What makes a successful person successful? Is it single mindedness, focus and determination? Or maybe there is a bit of luck involved? I recently had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Frank C. Worrell, Professor of School Psychology in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, about his career as a school psychologist and his plans as president-elect of the American Psychological Association.

Throughout the conversation he often mentioned life lessons he had learned during his career and I noticed a theme emerging: Follow your heart and your passion, never lose sight of what is most important to you, take risks and be flexible.

Below are the four tips I found most helpful. I hope you can learn something from them too!

Want to learn more? You can keep up with Dr. Worrell on his Facebook Page or on Twitter. You can also read more about how he became interested in school psychology here.

1. Take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.

So often we develop a plan for our lives. That is what “responsible” people should do, right? Sometimes this road map is so precise, though, that it can be hard to see the opportunities hidden in the off ramps and back roads. Dr. Worrell says that many of his greatest opportunities have come to him through serendipity… and the flexibility to recognize fortunate chances.

“I study talent development,” he says, “and one of the things we’ve discovered in interviewing successful people is that a large number of people are where they are because of some fork in the road where something unexpected came up that they had never considered and they just followed it.”

He goes on to emphasize that this “is one of the most important bits of advice you can follow. You need to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves.”

2. Follow your passion and maintain a broader experience.

Another characteristic we often assign to successful people is focus. Focus, and by extension, self denial. If you want to be a clinical psychologist, for example, you may be told to put away your frivolous hobbies and focus on your studies. But what would you lose if you ignored your passions?

Dr. Worrell has always found joy in both music and poetry. He conducts the UC Berkeley choir and even recorded a piece for the university’s virtual commencement this year.

“I think that sometimes we are so focused on the career itself that we forget the larger piece,” he says.

“In fact, one of the greatest funny things for me is that I think my being president-elect of the American Psychological Association is due in part to music. In 2014, the then president of the APA wanted to involve the arts in her presidency. I was on the APA council at the time and she asked me if I would start a choir for the council. I did and we continued to perform and that gave me a visibility within the council. I think it helped to get me onto the Board of Directors because then I ran for the board and the council are the ones who vote.

“I was certainly able to use the music metaphor of bringing things together in harmony as part of my campaigning for president last year.”

3. Make wherever you are your home.

Following passions or forks in the road may sometimes feel a bit bumpy. You may end up somewhere you didn’t expect or take on career changes that move you in a new direction. One thing to remember is to always do what you are doing, no matter how insignificant it may seem at first, to the best of your ability.

Dr. Worrell’s career has followed an interesting path. He’s been a teacher, school principal, professor, administrator and executive leader (just to name a few). When I asked him which he enjoyed most he just said, “I think you need to make wherever you are your home.”

“I enjoyed being a teacher. I enjoyed being a principal. Each of them has their different sets of challenges and I think what’s been most useful to me is that when I make my current position my home, then I can really learn from that experience and take that knowledge with me when I move on to a new role.

“I trained as a school psychologist, but being a principal and teacher gave me insights into that side of education, so then as a practicing school psychologist I had a better idea of the limitations the teachers and administrators face that I might not have understood otherwise.

“As a school psychologist I was trained in consulting, active listening and those kinds of things. Well, so being a leader, as in my role as APA president, those skills are going to be very important when I’m working with people and supervising others. I would say what I have tried both in my personal and professional life to always embrace the role I’m in and try to do to the best of my ability and get as much out of it as I can.”

Dr. Worrell tells this really memorable story about something his mom said when he was seventeen:

“I’m driving and my mom and her friend are in the back seat. My mom’s friend says to her, ‘So what do you want Frank to be when he grows up, what do you want him to do?’

“I’m sitting there and rolling my eyes, but my mother said something that I have never forgotten. She said, ‘You know, I really don’t care what he does. He needs to do something that he likes to do, but when he does it, he needs to do it well. So that if you and I are walking in the Capitol one day and you say to me, oh my goodness, look at this street, look how clean it is. I can say to you with pride, my son cleans this street.’

“Now that’s all fine, but I remember thinking, yeah, if I say I want to become a street sweeper tomorrow you’re going to be okay with that, right? But as I got older the message made more sense and I understand it now in a way that I did not understand when I was seventeen years old.

“I get it now that what she was saying was always do what you’re doing as if it is the most important thing. And always remember that cleaning streets may open doors to you doing something else that you never thought you’d get the opportunity to do.”

4. It is your time to be a superhero.

Dr. Worrell said something in very simple terms, but with such conviction: “We are in tremendous distress as a nation.”

It’s true. And who do we turn to when we are in mental or emotional distress? When we are having trouble relating to each other or processing difficult issues in our lives?

“When there’s a burning building, firefighters are running in. When our country is in danger, our soldiers are going to fight. The nature of the challenges that we are facing now as a nation, to a large extent, are psychological.

“Psychologists are the ones who are supposed to be able to do mediation on these kinds of things. If we are actually to end racism and discrimination, we are not going to do that by calling out and embarrassing and shaming. We’ve got to welcome in everyone and talk and converse. There’s a role for us as psychologists in the workplace and in the schoolyard. This is a time for us to get people to recognize that one can disagree and not be disagreeable.

“As a psychology student, this is the field you’ve chosen, so this is your time to be a superhero.”