The Seven Pillars of Success: John Donovan

I often read about highly successful people. They’re successful in a myriad of different ways–professionally, financially, physically, and in terms of popularity, family, networks, etc.

For the past few months, I’ve been trying to formulate the common traits that successful people seem to embody regardless of the type of success. I think I have them figured out, and there are seven of them.

In this new series on the blog, I’m going to tell the stories of people (some who I know well, others who I don’t) who I consider highly successful in some area of their life, and I’m going to go through each of the seven traits for those people. I think we all have a lot to learn from these people. (If you have anyone you’d like to recommend for this series, please contact me at

The John Donovan Story

In a way, John inspired this series. He’s a friend of mine who has gone through an incredible and inspiring physical transformation over the last year, and his story is worth sharing. Here’s John a year ago (this was taken before a year ago, but this is how he looked a year ago):

I’ve known John for about 8 years, and this is how I’ve always known him in terms of looks. Beyond that, John is quick-witted, extremely loyal, and an truly good-hearted person. His family’s heritage is Irish, and John embraces that heritage well beyond St. Patrick’s Day.

Here’s what John looks like today:

Again, this is about more than looks, but I wanted to start off with the physical transformation. Now let’s tell John’s story through the seven traits I mentioned above.

Courageous: It takes a lot of courage to admit to yourself that you aren’t who you want to be. A person can either structure their life around their limitations, or they can take control of their limitations and build the life they want. John is the latter type of person.

Even at 271 pounds, John wasn’t unhealthy in that he gorged on mountains of junk food.  But in retrospect, he realizes that he didn’t understand the relationship between the food that he ate and the shape of his body.  His physical activity was social, including some club sports.  But the recreational drinking associated with these clubs nullified much of the physical benefits of his activity.

But nonetheless, here he was, 6 months from his 30th birthday, and John knew he was overweight at 271 pounds. How did he know? Part of it was his big-picture perspective that his body and his lifestyle had shaped his body into something that was limited in the tasks it could perform. As John said in our interview, “[When playing pickup sports], usually I’d play a position that didn’t require me to run quickly or for an extended period. I didn’t want to set world records for speed. But I did want to be able to fly comfortably in an economy seat.”

The kicker came last January when John sat down on a friend’s porch swing and tore it right out of ceiling from which it was suspended. John could have blamed the ceiling or the swing, but instead he had the courage to realize that he was ready to make a change.

Action Oriented: Anyone can come up with a great idea or dream big. Successful people actually act on those ideas and dreams. And they don’t act a year from now or a month from now–they act today.

It’s worth mentioning that people can be action oriented in selective parts of their life, rather than their life as a whole.  John didn’t get a promotion and increase his net worth at the same time that he decided to go through this physical transformation. But he decided that action needed to be taken to improve himself physically.

John had tried to lose weight in the past and had been somewhat successful, but he hadn’t been able to keep off that weight. He knew he had to do something different this time.

So he called a gym and set up an appointment with weight-loss coach Charles D’Angelo. Charles had come highly recommended by a friend whose diabetic father had lost 100 pounds in the past year thanks to Charles’ guidance.

John says that aside from consulting with a coach, getting a gym membership this time was a big step. It was a new commitment, a key action in process of getting healthy. I doubt John will ever forget his first workout after getting guidance from Charles. Here’s a photo from right afterwards:

Focused: Early on, John set a goal and stuck with it. He wanted to weigh 200 pounds on his 30th birthday. John never took his sights off that goal, but he helped motivate himself with smaller goals. He had a new target weigh every 2 weeks.

Setting these smaller goals that would pave the way to achieving the overall goal is very important to this process.  Failing to meet one smaller goal was not catastrophic.   But failing to meet a few small goals over time meant a trend, and that new action would be needed to get back on track.

Devoted: Being focused is about the vision. Being devoted involves a willingness to carry out that vision, no matter the sacrifice. It’s a mindset that can be extremely difficult to achieve, but I think that’s simply how John’s brain works. He’s a creature of habit. So when he focused on his goals, he was devoted to the task at hand by sticking to the rules and guidelines that his coach gave him.

In a vacuum, devotion is a lot easier than real life. Without distractions, you could work out all day (think prison). But John wasn’t attempting his transformation in a vacuum. He had to deal with the challenges of seeing his friends go out for drinks or to a restaurant or seeing coworkers chow down on birthday cake every few days.

And yet John stayed utterly devoted to achieving his goals. I honestly don’t know if this is an innate trait or one that you can adopt–I think John is one of the fortunate few who have it in their DNA.

Patient: You can’t expect meaningful results overnight, not with anything. When you launch a new business, you’re not going to be a millionaire overnight. When you get married, you won’t have the perfect marriage from day 1. The same happens when you try to transform your health–it takes time.

Because there wasn’t much of a learning curve for John, it wasn’t long before he saw results. He lost 15 lbs in the first two weeks.  But every week didn’t see the same results.  He stayed focused and devoted to his goals whether nine pounds or four pounds.

Passionate: Passion doesn’t just ignite new projects and goals. In fact, a lot of people have that type of passion. Think about the last time you got excited about something big and didn’t follow through? I do that all the time.

The type of passion that truly successful people have is lasting passion. John has it. He reached his goal of 200 pounds in late May, but he still saw some things that he wanted to work on. He had the passion to keep going, to continue to move towards optimal health.

I’ve heard from a lot of people that one of the hardest things about losing weight is maintaining a healthy body after you’re reached your goal. John’s been working on that for over three months now, and he says he’s still learning. He says he’s like a colt talking his first steps in his new body.

And he’s not done. This surprised and really impressed me (it’s from the interview). John said, “I’ve never run a mile. So I’d like to run a 5K around April.” Becoming successful isn’t a one-time deal if you truly have that passion for the heart of what you’re trying to do.

Absorbent: The final category has to do with one’s willingness to absorb and remain open to new information. It takes a special talent to truly do this.

Honestly, I went into the interview with John with a goal in mind–after seeing what John did, I wanted to spread the message that anyone can make a significant change in their life merely by putting in the time and energy.

I no longer think that’s true.

I think that John is the type of person who can put his mind to something, stick with it, and achieve results. I don’t think everyone is like that. I think the key is that John opened himself up to new possibilities that he had never considered before. I’ve seen this absorbent nature in John for more than just becoming healthy–he embraces knowledge in many areas of his life.

As John says, “I didn’t use a quick fix, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any out there, especially if you only want to drop 10 or 15 pounds. But there is value in sweat equity. Because I had to sacrifice to get it, I think I value the change more than if I had taken a magic pill.”

I think that sums up the difference between John and most other people. And I don’t mean to slight or discourage the general populace. But think about one thing in your life you’d like to significantly change, whether it be your health, your wealth, your relationship status, anything. Would you rather work  at that thing for the next 6-12 months, putting in a ton of time or energy, or would you swallow the magic pill if you could achieve your goal instantly without any effort? I know I’d take the magic pill for most things.

But I also know that I wouldn’t take the magic pill for a few specific things, and that’s a sign that those are the things that I might care enough about to actually succeed in. I think that’s a good meter of success.

John, you’ve inspired and impressed me. Thank you for sharing your story with me and my readers, and I look forward to seeing your other successes–health and otherwise–in the future.