18 People Whose Extraordinary Work Ethic Got Them To The Top

For these people, work is life itself.

Kobe Bryant looking at us
FlickrKobe Bryant
By Max Nisen

It's easy to look at successful people and explain their achievements as the product of luck - being in the right place at the right time or being born with extraordinary talent. But there are many people who get lucky in one or both of those ways that don't go anywhere.What distinguishes the merely talented from the truly great is drive - the willingness to get in earlier, stay later, and do more than everyone around them.

Whether it's staying up until 2 a.m. while working another job like Mark Cuban did to learn software or personally following up on customer complaints like Jeff Bezos does, many of the most successful people worked incredibly hard on their way up and continue to do so today.

If you find yourself about to hit the snooze button again or dragging in the middle of your workday, look here for some inspiration.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban didn't take a vacation for seven years while starting his first business.

Pacers Mavericks Basketball (Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban during an NBA game in Dallas on March 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Mike Fu
AP Photo/Mike Fuentes
At first glance, Cuban's amazing success looks like a stroke of luck. He sold his first company at the peak of its value and got into technology stocks at exactly the right time.

Cuban writes on his blog that it took an incredible amount of work to benefit from his luck. When starting his first company, he routinely stayed up until 2 in the morning reading about new software, and went seven years without a vacation.

Petrobras chief Maria Das Gracas Silva Foster's work ethic earned her the nickname "Caveirao," slang for the armored vehicles used by police in Brazil.

FT Women at the Top 2011
The current head of Brazilian Oil Giant Petrobras spent her childhood in a favela collecting cans to pay for school. She started as an intern in 1978, but quickly became the company's first female head of field engineering.

Bloomberg reports that her tireless work ethic has earned her the nickname Caveirao, for the armored vehicles police use to clean up crime ridden Brazilian neighborhoods.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' high school classmates gave up when he decided he wanted to be valedictorian.

AMAZONS TRIP (Jeff Bezos, founder, CEO and chairman of Amazon.com, stands with one of the company's trademark door-desks at thei
AP Photo/Andy Rogers
Bezos always had a relentless work ethic. A former classmate told Wired that once Bezos had made it clear that he intended to be high school valedictorian, "everyone else understood they were working for second place."

The early days at Amazon were characterized by working 12-hour days seven days a week, and being up until 2 or 3 in the morning to get books shipped.

Now that Amazon's a giant, Bezos personally emails teams about customer service issues and has them present directly to him about how they're going to solve them, according to an excerpt from Brad Stone's upcoming book.

Apple CEO Tim Cook routinely begins emailing employees at 4:30 in the morning.

Apple Maps Apology (In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012 photo, Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an introduction of the new iPhone
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Steve Jobs left incredibly big shoes for Cook to fill. However, the man got the top job for a reason. He's always been a workaholic, and Fortune reports that he begins sending emails at 4:30 in the morning.

A profile in Gawker reveals that he's the first in the office and last to leave. He used to hold staff meetings on Sunday night in order to prepare for Monday.

Nissan and Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn flies more than 150,000 miles a year.

Wikipedia Commons
Carlos Ghosn runs two of the world's largest automakers, which should tell you something about his work ethic. A profile in Forbes describes how Ghosn works more than 65 hours a week, spends 48 hours a month in the air, and flies more than 150,000 miles a year.

His turnaround of Nissan is the subject of many case studies. Within a month he deployed a system that completely changed ingrained practices, helping save a company many thought irredeemable.

Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-Shing became a factory general manager by age 19.

Wikipedia Commons
One of the richest men in Asia and a dominant figure in Hong Kong's economy, Ka-Shing started outworking everybody as a teenager en route to building a $21 billion empire.

By age 15, Ka-Shing had left school and was working in a plastics factory. He told Forbes how he quickly became a salesman, outsold everybody else, and became the factory's general manager by 19. In 1950, he started his own business and did almost everything, including the accounting, himself.

NBA legend Michael Jordan spent his off seasons taking hundreds of jump shots a day.

Indiana Pacers v Charlotte Bobcats
Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images
Jordan had prodigious physical gifts. But as his long time coach Phil Jackson writes, it was hard work that made him a legend. When Jordan first entered the league, his jump shot wasn't good enough. He spent his off season taking hundreds of jumpers a day until it was perfect.

In a piece at NBA.com, Jackson writes that Jordan's defining characteristic wasn't his talent, but having the humility to know he had to work constantly to be the best.

WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell is a legendary workaholic whose employees can expect emails at any hour of the night.

Cannes Lions 58th International Festival Of Creativity - Cannes Debate Seminar
Francois G. Durand/Getty Images
The chief of advertising giant WPP is described by the Financial Times as a "notorious workaholic and micro manager." His typical workday begins at 6 a.m. and never seems to end.

