Success Delusion


By Marshall Goldsmith

All of us delude ourselves about our achievements, status, and contributions. We overestimate our contribution, and take credit for successes that belong to others. We have an elevated opinion of our skills and our standing among our peers.

We ignore our costly failures and exaggerate our impact on net profits.

These delusions are a direct result of success, not failure. We get positive reinforcement from our past successes, and we think that they portend great things in our future. This wacky delusional belief instills us with confidence, however unearned it may be. It erases doubt and blinds us to risks and challenges, which isn’t all bad. If we had a complete grip on reality, we might be chronically depressed.

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But our delusions become a liability when we need to change. When someone tries to make us change our ways, we first think the other party is confused or misinformed; second, we go into denial mode, thinking that the criticism does not apply to us; and third, we attack or discredit the other party: “Why is a smart guy like me, listening to a loser like you?” Those are just the surface responses. You get even more resistance to change when you add the positive interpretations that successful people assign to their past performance, their ability to influence their success, their optimistic belief that their success will continue, and their sense of control over their own destiny.

Four Beliefs Hold Us Back Four beliefs that help us become successful can also make it tough for us to change. That’s the paradox of success: The beliefs that got us here may hold us back in our quest to go there. Let’s examine each belief:

Belief 1: I have succeeded. Successful people believe in their skills and talent.

Their mantra is this: “I have succeeded. I have succeeded. I have succeeded.” It’s their way of telling themselves that they have the skills and talent to win and keep winning. They edit out their screw-ups and failures and run the highlight reel of their successes. They focus on the positive, calling up images of performances where they dazzled everyone and came out on top. To them, the past is always prologue, and the past is always rose-colored. Successful people never drink from a glass that’s half empty.

When the team achieves great results, they tend to believe that their contribution was significant. This I have succeeded belief becomes an obstacle when behavioral change is needed.

Belief 2: I can succeed. This is another way of saying, “I am confident that I can succeed.” Successful people believe that they can make desirable things happen. They believe that through sheer force of personality, talent, or brainpower, they can steer a situation in their direction. They see opportunities where others see threats.

They’re not afraid of uncertainty or ambiguity. They want to take greater risks and achieve greater returns. They will always bet on themselves.

Successful people do not feel like victims of fate. They see success largely as a function of motivation and ability — not luck, random chance, or external factors.

They carry this belief even when luck plays a critical role. They insist that their good fortune is a payoff for hard work.

They believe that success is earned through their motivation and ability (even when it is not). They always link what they have done and how far they have come — even when no link exists.

It’s delusional. They assume: “I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!” Sometimes they are successful in spite of this behavior.

Belief 3: I will succeed. This is another way of saying, “I have the motivation to succeed — and I will succeed in the future. Successful people not only believe that they can manufacture success; they believe it’s practically their due. As a result, they tend to pursue opportunities with an enthusiasm that others may find mystifying. If they set a goal and publicly announce it, they tend to do “whatever it takes” to achieve the goal. That’s a good thing.

But it can easily mutate into excessive optimism. It explains why successful people tend to be over-committed. It’s difficult for an ambitious person with an “I will succeed” attitude to say no to desirable opportunities. Most executives are drowning in a sea of opportunity.

Their “I will succeed belief” can sabotage their chances for success when it’s time to change behavior.

Belief 4: I choose to succeed. Successful people believe that they are doing what they choose to do, because they choose to do it. They have a need for self-determination. The more successful we are, the more likely this is to be true.

When we do what we choose to do, we are committed. When we do what we have to do, we are compliant.

I have now made peace with the fact that I cannot make people change. I can only help them get better at what they choose to change. Getting people who think “I have chosen to succeed” to say “and I choose to change” is not an easy transition. The more we believe that our behavior is a result of our own choices and commitments, the less likely we are to want to change our behavior.

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Success Makes Us Superstitious

These four success beliefs — that we have the skills, confidence, motivation, and free choice to succeed — make us superstitious to some degree. And, the higher we climb the totem pole, the more superstitious we become.

Superstitious behavior comes from the mistaken belief that a specific activity that is followed by positive reinforcement is actually the cause of that positive reinforcement. The activity may be functional or not — it may affect someone or something else, or it may be self-contained and pointless — but if something good happens after we do it, then we make a connection and seek to repeat the activity. We repeat certain behaviors when we believe money and recognition will come our way because of it.

Superstition is merely the confusion of correlation and causality. We tend to repeat behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement. The more we achieve, the more reinforcement we get. So, we wrongly assume, “I behave this way, and I achieve results. Therefore, I must be achieving results because I behave this way.” This belief is sometimes true, but not always.

What got us here won’t necessarily get us there. Some success happens because of our behavior, and some success comes in spite of it.

Almost everyone I meet is successful because of doing many things right, and successful in spite of poor behavior. My challenge is helping leaders see the difference between because-of and in-spite-of behaviors, and avoid the superstition trap.

Pick a quirky or unattractive behavior that you do — something that annoys friends, family, or co-workers.

Does this behavior help you achieve results? Or is it one of those in-spite-of behaviors?

We All Obey Natural Law

People will do something — including changing their behavior — only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their own best interests as defined by their own values. You can’t force people to work together. You can’t mandate synergy. You can’t manufacture harmony. You also can’t order people to change their thinking or behavior.

In order for me to get you to do what I want, I have to prove that doing so will benefit you in some way, now or later.

Every choice, big or small, is a risk reward decision where your bottom-line thinking is, “What’s in it for me?” This natural law is the force that gets squabbling rivals to cooperate – it’s the only way each of them can get what they want. It’s the force at work when people swallow their pride and admit they were wrong. They’ll do it if it’s the only way to put the trouble behind them and move on. It’s the reason people will turn down a better paying job because they sense the new situation will not make them happier.

Without this natural law, getting successful people to mend their ways would be impossible.

What keeps you coming back to work day after day? Is it money, power, status, or popularity, or is it something else? If you know what matters to you, it’s easier to commit to change. You’ll only change your ways when what you truly value is threatened. LE

ACTION: Choose to change.

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