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The Success Myth

What makes someone successful? The answer we give is usually wrong.

Quick: Think of a successful person. Someone who is really good at what they do.

Now, in a word or phrase, tell me why that person has been so successful. What makes them so good?

Obviously, I can’t hear your answer. But I’d be willing to wager that it had something to do with innate ability.

“He’s so brilliant.”

“She’s a genius.”

“He’s a natural leader.”

These are the kinds of answers people—particularly Americans—tend to give when you ask them why certain individuals have enjoyed so much success.

Pro athletes, tech whizzes, bold entrepreneurs, accomplished musicians, gifted writers: We marvel at their extraordinary aptitude, assuming they must have won the DNA lottery to be so good at what they do.

Deep down, many of us believe that the key ingredient to success is innate ability. So, naturally, we try to stick to doing the things that come easily to us, while avoiding wasting time and energy on the things that don’t. (How many times have you heard someone say “I’m just not a math person”? How many times have you said it?)

This would all be fine, if success really was all about innate ability.

But it isn’t. It isn’t even mostly about innate ability.

When you study achievement for a living, as I do, one of the first things you learn is that measures of “ability” (like IQ) do a shockingly poor job of predicting future success. Intelligence, creativity, willpower, social skill aptitudes like these are not only profoundly malleable (i.e., they grow with experience and effort), but they are just one small piece of the achievement puzzle.

So, what does predict success? Research tells us it’s using the right strategies that leads to accomplishment and achievement. Sounds simple, but strategies like being committed, recognizing temptations, planning ahead, monitoring your progress, persisting when the going gets tough, making an effort, and perhaps most important believing you can improve, can make all the difference between success and failure.

The problem with thinking that success is all about ability, is that it can lead to crippling self-doubt. When something doesn’t come easily, we assume that we “just don’t have what it takes,” and we stop trying. We close doors, robbing ourselves of opportunities to realize our full potential.

By contrast, studies show that people who believe that their skills and abilities can grow not only succeed more, but they also enjoy their work more, cope more effectively with challenges, and experience less anxiety and depression.

So the next time you find yourself thinking, “I’m just not good at this,” remember, you’re just not good at it yet.

For more science-based strategies you can use to reach your goals and get happier and healthier in 2012, check out Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals and Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

Trying to figure out where you go wrong when it comes to reaching your goals? Check out the free Nine Things Diagnostics.

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