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How 50 Top Ballers Define Success

The smartest, richest, and winning-est men reflect on life at the top.

Success means different things to different people. Being able to write a massive check may mean victory for one guy, while a great sense of fulfillment may be enough for another. Herewith, we've pulled together personal thoughts on success from 50 ultra-high-performing men—actors, athletes, moguls, and more—who have found plenty of prosperity in their own lives, each with their own understanding of what it means, and what it takes, to win. And for more inspiration to lead your best life, read our column The Fast Track by Strauss Zelnick, the world's fittest CEO.

1. Richard Branson: Businessman, Investor, Philanthropist

"Too many people measure how successful they are by how much money they make or the people that they associate with," Branson writes on LinkedIn. "In my opinion, true success should be measured by how happy you are." For more wisdom from Richard Branson and others, see here. 

2. Mark Cuban: Businessman, NBA Owner, TV Personality

"To me, the definition of success is waking up in the morning with a smile on your face, knowing it's going to be a great day. I mean, I was happy and felt like I was successful when I was poor, living six guys in a three-bedroom apartment and sleeping on the floor. I was going to work hard to get somewhere, but I was having fun." For more from Mark Cuban, here's the childhood fight that changed his life. 

3. Leonardo DiCaprio: Actor, Producer, Activist

"I've been very lucky to have achieved a lot of the things that I dreamt of achieving as a young man. But, at the end of the day—and I truly believe this—it is not about achieving great wealth or success. Because they don't bring happiness ultimately. They really don't. What matters is whether or not you've fulfilled the idea of having led an interesting life, whether you've contributed in some way to the world around you." For more from Leo, here's why he once passed on one very iconic role. 

4. Denzel Washington : Actor, Director, Producer

"Success? I don't know what that word means. I'm happy. But success, that goes back to what in somebody's eyes success means. For me, success is inner peace. That's a good day for me."

5. Michael J. Fox: Actor, Activist

"There's an idea I came across a few years ago that I love: My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance and in inverse proportion to my expectations. That's the key for me. If I can accept the truth of 'This is what I'm facing—not what can I expect but what I am experiencing now'—then I have all this freedom to do other things."

6. Matthew McConaughey: Actor

"How do I define success? For me, it's a measurement of five things :  fatherhood, being a good husband, health, career, friendships. These are what's important to me in my life. So, I try to measure these five each day, check in with them, see whether or not I'm in the debit or the credit section with each one. Sometimes my career is rolling (in the black) but I see how my relationship with my wife could use a little more attention. I gotta pick up the slack on being a better husband, get that one out of the red. Or say my spiritual health could use some maintenance (red) but hey, my friendships and social life are in high gear (black)… I gotta recalibrate, checks and balances, go to church, remember to say thank you more often. I gotta take the tally." For more great quotes from McConaughey, read about the one fight he couldn't back down from. 

7. Warren Buffett: Businessman, Investor, Philanthropist

"Basically, when you get to my age, you'll really measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you. I know people who have a lot of money, and they get testimonial dinners and they get hospital wings named after them. But the truth is that nobody in the world loves them. If you get to my age in life and nobody thinks well of you, I don't care how big your bank account is, your life is a disaster." That said, here are the principles on which Buffett earned his considerable fortune. 

8. LeBron James: Professional Athlete

"You can't be afraid to fail. It's the only way you succeed—you're not gonna succeed all the time, and I know that."

9. Jack Ma: Businessman, Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group

"We are born here not to work, but to enjoy life. We are here to make things better for one another, and not to work. If you are spending your whole life working, you will certainly regret it." For more great advice on work-life balance, here's Strauss Zelnick's top multitasking secret. 

10. Mark Zuckerberg: CEO, Facebook

"The question I ask myself like almost every day is, 'Am I doing the most important thing I could be doing?' Unless I feel like I'm working on the most important problem that I can help with, then I'm not going to feel good about how I'm spending my time."

11. Jeff Bezos: Founder and CEO, Amazon

"[Success is a] cumulative effect…I always tell people, if we have a good quarter it's because of the work we did three, four, and five years ago. It's not because we did a good job this quarter."

12. Jimmy Fallon: Host of NBC's The Tonight Show

"There's always going to be someone out there like that movie critic, who doesn't believe in you or who thinks your head is too big or you're not smart enough. But those are the people you need to ignore, and those are the times you need to just keep doing what you love doing."

