Think About What You Boast


July 6, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

Even bona fide high achievers tend to exaggerate their accomplishments, unintentionally distorting their assessment of their own performance.

“What have you done lately?” Ask just about anyone this question and you’ll probably find the answer to be more fiction than reality. It’s one of the biggest mistakes high achievers make: overestimating our contribution to a success, thus crediting ourselves with an achievement that does not belong to us. For instance, when was the last time you participated in a team effort that was recounted by your colleague as a one-man show?

This erasure of co-workers from the picture is a blatant mistake. But high achievers find other ways to exaggerate the glory of our achievements. We think that our actions are going to blast the company into mega success, resonating around the world, when in truth they may prove a step in the right direction but little more than that. How often has a colleague given you a detailed, blow-by-blow account of a meeting, a sale, or an interview, while you stand there politely listening, thinking to yourself, “So what? Are you kidding yourself?”

Another way we kid ourselves about our achievements is to dig back as far as possible into the past for any accomplishment we can find, even one that happened so long ago it isn’t relevant anymore. The result when we relay this “achievement” is that we sound as if we are clinging to the past or, worse, haven’t done anything important in a long time. And the opposite also has a negative effect. We may relay our most recent achievement as if it has more significance because it is fresher on our minds. Psychologists call it “recency bias.” It’s for this same reason that a gambler doubles her bet at a blackjack table if she’s just won a few hands. She’s overweighing the feeling of good luck because she just won, but her odds of winning haven’t changed. It’s tempting, almost irresistible, to gravitate to the nearest example at hand to calculate our achievements, but it may not embody the most meaningful representation of our abilities.

Testing Your Achievements

Remember this as you establish what you have done lately, and apply a stress test to each achievement by asking yourself:

• Is this what happened or am I filtering it through some inflexible personal preconception or belief?

• Am I exaggerating my role in the achievement?

• Am I discounting other people’s contribution?

• Am I going too far back in time, so the achievement is no longer credible, and it’s just old?

• Am I attaching too much weight to a recent event simply because I remember it more vividly than an older event?

Chip away at the false assumptions that distort your achievements and you’ll get a much clearer picture of what you’ve done lately. Without that clearer picture, you’ll never be able to envision everything else you can do.

By increasing our understanding of achievement—what it means to us and what it means to the world—we can look at ourselves more objectively. We can determine what really matters in our lives. We can strive for achievement that really matters to us and let go of achievement that does not create happiness and meaning in our lives. And we can either change the degree of our achievement (how well we are doing) or change the definition of our achievement (what we are trying to do well).