The qualities that made you successful can actually hold you back.

In your own entrepreneurial life, have you achieved a certain level of success, then hit a plateau?  Do you spend most of your time putting out fires or sitting in meetings? Does your head hurt? R

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve likely hit what I call the “crystal ceiling.” 

What is the crystal ceiling?

We’re all familiar with the “glass ceiling” — the metaphorical barrier that limits promotions, based on gender, race, creed, color, or sexual identity.  It’s called a glass ceiling because you can see the next level but something is stopping you from reaching it. 

The “crystal ceiling,” on the other hand, represents those less obvious psychological and economic factors that stop successful people from advancing.  

If you’re one of these people, you can see what life is like beyond the barrier, at the highest levels of success, but the picture is a bit distorted.  As would occur if you looked through an actual crystal lattice, you’re unclear about what you’re seeing and, figuratively speaking, what you should do to reach the next level.

Even more puzzling to those struggling to break the crystal ceiling is the belief that they have the same attributes as those at the next rung of success. But the truth is, the very qualities they relied on to reach their current level of success are now holding them back.

Here’s how this plays out in an entrepreneur’s experience.

Ceiling No. 1: a solid work ethic 

The problem with a strong work ethic is this: If you are merely “doing the work,” your success will eventually be stunted. 

It’s true that hard work, a solid education, commitment to a career and dedication to executing necessary tasks can help take you to the top 1 percent of earners.  The irony is that you have to abandon many of these skills to get to the top 0.1 percent.  

As Georgetown economics professor Axel Anderson, said to me for my book, 6 Secrets to Leveraging Success: “Absent a lot of luck, or a professional sports contract, you can only get so far with labor.” 

If you want to double your income and earn your first million, you can’t just do 1,000 more surgeries or buy six more franchises. There are limitations on your time. There are are also diminishing returns on your efficacy of management when you increase your number of locations or the size of your staff, not to mention limitations on the financing a bank or investor will offer.  

A client, friend and former business partner of mine, Lawrence Anderson, M.D.,understands leverage.  As a practicing dermatologist, he built the largest dermatology practice in Texas. In 2013, he realized that he couldn’t continue to grow the practice on his own. 

So, using the financial and professional resources of multiple private equity firms, his U.S. Dermatology Partners grew to 200 board-certified dermatologists practicing in 95 locations. One of these locations, in Tyler, Texas, actually shattered the crystal ceiling becoming the largest physician-owned dermatology practice in the country.  

How do you overcome the limitations of work? Supercharge your success by transforming someone else’s problem into your solution.

Many years ago, I personally owned a doctor-focused financial firm.  It was difficult to market to practicing physicians because they were busy seeing patients and had gatekeepers who opened their mail, answered their phones and kept them very well insulated. 

What did I do? I found medical publications that needed content to support their advertising revenues.  After dozens of medical journals published my articles, more than 15,000 doctors contacted me, asking for financial advice. I was able to transform those publishers’ content problem into my lead-generation solution.   

Here’s a more recent example. I sit on the board of Demand Lighting, an innovative LED lighting company in Austin. The company’s strategy is to partner with a manufacturer of water-efficient toilets. A questionable idea? Think again.

The toilet company has already saved its customers money by reducing the expense of water (a utility). Once that problem was solved, the toilet company had nothing else to sell — until my company offered a referral fee to offer their clients a “bright” way to save on still another utility bill. This win-win scenario cost me nothing.  

So, do what I did: When you ask who else needs to connect with your clients and what else your clients might need, you’ll see a creative way to get other people to help you solve your problem — without costly staff or advertising

Ceiling No. 2: wanting to “fit in” 

You may have been able to sell customers, convince investors or inspire employees by being relatable. However, this admirable quality can actually limit your success.  

Why? Innovation is done on a unicycle — not on a bus!

You can’t expect to be an outlier financially, while being “just like everybody else.”  You are going to have change how you look at yourself.  

The first key to shift your mindset is to “Stop being beige.” This principle comes from celebrity designers Roger + Chris who say, “When you ask a group of people for a color [for a wall or a couch], they always end up with beige. Nobody loves it. Nobody hates it. It’s safe. It’s uninteresting.” 

How do you avoid beige in your business? Stop asking for group consensus and follow your vision. Advice is valuable, but consensus will be detrimental to innovation. And innovation is the key to wild levels of success.

You’re in charge. What’s your favorite color?

Ceiling No. 3: Playing fair 

Emmanuel Saez won the John Bates Clark Medal in economics for his portrait of income inequality in the United States. His research showed that the average annual income of the bottom 90 percent of American families was $34,000.  Undoubtedly, these families have precious little disposable income to spend. Saez also reported that the top 0.1 percent earns more than $2 million per year, with an average annual income of approximately $4 million. 

Where do those above the crystal ceiling make this money?  There are a few monolithic exceptions, like Wal-Mart, which makes money by marketing to the masses. The vast majority, however, make their money from the top 1 percent — those just beneath the ceiling. Yes, you.  

How do those in the top 0.1 percent do it?  They don’t cheat, but they do take advantage of every advantage they have:  

  • Owning businesses that employ the 1 percnt. Hard-working high-earners are paid well while they contribute to the success of the their bosses. The 1 percent rarely earn and save enough to start their own competing ventures.  
  • Investing in businesses owned by the 1 percent. When the 1 percent do start businesses, where do they get the capital?  Absent a few crowd-funding ventures, most money comes from more successful people. Most small business owners must pay very high loan rates, or give up equity in order to fund their growth. 

This view is supported by Saez’s research. He found that the top 1 percent earn 14 percent of their total income from investments, while the top 0.01 percent earn 68 percent from investment income.  It may not take money to make money, but it does take money to make a lot of money.

Change Your perspective. Change your outcome. 

If your income is six figures, and you earned it yourself, you should be proud.  You’ve already beaten the odds and achieved more than 99 percent of the country has. 

But, if you want more, you have to face the facts. The fact that you’ve hit the crystal ceiling is not a result of negligence, but staying there will be the result of ignorance.  

Stop focusing on “doing” the things that made you successful in the first place, and instead look for ways to leverage your time, your knowledge or the efforts of other people. 

Only after you have changed your vision from working to leveraging can you crack the crystal ceiling and reach the highest levels of success.  

Ready to break through? This book is the hammer:

[This article first appeared in Entrepreneur Magazine]