13. Cristiano Ronaldo: Professional Athlete

"I see myself as the best footballer in the world. If you don't believe you are the best, then you will never achieve all that you are capable of."

14. Elon Musk: Founder and CEO, SpaceX; Co-founder and CEO, Tesla

"When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor."

15. Sean Parker: Tech Entrepreneur

"You just keep pushing yourself harder and harder to achieve more and more — I don't think it's ever quite as glamorous as it appears on the outside."

16. Stephen Curry: Professional Athlete

"No matter what it is, whether it's sports, whether it's in other fields, you have to realize that there's always work to do and you want to be the hardest working person in whatever you do and you'll put yourself in position to be successful." And for fatherhood advice, follow Curry on Instagram—as he's one of our 50 Best Accounts for Dads.

17. Stephen Colbert: Host of CBS's The Late Show

"So if you must find your own path, and you are left with no easy path, then decide to take the hard path that leads you to the life and the world that you want."

18. Kobe Bryant: Future NBA Hall of Famer

"I learned a lot from other people's journeys growing up, from watching them and what they went through and what they learned. And I think there's true power in that, in understanding other people's journey so that you can create your own."

19. Larry Page: CEO of Alphabet, Inc.; Co-founder of Google

"I think it is often easier to make progress on mega-ambitious dreams. Since no one else is crazy enough to do it, you have little competition. In fact, there are so few people this crazy that I feel like I know them all by first name." Speaking of Page, here are ten things you didn't know about Google. 

20. Usain Bolt: Professional Athlete

"I am lucky that I have a lot of natural talent, but my success is all down to hard work. I could run under 10sec now even if I didn't really train, but to win medals it's all about training on the track, working hard in the gym and improving my technique." You should also read about the time Usain Bolt hooked up with a Brazilian fan at the Rio Olympics.

21. Eric Schmidt: CEO of Google

"All success starts from doing one thing really well, but you'll recruit better with a broader vision so you can sell the dream."

22. Jerry Yang: Co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo

"If you find something that feels right but doesn't seem to fit into your vision of master plan, take a chance, and commit to it by working hard. You shouldn't be afraid to let passion get behind the wheel—you might really love where you end up. To quote Robert Lewis Stephenson, 'Sit loosely in the saddle of life.'"

23. Kevin Durant: Professional Athlete

"And just know that I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the hard work and the dedication and the love and passion that I have for this game. So they can appreciate the grind and how much I sacrificed."

24. Tom Brady: Professional Athlete

"I think that at the start of a game, you're always playing to win, and then maybe if you're ahead late in the game, you start playing not to lose. The true competitors, though, are the ones who always play to win." For more wisdom from Tom Brady, here's how he conquered his early career struggles.

25. Jay-Z: A Business, Man

"I'm hungry for knowledge. The whole thing is to learn every day, to get brighter and brighter. That's what this world is about. You look at someone like Gandhi, and he glowed. Martin Luther King glowed. Muhammad Ali glows. I think that's from being bright all the time, and trying to be brighter." And we've got even more life tips from Jay-Z here.

26. Michael Dell: Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Dell Technologies

"You don't have to be a genius or a visionary or even a college graduate to be successful. You just need a framework and a dream."

27. Michael Jordan: NBA Hall of Famer; Owner and Chairman, Charlotte Hornets

"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

28. Daniel Radcliffe: Actor

"It's mainly about working hard and proving to people you're serious about it, and stretching yourself and learning. The mistake a lot of actors make, particularly young ones, is allowing themselves to feel that they're the finished articles, the bee's knees, and it's not true."

29. David Beckham: Former Professional Athlete

"I never do anything half-heartedly. I will continue to work hard and play hard and do everything I can to be successful, whatever I do. I want to be the best. I think it's a good way to be."

30. Roger Federer: Professional Athlete

"When you do something best in life, you don't really want to give that up—and for me it's tennis." And good news Federer fans, here are some of the tennis titan's longevity secrets. 

31. Kevin Plank: CEO and Chairman, Under Armour

"Success doesn't happen quickly. It happens from doing the same thing over and over, becoming great at it, and delivering great value to consumers."

32. Jared Leto: Actor

"You have to be really good with your time. You have to be incredibly focused on what's important, what the priorities are." And these days, Leto is certainly successful enough to be one of the coolest men over 40.

33. Ryan Seacrest: TV and Radio Host

"I'm completely impatient. It's one of the reasons I manage to get stuff done all the time. I like things to get done quickly. Also, I haven't had a lunch meeting in 10 years. I never stop for lunch or waste time traveling to a lunch meeting."

