It’s a catchy title & I was intrigued. They added this little teaser: “Talent plays only a tiny role in your success; what really matters is what you do.”
Hmm, that sort of makes sense: If the most talented pitcher in the world never threw a pitch, he wouldn’t be successful. But when he does actually throw pitches, his talent certainly contributes more than a tiny amount to his success. On the other hand, a talentless pitcher could throw 10,000 pitches and still not succeed.
The allusion to a talentless success struck me as out of place for Harvard Business Review. It sounded strangely reminiscent of the R. Kelly formula for success, which is more typical of the motivational industry than the Harvard Business Review. I commented on the seductive vacuity of a talentless success in The Art of Demotivation.
The motivational industry’s formula for personal transformation generally begins with the assertion that an individual must have faith in himself. This step is so important that Norman Vincent Peale, one of the motivational industry’s most influential spokesmen, emphasized it at the very beginning of his motivational classic, The Power of Positive Thinking:
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy. . . . A sense of inferiority and inadequacy interferes with the attainment of your hopes, but self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement. . . . This book will help you believe in yourself and release your inner powers. (p. 1)
One would expect Peale’s prescription to be predicated upon the nature of the self being considered or the market value of their abilities, but that is not the case. It is the belief in self that is the key to success, not the self in which one believes. This is because the motivational industry takes as an article of faith that the self is a source of unlimited power and potential, and that success is simply a matter of nurturing the latent seeds of greatness that lie buried deep within the soul of every person. . . . After rekindling this long-discredited, counterfactual faith in themselves, the next step in the transformation is to “walk by faith” in their newly idolized selves by adopting a positive attitude. Motivational guru John Maxwell describes the centrality of one’s attitude to his eventual success with the following two propositions:
Resources – Right Attitude = Defeat
Right Attitude – Resources = Victory
If you take Maxwell’s formula literally, “resources” such as talent, intelligence, discipline, financing, and time are less important to success than having the right attitude. This idea is consistent with similarly rigorous motivational axioms such as “attitude determines altitude,” and that one has got to “believe to achieve.” Employees are drawn to this teaching because it seems to “play to their strengths” in a way that talent, intelligence, and discipline do not.
Had the Harvard Business Review resorted to motivational pabulum? Not quite, but the title is a bit misleading. They identify “successful people” as those who reach their goals. Now it’s true that successful people reach goals, but it’s not true that everybody who reaches a goal should be defined as “successful,” given the way we commonly refer to “successful people.” For example, I would not define a successful person as someone who lost 10 pounds, learned a new language, or quit smoking, even if those were their personal goals. Be that as it may, the post is interesting in its own right. There is plenty of research on the impact of goal-setting and the author, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, is a “rising star in the field of motivational science,” so I was interested to see what she had to say.
In her expanded HBR Single of the same title, she begins with
These are the nine things that successful people do—the strategies they use to set and pursue goals (sometimes without consciously realizing it) that, according to decades of research, have the biggest impact on performance. Scientific psychologists who study motivation, like myself, have conducted thousands of studies to identify and test the effectiveness (and limits) of these strategies. The good news is that the strategies are remarkably straightforward and easy to use. Reading this book, you will have lots of “Of course!” moments. Also some “Oh, I see, that makes sense,” and a few “Wow, I had no idea” ones, too. In the end, not only will you have gained some insight into all the things you have been doing right all along, but you’ll be able to identify the mistakes that have derailed you. (emphasis added)
The 9 things “successful” people do differently are as follows:
- Get Specific–It’s better to set specific goals like “lose 10 pounds” rather than general goals like “lose weight.”
- Seize The Moment To Act On Your Goals–Identify the temporal and situational conditions under which you will pursue your goals. It’s better to decide, “If I leave work by 5:30 I’ll go to the gym,’ than “I’ll exercise when I find the time.”
Before we cover the remaining 7 strategies, I would simply say that Dr. Halvorson conceives of goals very broadly. If someone had a desire to lose weight but had no plan to fulfill that desire, I would say their desire is not an actual goal. Therefore, it seems to me that the first two strategies involve turning desires into goals. And it certainly makes sense that one of the preconditions for reaching one’s goals is to have goals.
- Know Exactly How Far You Have Left To Go On Your Goals–It’s better to focus your attention on what you have left to do, rather than what you’ve already accomplished.
- Be a Realistic Optimist–Be realistic about the amount of time, effort, and persistence it’s going to take to reach your goals.
- Focus On Getting Better Rather Than Being Good–If you can’t do something that is instrumental to reaching your goal, focus on improving that skill or ability. If you want to be an engineer but you’re poor at math, you have to believe that you can acquire the requisite math proficiency and work at making incremental gains.
- Have Grit–Very simply, you have to persist in the face of difficulty.
- Build Your Willpower Muscle–Begin to practice self-discipline in other areas of your life. Self-discipline in one area increases one’s self-disciple in other areas.
- Don’t Tempt Fate–Don’t engage in self-sabotage by allowing small accommodations (e.g. just 1 doughnut) or over tax your capacity for self-control.
- Focus On What You Will Do, Not What You Won’t Do–It’s better to focus on the new things you’re doing to do to reach your goal (e.g. run 5 miles) than to ruminate over what you’re missing (e.g. happy hour).
In short, decades of research and thousands of studies by scientists have “discovered” that people who reach their goals set goals they believe are achievable and make practical plans to pursue them. In the pursuit of those goals, they monitor their progress and focus on what they have left to do. They avoid unnecessary, self-defeating obstacles, and when they encounter difficulty, they adapt and continue.
In contrast, those who don’t reach their goals have various levels of desire for achievements they may or may not translate into goals, and if they do develop goals, they may or may not believe they are achievable. Despite their desires, they are less likely to make plans to pursue of those desires. When they do make plans, they are less likely to monitor their progress, and when they do, they are more likely to declare premature victory when they recognize even modest gains. Moreover, they frequently engage in self-defeating behavior and give up on the pursuit of their desires if it is thought to be too difficult.
When I finished the essay it reminded me of something else I wrote in The Art of Demotivation:
Social scientists have declared themselves experts on almost every facet of social life, and they have spent enormous sums of both public and private money in their attempts to develop a thorough understanding of the obvious and the mundane.