find ways to do that in a way that fits within the academic medicine framework. What I do is I bring in Adult Learning Theory into all of these things every single day. People are writing in journals. They weren't used to writing and being able to have speaking engagements they didn't have before. They're thinking about things a little bit differently. It's the job to make people successful.

I think that one of the things that make it come alive is that you're not working with people who are going through these challenges where they're showing up and work on the next challenge of work, but they're doing things that are on the cutting edge.

It’s science and medicine. I am embedded within the Department of Anesthesiology who is at the front of the frontlines during the pandemic. I’m watching them do such great things. It’s fascinating to watch them come together as a team. I feel fortunate that I get to be around these people every day.

It’s truly amazing. When you look back at the journey you've been on and if you were to think about 1 or 2 things that you've learned about yourself, what would they be?

Do not find ways to retain those who don't want to be there. Rather, look at the ones who are outperforming everyone else.

I took a workshop with my friend, Ayse Birsel, who wrote the book, Design the Life You Love. She asks you this question, “Who are your heroes?” I put down my grandma. She was my hero. They said, “Why is she your hero?” I would explain that she went to pharmacy school at Columbia University. There were 13 women and 300 men in her class. She was maybe 5 feet tall with heels on. Fierce is an understatement. You weren't going to tell her what to do or how to do it. She was always fierce but feminine.

I said, “I love that.” Ayse said to me, “You know that's you, only taller. Those are your values. Those are the values that are so important to you. You don't want to be trampled on. You don't want people telling you what to do. You don't want to fit into a box because you don't ever want to be constrained like that.” I said, “I never thought about that.” This is what you've learned from other people.

You got stuck in these places. Even us who spend time helping other people to become more aware, we sometimes get lost in our own awareness and say, “Where does this come from?”

That's right, and I guess it’s in my genes.

I have one last question for you. This is a question I love asking because it gives me a real thought around where your thought process comes from. What are two books that have had an impact on you and why?

I read 70 to 100 books a year. Asking me to pick only two is hard, but I'll pick two different genres. One is an autobiography, not mine by General Ann Dunwoody. It's called A Higher Standard. Ann Dunwoody was the first female 4-star General in the United States. She wrote the book A Higher Standard. I wasn't an enormous fan of autobiographies but this one was so good. I read it twice because there are so many important leadership lessons. As somebody who has studied Adult Learning and leadership, and I read this long before I went to school, I thought it was incredible. That's a book that I recommend to a lot of people.

The other one is a book by two friends, Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. I didn't know that when I first read it. Marshall Goldsmith wrote the foreword to my book, The Success Factor. Marshall wrote the book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There. He teamed up with Sally, who is a women's leadership expert. They wrote the book, How Women Rise. There were lessons there that I thought were important. They basically gave us words to some of the mistakes we were making. They were overt and covert. We hadn't even realized that we were making many of these mistakes. Now that you've seen it, you can't unsee it. I found it important from a leadership perspective that I printed out the mistakes that women make. I had it laminated and I gave it to every woman I know.

That's great.

Now, I'm glad that Sally and Marshall are friends of mine.

First of all, I love the recommendations that you offered up because the first one I've not heard of but now, I'm intrigued. I want to do some digging around. The second one, Marshall and Sally were two luminaries in the field. I think ultimately, a book like that changed the game. I haven't committed it to memory but I've read the book. It was groundbreaking. It's what we needed to hear. I love that you brought that to the space because I want to mention it so far.

I could go on for a long time. I love readings.

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Me too. I can't thank you enough for everything you shared. I get the sense of your brilliance of what you're bringing in, but you're humble in the way that you do it. I think that's what's important. You have so much more that you're going to be sharing. The multitudes of what you're bringing out in the future. I can't wait to see where you'll go next. No pressure.

Hopefully, I'll be able to continue doing this work. As Marshall Goldsmith has taught me, you can have an ambition, which is time-bound. I was going to interview and research these many people by this timeline, but there's also an aspiration. What you are going to be doing for the rest of your life is not time-bound. You will never be able to reach everyone. That's what I'm working on.

It makes me think of this idea about the iceberg. You're only showing the tip of the iceberg at any given time, and that's scary and exciting at the same time because you don't even know who that is underneath that surface.

That's right. We will find out. We're peeling the layers of the onion.

Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing all your insights and your brilliance. How can people find out more about you? Where is the best place for people to reach out?

My website is RuthGotian.com. The book is called The Success Factor. Wherever you love buying books, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Walmart, Target, it's there, or you can go to RuthGotian.com/book, and there are links all over the world where you can get it.

I tell you now, anyone reading the show is going to run out and get that book if they haven't already. Many brilliant insights from the book, and I can't wait to read it.

Thank you. I'm excited. I'm excited for it to come to the world.

I want to thank the audience for coming on the journey. We'll see you later.

Thank you.

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About Ruth Gotian

VCP 161 | Success FactorBased on decades of research, I study the most successful people of our generation, including Nobel laureates, astronauts, and Olympic champions, in order to understand what they do when the world isn't watching. What did they do that ultimately put them in an elite class? How did they overcome failures?

I uncover the habits and practices of high achievers and teach them to others through my keynotes, coaching, and workshops. Known as a "mentor's mentor", I take pride in my ability to coach others to identify and then meet their overt and covert goals.

In addition to working with individuals, I help organizations achieve success by conceiving, designing, and launching innovative programs and redesigning and fixing underperforming ones.

I am fortunate to be recognized by the journal Nature and Columbia University as a leadership expert with a focus on professional ascension. I was recognized by Thinkers50 as one of the world's top management thinkers in 2021. My invited global lectures, published articles in such journals as Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Nature, Academic Medicine, Psychology Today, and Scientific American, national awards, and educational activities all underscore my ability to aid professionals strengthen their career development acumen. I draw great strength from helping others succeed, find, and develop their passion.

My academic background includes a bachelor's and a master's degree in business management and a doctorate in organizational/adult learning and leadership.

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