Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members


We are all familiar with corporate executives that have put in the hard work to climb the corporate ladder. Intelligent, multi-faceted, and even charismatic, they seem destined for the top. And yet, only a few of them ever scale the pinnacle of their industry. This strange, yet all too common phenomenon, is one that was brought to the fore by highly sought-after executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, who enunciated how the finest of nuances are all that stands between some and greatness. As we rise up the ranks, we erroneously believe that what got us this far will stand us in good stead in the future, but nothing could be further from the truth, for historical performance is not always indicative of the future.

I have succeeded

As Goldsmith evocatively explained, the one mantra he seems to see as common to them all is an almost unshakeable belief that they have succeeded, and why not? After all, their talent, skills, and know-how have got them this far in life, but what of failure? Just as failure doesn’t always come your way, so too success is not a given. One has to then stoke the fires of competitive spirit by learning from failure as much as one learns from success.

And this is true of everyone. No one likes to playback the blooper reel from their lives, but everyone loves to relive their personal highlight film. That call that sealed the deal; that dazzling presentation that floored everyone; the insightful comment that made everyone pause for thought; the uncovering of that one tiny detail no one else thought to look for. No matter the setting, the story remains the same. Everyone likes to ride off into the sunset as the hero of their own personal success story.

Of course, nature has a purpose behind this. Were it not for this self-perception, we might not see a reason to attempt much of anything. Successful people always see past successes as prologues to their next string of victories. Goldsmith recounted a tale of a major league baseball player who keeps in mind the pitchers he scores off at will, taking the confidence from past battles into the next ones. Interestingly, the same athlete talked of drawing from successes against other pitchers when lining up against pitchers he hadn’t done as well against. This demonstrates an important point about successful people: they use their past successes to support their positive attitude even when the data suggests they’re due for a fall. Successful people drink from a cup that’s half full.

There’s nothing wrong with this attitude. Winners show it all the time. But as positive as this belief can be, it also becomes a serious obstacle when someone has to make major behavioral changes.

I can succeed

Successful people believe that they can make anything happen. When pressed they will admit that they cannot bend a fork in the next room with the sheer power of mind. But when it comes to business, they believe they can tip the tables in their favor through force of their own will, talent, skill, personality, or brainpower.

Sometimes in sports, certain players like Michael Jordan would demand to get the ball at a crucial instant. Other players after the game say, “I’m glad they gave it to him. I wouldn’t have wanted it in a situation like that.”

This is the essence of self-efficacy. The successful person says, “I see an opportunity, not a threat. I enjoy uncertainty. I love to take a smart risk. I like large risks because there are larger returns when I win.” Whenever they can, they bet on themselves.

Notice that the word “luck” appears nowhere. Successful people have a high “internal locus of control.” They believe they are captains of their ships and masters of their destiny. Fate affects other people. Successful people drive toward the goal using motivation, natural ability, and usually hard work— but never luck, random circumstances, or other externalities. An inveterate lottery player might win big, but it is also why we often read of them going bankrupt too. There really is no substitute for hard work.

I will succeed

“I have succeeded” refers to the past. “I can succeed” refers to the present. “I will succeed” refers to the future. Not only do successful people believe they can manufacture success, they believe it’s practically due to them.

Consequently, successful people often pursue projects for reasons that mystify everyone else. They set a goal, publicly announced their intention, and then do “whatever it takes” to win. That’s good. But this same attitude and easily mutate into an excess of optimism. It’s often said, “if you want something done, give it to someone who is busy.” Successful people are busy, and that’s where they expose themselves to the danger of over-commitment.

Often, after a major success at the workplace, people wish to associate themselves with you and your success. Quite logically, they think that since you pulled off one huge score you can pull off many more. Opportunities appear at a dizzying pace, and in due course, if you’re not careful and over-commit, you will be overwhelmed. That which made you rise will bring about your fall.

I choose to succeed

Whatever successful people do, they believe they act in everything a matter of choice. The more successful they are, the more likely you’ll find a high need for self-determination. Choosing what we do is commitment. Doing what we have to do is compliance.

Simply put, people do not stumble across success; they choose it. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get people to connect “I have chosen to succeed…” with “…and I choose to change.” It is human nature to resist change, and it requires turning down that primal urge. The stronger our belief that our behavior results from our own choices and commitments, the weaker is the desire to change our behavior. The reason for this is one of the best-researched principles in psychology. Cognitive dissonance refers to the difference between what we believe and what we see or experience in real life. A simple fact underlies the theory. The more we commit to the belief that something is true, the less likely we are to believe that its opposite is true, even if overwhelming evidence shows us that we are wrong.

For instance, if you believe someone to be frivolous, you will filter all of their actions through the prism of that belief. Even when proven otherwise, you will believe it to be the exception rather than the norm. That’s cognitive dissonance at work, and at the workplace or beyond, it can be disruptive and unfair. But it’s everywhere. Yet when successful people apply cognitive dissonance to themselves, it actually works in their favor. The stronger our belief and our commitment to the truth of something, the less likely we are to accept that its opposite is true, even when the facts show we may have taken the wrong direction. That’s why successful people don’t crumble or waiver when the going gets rough.

Thanks to their commitment to their goals and beliefs, they view reality through rose-colored glasses. In many situations, that’s their salvation. Their deep personal commitment gives other people the courage to stay on their mission. However, by the same coin, this same dedication can torpedo successful people when the time comes to change their tack.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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