34. Justin Bieber: Pop Star

"Success is getting to continue to perform for years to come. It will eventually mean a wife and family."

35. Brad Pitt: Actor and Philanthropist

"Get into something that's really personal that means something to you, where you have something to say and is something really individualized. I wish I was more aware of that then instead of doing a few things I was told would be good for me. And they weren't, because it left me empty, so I didn't do a good job anyways. I think that's what's key to what we do: It's got to be personal." For more life tips from Pitt, here's how he conquered depression once and for all. 

36. Dwayne Johnson: Actor, Future POTUS

"Success isn't overnight. It's when every day you get a little better than the day before. It all adds up." Now, read about the football coach who helped Johnson better himself. 

37. Chris Evans: Actor

"In my life, what I've learned is that no one can tell me what happiness means, you know a lot of times you base your level of success or happiness on truly what other people think of you, and how other people view your journey. But that's no one else's business. I guess for me it's been realizing how little Hollywood truly matters, you know what I mean?" You could also learn a lot from Evans about success in the weight room.

38. Ryan Reynolds: Actor

"I've always worked as hard as I possibly could, sometimes to my own detriment in my personal life. So for me, willpower and discipline are synonymous." And speaking of Reynolds, here are his most underrated movies.

39. Bill Gates: co-founder of Microsoft; Richest Man in the World

"Warren Buffett has always said the measure [of success] is whether the people close to you are happy and love you…It is also nice to feel like you made a difference — inventing something or raising kids or helping people in need."

40. Tom Hanks: Actor

"Success is gossamer, it's luck." And any Hanks buffs should check out our interview with his son Colin. 

41. Robert Pattinson: Actor

"If you get early success there's always this part of you which feels like, 'I need to address the imbalance, I need to kind of earn that success after the fact.' I try to find roles that are hard and also, I still find now, even after I've done loads of really random movies, directors are really surprised that I want to play the parts that I want to play. They just assume that you want to only do the honorable good guy lead who saves the day or dies at the end."

42. Jamie Foxx: Actor

"What's on the other side of fear? Nothing. Meaning, either you do or you don't, but there's no penalty. There's no reward. It's just be yourself… People are nervous for no reason, because no one's going to come out and slap you or beat you up." Also, read about the time Foxx rescued someone from a burning car.

43. Ashton Kutcher: Actor, Tech Investor

"The sexiest thing in the entire world is being really smart. And being thoughtful and being generous. Everything else is crap. I promise you. It's just crap that people try to sell to you to make you feel like less. So don't buy it. Be smart. Be thoughtful and be generous."

44. Jim Carrey: Actor

"You are ready and able to do beautiful things in this world, and as you walk through those doors today, you will only have two choices: love or fear. Choose love, and don't ever let fear turn you against your playful heart."

45. Tom Cruise: Actor

"I'm a good listener. I think it's the one characteristic that's most important. I've always been that way. Not that I take all the advice, but you've got to listen to it and have the courage to make your own decision. Then I just go for it. The important thing is to be relaxed in your work. Same in life. Don't make everything too intense. Then you can let everything go and not 'act.'" And for the record, Cruise's box-office success is almost certainly set to continue with the "Top Gun" sequel.

46. Larry Ellison: Executive Chairman and Chief Technology Officer, Oracle

"I'm addicted to winning. The more you win, the more you want to win."

47. Omar Epps: Actor

"Whatever art form you're working in, it's crucial to see it clearly, to feel it clearly, and not to worry about the results, or how someone else will see it. If I see it clearly, that's what it should be."

48. Bradley Cooper: Actor

"The goal is not to succeed. The goal is to grow."

49. Mark Wahlberg: Actor

"It's all about hustling, whether it's in Boston or the film industry. I've been hustling my entire life – acting my way into trouble and acting my way back out again. I'm just fortunate to have had the opportunity to apply it in a different direction." Wahlberg is also no stranger to success on the golf course.

50. George Clooney: Actor

"I was 34 before [fame] hit. And I'd failed a lot. And having failed a lot I understood how lucky success was. Because it's not just about your brilliance. Luck has a huge hand it in. I think the reason why a lot of young people are such screw ups, oftentimes they didn't have the luxury I had of forming important relationships and opinions and life experiences before having success." And congrats to Clooney on his wife successfully giving birth to twins.

Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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