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5 Reasons Why Other People Are Less Successful Than You

People who make these five mistakes often don’t reach their potential.

Slidebot/used with permission
Source: Slidebot/used with permission

Let’s face it, not everyone is as prosperous as they would like to be. We are not all blessed with the creativity of Elon Musk, the athleticism of LeBron James, or the romance potential of Meghan Markle and England’s Prince Harry. However, not winning the genetic lottery doesn’t necessarily banish you to a life of malcontent and sorrow, yet some individuals deliberately settle for a lifetime of mediocrity. People often languish for years in thankless jobs and unfulfilling relationships, while achieving only marginal happiness at best. The question then becomes “Why do people tolerate complacency and stagnation in their lives despite having the power and ability to create beneficial change?” Motivation science reveals at least five reasons why people get stuck, mired in misery, and unwilling to dedicate effort toward improving their lives. If after reading each section below, you find yourself thinking “yup that’s me”… don’t fret. A reversal of fortunes can be attained by adopting the strategies that follow the symptoms described.

Reason #1 - Accepting the status quo

Unlike many Psychology Today readers, underachievers often lack intellectual curiosity or even worse, they believe that personal development is unnecessary and a sign of weakness. The apathetic individual may not realize that a quest for improvement is an admirable trait that shows you are willing to admit to yourself (and others) that you can improve. According to Nick Lowery, the legendary NFL Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame kicker, “We must allow ourselves to learn.” In other words, recognizing that we have developmental needs takes courage. Overcoming deficits requires focus, determination, and perseverance. Nick was on to something because according to neurological science believing we are superior to others gives us more than just a competitive advantage. Rebuking envy and jealousy release feel-good hormones and activate parts of the ventral striatum in the brain, similarly to receiving a meaningful financial reward (Takahashi, Kato, Matsuura, Mobbs, Suhara, & Okubo, 2009).

Slidebot/used with permission
Source: Slidebot/used with permission

According to Troy Higgins, a social psychologist at Columbia University, we approach life challenges in one of two ways: We either demonstrate a promotion focus and navigate life under the quest of amassing accomplishments and recognition, or we adapt a more conservative prevention orientation by shying away from situations that could result in failure. Promotion people are opportunistic, gregarious, and love adventure. They seek out authentic experiences to jumpstart their behavior and achieve results and are not shy about telling you what they can accomplish. Conversely, prevention folks are cautiously optimistic and tend to avoid potentially adverse outcomes. Prevention-oriented individuals show less risk tolerance and instead are motivated by psychological safety and security, evidenced by emotional calm and contentment. The prevention-oriented individual thrives when stability is likely, and negativity is under control. While both types of individuals can be successful, those who demonstrate a promotion orientation are often seen as thought leaders and entrepreneurs and generally describe themselves as being happier compared with their prevention-oriented peers (Cheung, Gillebaart, Kroese & De Ridder, 2014).

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Source: Slidebot/used with permission

Reason #2 - Questioning their ability to succeed

In the quest for success, only background knowledge and experience are more important than how we think about our capabilities (Lin-Siegler, Dweck & Cohen, 2016). When we fixate on what might go wrong, we are consumed with self-doubt and often will not learn as much or reach desired performance standards compared with displaying optimism. Unfortunately, negative thoughts about the self can lead to a vicious downward spiral. When we expect failure, we seek simpler tasks that often aren’t very meaningful. We also tend to invest less effort in the pursuit of goals because we don’t expect enough return on our effort outlay. The end result is that negativity results in accomplishing less. Compounding the problem, some people may subconsciously be their own worst critic by downplaying abilities even when those attributes actually exist. People who doubt their ability are less resilient in the face of obstacles, lack perseverance, and often abandon or downgrade goals when they encounter difficulty.