A former client described sending Sir Martin a message while he was in a different time zone in the earliest hours of the morning. Sir Martin responded almost immediately.

Venus and Serena Williams were up hitting tennis balls at 6 a.m. from the time they were 7 and 8 years old.

London Olympics Tennis Women (Serena Williams, left, and Venus Williams of the United States smile wave from the podium after re
AP Photo/Elise Amendola
The Williams sisters, who have dominated women's tennis for years, were all but raised on the court.

From an extremely young age, their lives were, as described to the New York Times: "Get up, 6 o'clock in the morning, go to the tennis court, before school. After school, go to tennis." The Williams family was built around propelling the two towards success in the sport.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg balances one of the most varied and busiest lives of anybody in business.

Wikipedia Commons
Sandberg's famous for leaving work at 5:30 to eat dinner with her husband and spend time with her children. But according to a recent Fortune piece, that doesn't mean she ever slacks off. She frequently gets into work at 7 in the morning, and once her kids are in bed, a non-stop flurry of emails continues late into the night.

Any one of the things Sandberg does would be impressive and take an incredible amount of work on their own. In all, she's the highly successful and influential COO of a multi-billion dollar company, a massively successful author, and one of the most recognizable advocates in the world for women in the workplace.

American Idol host Ryan Seacrest hosts a radio show from 5 to 10 a.m. and runs a production company while appearing seven days a week on E!

American Idol Premiere Event (Ryan Seacrest attends the American Idol premiere event at Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA, Wednes
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Seacrest told the New York Times that even as a young child, his goal was to be a "a classic iconic broadcaster." He's moved towards that goal by taking on a preposterous workload.

In addition to hosting "American Idol," Seacrest appears seven days a week on E!, hosts a daily radio show from 5 to 10 a.m., appears on the "Today" show, runs a television production company, and recently received $300 million in private equity funding to acquire more businesses.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer routinely pulled all nighters and 130-hour work weeks while at Google.

Taiwan Google (Google Inc. Vice President Marissa Mayer speaks to foreign and local media during a press conference  in Taipei,
AP Photo/Wally Santana
Mayer is known for her incredible stamina and work schedule. She used to put in 130-hour weeks at Google, and told Joseph Walker that she managed that schedule by sleeping under her desk and being "strategic" about her showers.

Even people critical of her management style acknowledge that she "will literally work 24 hours a day, seven days a week." That paid off with one of the biggest jobs in technology.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz continues to work from home even after putting in 13-hour days.

Starbucks Shareholders (Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz speaks at the annual Starbucks shareholders meeting Wednesday,
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Schultz must be a frequent consumer of his company's products to maintain his frenetic schedule. Since returning to turn around the company, he gets into the office by 6 in the morning and stays until 7 at night.

Schultz continues talking to overseas employees even later at night from home. He also goes into the office on Sundays and reads emails from his thousands of employees on Saturdays.

Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay's workouts are so intense that others can't make it halfway through them.

Wikipedia Commons
The Cy Young award-winning pitcher is one of the hardest working man in baseball.According to Sports Illustrated, he routinely puts in a 90-minute workout before his teammates make to the field.

His former pitching coach told SI that when other pitchers attempted one of his workouts, none of them could complete half of it. His pre-game preparation is so intense that he had a personal entrance card to his former team's training facilities.

GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt spent 24 years putting in 100-hour weeks.

India GE Wipro (Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of General Electric (GE) Jeffrey R. Immelt looks on at a press conference i
AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi
A 2005 Fortune article on Immelt describes him as "The Bionic Manager." The article highlights his incredible work ethic, saying he worked 100-hour weeks for 24 years. Immelt strictly divides that time, devoting a specific portion of each day to deal with every part of his business.

All of that comes after a 5:30 a.m. workout, during which he's already reading the papers and watching CNBC.

Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant completely changed his shooting technique rather than stop playing after breaking a finger.

Kobe Bryant looking at us
Nobody in basketball drives their body harder than Bryant. Aprofile in GQ describes how he has changed his shooting technique repeatedly rather than take time for dislocated and broken fingers.

When growing up outside of Philadelphia,ESPN describes how Kobe would spend his free time endlessly practicing jump shots in the park. The Lakers staff finds him doing the same thing at their practice facility at all hours of the day and night.

Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi worked the graveyard shift as a receptionist while putting herself through Yale.

Indian CEOs (** FILE ** PepsiCo President and CEO Indra Nooyi addresses her first ever press conference in India, in New Delhi,
AP Photo/Manish Swarup
Now of the most powerful and well-known women in business, Nooyi worked midnight to 5 a.m. as a receptionist to earn money while getting her Master's at Yale.