No other motivation principle has as much rock-solid scientific evidence supporting it as the power of confidence beliefs. If we believe we have the intellectual horsepower, energy, and strategies to produce the results we want, we pursue our goals relentlessly. Believers take an active role in seeking out new opportunities such as finding a better job when necessary or abandoning a relationship that cannot be improved. The first step toward more confidence is to be honest and objective when making personal evaluations, a strategy I call the “Belief Hack.” Belief hackers see obstacles as challenges and motivational lulls as opportunities to recharge. They are more creative and resourceful when tackling a challenging task. Most importantly, belief hackers make appropriate choices and are not afraid of a challenge; they seek out the toughest courses and the most challenging careers, they respond well under pressure, and are frequently in better health than their self-doubting peers (Sheran et al., 2016).

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Source: Slidebot/used with permisson

Reason #3 - Using the same solutions regardless of the problem

Have you ever tried to kill a common house fly with a hammer? I surely hope not, because you would likely destroy whatever object or body part the fly was resting upon and you might not even kill the fly! While insect genocide is beyond my realm of expertise, I know that some people use the same solution regardless of the problem or situation. The range of habitual application affects a broad spectrum of human behavior beyond fly swatting. I recently witnessed a woman struggling for minutes trying to exit the gym where I exercise. She was using her key fob to activate the door release and then kept pulling on the door handle, repeating her actions at least five times. I gallantly approached her, hoping to impress her with my worldly exit strategies and PUSHED the door open. She was not impressed and swiftly retreated. The same anti-repetition principle applies to dealing with more serious issues such as negotiating a salary increase, gaining acceptance on a proposal, or attempting to land a job (how many of us have repeated applied for dozens of internet-listed jobs and received minimal or no response)? For each dilemma named and many more persuasive efforts, effectiveness is enhanced by defaulting to a broad repertoire of strategies and not operating under the assumption that if a solution worked for one problem, then it will work for another.

The practice of repeatedly using the same “go to” strategy is labeled “functional fixedness” by psychologists, a term that technically means the inability to consider using an object for any reason besides its intended purpose. I prefer to refer to this one-solution process as a “cognitive paralysis”, whereby the person is psychologically imprisoned, a victim of their own thinking bias, someone who is unwilling or unable to try a new approach. To overcome ineffective problem-solving habits and biased thinking patterns, individuals must first be aware of their futility and feel disgruntled with existing outcomes. When dissatisfied, revision usually occurs during a trial-and-error testing of different strategies until one approach is deemed sufficiently superior to replace existing methods. However, beware: a recurring and pervasive thinking flaw arises when individuals believe they are always right regardless of the topic or outcome, which happens when individuals try different approaches and evaluate outcomes in favor of existing opinions, not upon the actual results observed (Stanovich & West, 2008).

Reason #4 - Caring only about themselves

The prevailing U.S. culture places heavy emphasis on the importance of satisfying personal needs as a conduit for personal growth. However, success is not measured exclusively by our own achievements, attractiveness, wealth or position. In many cultures, personal effectiveness is determined by how you help others succeed. Many people assess themselves as empathetic and charitable, but their behaviors may conflict with their beliefs. Do you neglect to answer the doorbell on Halloween? Have you ever crossed the street to avoid being solicited by a homeless person? Do you sneak out of your grocery store, so you are not approached by the Girl Scouts selling cookies? If you answered “yes” to any of the questions, you are part of the 17% of the U.S. population that does not help others through financial contributions or the 35% who avoid volunteering their time in the service of others (Gallup, 2013). While our subjective well-being is of primary importance, there are surprising personal benefits to helping others who may be less fortunate than you.

Foremost, helping others satisfies the universal need for emotional connection (Correll & Park, 2005). Sharing creates social bonds with people who have similar needs and desires as our own. Second, many people report feelings of happiness, contentment, and satisfaction when participating in charitable and volunteer activities (Wegener, Petty, & Smith, 1995). In addition, helping and sharing are perceived as admirable and commendable qualities across cultures, races, and religions. Taken together, the key personal benefit gained by being kind and helpful is our mental satisfaction. Ultimately, helping others and sharing resources boosts self-worth. In other words, we get those warm and fuzzy feelings inside when we think we have acted appropriately according to the rules and customs of our culture.

Slidebot/used with permission
Source: Slidebot/used with permission

Reason #5 - Underestimating the mind-body connection

If there ever was a cure-all for personal problems and stress, it would probably be exercise, but the mind-body connection means much more than improving mental health by getting to the gym or taking a jog. Most people realize that exercise improves our cardiovascular, respiratory, skeletal, and neurological systems. Physical activity also mediates and prevents the onset of many psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and negative mood alterations (Ensari, Greenlee, Motl, & Petruzzello, 2015). In addition, studies show that existing deterioration in cognitive functioning and more can be improved by aerobic exercise. Remarkably, if you are a highly-functioning, clear-thinking, productive adult---exercise can stall or prevent cognitive decline often associated with aging, and even reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias (Blondell, Hammersley-Mather & Veerman, 2014).

The mind-body connection is so extraordinary that the human brain can be tricked into overcoming physical and psychological symptoms of disease. In a survey of physicians, researchers Rachel Sherman and John Hickman (2008) asked doctors questions concerning the use of placebos to treat a variety of conditions including gastrointestinal disorders, sexual dysfunction, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Almost half of the respondents admitted to prescribing placebos in a “situation where there was no evidence of clinical efficacy” (p. 7) for the drug prescribed. All most all the 466 doctors (97%) agreed to the statement that placebos “have therapeutic effects” (p. 9), despite the lack of medicinal ingredients in a placebo. While the study offered no recovery information, when we believe a drug is a cure, it often works. Placebos mediate symptoms of many debilitating conditions including Parkinson’s disease, some cardiovascular conditions, and respiratory illnesses such as asthma. The mind-body connection is so powerful that the brain releases the feel-good hormone dopamine based merely on the expectancy of recovery from a placebo (Wager & Atlas, 2015).

What does this all mean?

Taken together the information presented shows some of the self-restricting and debilitating behaviors that distinguish the up and coming professional from the people who fail to reach their potential. A regime of challenging the status quo, feeling confident about your abilities, considering and using novel strategies to solve problems, helping others and realizing the power of the mind to control the body can bring substantial benefits to the individuals who adapt and master the strategies described.


Blondell, S.J., Hammersley-Mather, R., & Veerman, J.L. (2014). Does physical activity prevent cognitive decline and dementia?: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. BMC Public Health, 14, 510.

Cheung, T. T., Gillebaart, M., Kroese, F., & De Ridder, D. (2014). Why are people with high self-control happier? The effect of trait self-control on happiness as mediated by regulatory focus. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 722.

Correll, J., & Park, B. (2005). A model of the in-group as a social resource. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9(4), 341–359.

Ensari, I., Greenlee, T. A., Motl, R. W., & Petruzzello, S. J. (2015). Meta‐analysis of acute exercise effects on state anxiety: An update of randomized controlled trials over the past 25 years. Depression and Anxiety, 32(8), 624-634.

Lin-Siegler, X., Dweck, C. S., & Cohen, G. L. (2016). Instructional interventions that motivate classroom learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 295-299.

Sheeran, P., Maki, A., Montanaro, E., Avishai-Yitshak, A., Bryan, A., Klein, W. M., ... & Rothman, A. J. (2016). The impact of changing attitudes, norms, and self-efficacy on health-related intentions and behavior: A meta-analysis. Health Psychology, 35(11), 1178-1188.

Sherman, R., & Hickner, J. (2008). Academic physicians use placebos in clinical practice and believe in the mind–body connection. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 23(1), 7-10.

Stanovich, K. E., & West, R. F. (2008). On the relative independence of thinking biases and cognitive ability. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 94(4), 672–695.

Takahashi, H., Kato, M., Matsuura, M., Mobbs, D., Suhara, T., & Okubo, Y. (2009). When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: Neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Science, 323(5916), 937-939.

Wegener, D. T., Petty, R. E., & Smith, S. M. (1995). Positive mood can increase or decrease message scrutiny: The hedonic contingency view of mood and message processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(1), 5–15.