In an interview for a speakers series at Pepsi, she describes coming in to work every day at 7, rarely leaving before 8, taking home bags of mail to read overnight, and wishing there were 35 hours a day in order to do more work. She did all of this while raising two young daughters.

JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon spends his weekends preparing to grill employees on Monday.

Jamie Dimon (JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon is interviewed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Friday, July
AP Photo/Richard Drew
Though tarnished lately by the London Whale scandal, Dimon has been one of the most successful bankers of the past few decades.

The New York Times reveals that Dimon spends his weekends working through piles of reading and putting together a list of questions with which to grill employees on Monday.Fortune reports that his life is spent almost entirely on work and family, and his one hobby is listening to music.

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Amazing conclusion by Dr. Browne. First he apparently does not subscribe to Martin Luther King's dream. You know the one where color does not matter, character does. The highest barrier in the world has now been broken. We have a man of color as President. When will the people of color stop differentiating by color and start differentiating by content of character? I too, am a man of color. My color is white. Despite being a man of color, I don't get any special favors. No tax benefits. No welfare payments. No free health care. No free cell phones, No preferential consideration for housing, No business loans paid for by the government, you know, the one I work so hard to pay taxes to so they can be spread around to those who don't. I just want to know when minorities will stop crying, "I am a victim" and instead just go for it, and accept the risk along the way? If your answer is never, we have been permanently and irreversibly harmed, then answer this: Why am I not justified in demanding benefits from the harm my ancestors suffered when Alexander the great enslaved and murdered them? Ridiculous you say? Since apparently your position is that there is no time limit on crying "foul", the white people owe us and must keep paying us back for that harm, why can't I claim the same thing? You and I both know the answer. It is not about being a man or woman of color. It is about being a man or woman of the wrong color, -white. Don 't misunderstand me. I hate racism. I hate predjudice every bit as much as you. I also hate reverse discrimination. I will agree there are still racists in America. But be honest and answer this question: What % of white Americans are still prejudiced and hate blacks, just because they are black? Now reverse the question and ask "What % of blacks are prejudiced and hate whites just because they are white? When 99% of blacks vote for a man they know nothing about, just because he is black, that is certainly blatant prejudice. No candidate in history gets 99% approval with nothing behind the vote except race. Now we as Americans are paying the price for this blind allegiance to color. So far, based on what I see, this blind allegiance has done nothing for your people. George W Bush has been far kinder to the black people of this country than Barack Obama ever will be. You may have hated him because he had standards higher than just buying votes. You as a "man of color" should feel insulted when you realize how little Obama thinks he can buy your peoples support for. And he is correct. It costs almost nothing. Just give them a cell phone or government subsidy and they will line up for miles. Like the you tube lady who said she was voting for Obama because he gave her a phone and was going to take care of her out of his "stash". As long as you contine to cry victim, your people as a whole will never rise to the caliber of people you described in this article. Sure, there will always be a few. Why not set your sights higher?

October 16 2013 at 8:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Good article. The one comment I have is about Jeff Immelt. It's great he works 100 hour weeks but I always thought, as Jack Welch said, It's about the results.

October 16 2013 at 2:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dr. Browne

Interesting article. I have enjoyed your contributions however, I was disappointed to see that only sports figures were named for people of color-with Hallady as being wildly successful in business. There are many wildly successful people of color doing business. Just to name a few there is the President of the United States President Obama, President of Ariel Investments Mellody Hobson, Linda Johnson President & CEO of Johnson Publications, and others. I'd love to write an article on this same subject without a lean towards ball players only. No offense they have done well but give us more variety as we are a people of variety in color, talents, and business. One last comment, there really should have been a working mother, that job is 24/7 and a business all it's own. Thanks for your time. You can reach me at brownej777@aol.com to write the article.

October 16 2013 at 1:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes and you shall be satisfied with bread - Proverbs 20:13
Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise...How long will you sleep, O sluggard? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: so shall thy poverty come... - Proverbs 6:6-11

October 16 2013 at 12:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There is a certain amount of natural skill involved also. I'm a 911 operator here in a large city of 400,000 in Southern Californa and certain aspects of this job simply can't be taught. Most aspects can be taught and prospects can be trained but there certain instincts that some people have and some don't. Conversely, I think parenting is one of the hardest and thankless jobs on this planet and I know I probably couldn't do it.

October 16 2013 at 9:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Got news for ya, a single mom working min wage and two jobs works way harder.....hittiing the "top" is achieved by luck and circumstances and these female CEO's have tons of household staff....

October 16 2013 at 8:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't care how hard these guys work, they can't hold a candle to a busy working mother. Unfortunately, most of the work is unpaid.

October 16 2013 at 6:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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