How Believing You Will Be Successful Leads to Success..or Not

If, like me, you watch ‘The Voice’ or ‘Dragon’s Den’ or ‘(Insert Country you live in here) Idol’ or any similarly painful and joyful reality TV show, you will have heard competitors proclaiming that they won because they had ‘absolute faith’ that they would win.

Ben Gulak after being given $1.25 Million by the Dragons said, ‘If you really believe in something, keep going after it. If you want it badly enough there is always a way. You can make your dreams come true’

But if you watch a few of these shows you might also notice that there are hundreds of people with ‘absolute faith’ that they would win and most of them don’t end up the winner.

(Be warned  – this clip is painful to watch. Mary Roach who said ‘I want this so bad, there is no way I am not going to get it‘ and then gets a dose of reality.)

and sometimes it is actually the person who is a bit doubtful about how good they are who wins:

(The deeply vulnerable Karise Eden, winner of The Voice Australia, singing with her mentor, Seal.)

So what does this mean?

Believing you will succeed can help you to set challenging goals and persist in the face of difficulty which does increase your chances of success. But if you fuse with the belief that you will succeed and treat it as the absolute truth then you aren’t open to feedback. You don’t even notice subtle feedback and you respond to more direct feedback with defensiveness and anger. Which means that you can’t learn, improve or change tack. So you are actually less likely to succeed.

What is a better plan?

  1. Be clear about what values you want to express as you go after your goal. Notice the moments when the desire to win pulls you away from being the person you want to be. Then pause and breathe and come back to living your values. For Karise it looks like she has some deeply held values around singing from her heart; opening herself to the vulnerability of connecting with her own pain as she sings.
  2. Make a plan that gives you the best shot at success. Do some research. Have other people succeeded at something similar? What did they do?
  3. As you progress seek feedback and adjust your plan as you get more information.
  4. Have some clear ideas about how long you will persist. What sacrifices are you willing to make and what sacrifices aren’t you willing to make? What will you use as a marker to tell you it is time to quit and move on to something else or that it is worth persisting some more?

And remember, the goals that are most likely to lead to emotional wellbeing are about connection, curiosity and kindness.  So perhaps you don’t have to win ‘The Voice’?

Using ACT in Career Change

Why do bright, motivated people get stuck in their careers? I’ve spent the last 10 years or so thinking about the issue and working with people who are stuck in this way. I write about this in my other blog, Headstuck. I find ACT is useful for people who are stuck because it helps them not only get unstuck but to move forward with purpose in a direction they choose. ACT liberates people.

I put together a presentation on this and it struck me that it might be of interest to readers of this blog.  Hope you enjoy!

How to Pitch an Idea (or, How ‘Dragon’s Den’ Relates to ACT)

Dragon’s Den is a show where budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a group of successful business people in the hope of winning some investment.

The show fascinates me. I love spotting academic theories about influence and negotiation being played out in real life. The show also demonstrates how more psychologically flexible entrepreneurs tend to be more successful in their pitches. Professor Frank Bond has done some cool research at the BBC to support this idea.

There seem to be a few key principles if you want to get the approval of the investors.

1. Consider the perspective of the investors (Why would they want to invest? What will they gain?); potential customers (Why would they buy?) and competitors (How easy would it be for them to steal my idea?). Perspective taking is a key aspect of psychological flexibility.

2. Hold ideas like ‘This is a brilliant idea and I am going to be incredibly successsful‘ lightlyFusing with these sorts of thoughts seems to increase the risk of throwing good money after bad and doesn’t seem to convince others.

3. Understand the difference between solid, real world facts and what your mind is telling you. Others find facts much more convincing than your opinion. Smart business people consider the facts (Sales figures, profits, awards won) when they make decisions.

4. Learn to perform well even when you are feeling incredibly anxious. This is a great strength of the ACT approach. ACT teaches people how to perform even when they are feeling strong emotions. Rob and I have a course on this.

5. When you are having an important conversation – really listen to what the other person is saying. Get present with them and give them your full attention. Be open to their feedback and also be willing to give them facts that might change their mind.

6. Know your values and live those values in the interaction. You then come across as vital, authentic and trustworthy (assuming those are your values!)

7. Know how this ‘pitch’ fits with what you want your life to be about. Is this a drive to make money or does it connect to something deeper?

7. Demonstrate willingness. What are you prepared to do to make your idea successful? Live on very little money? Work hard? Face rejection? Acknowledge what you don’t know and ask for help?

Here is someone who nailed it – sadly he completely misses the reason he nailed it.

Effective Decision Making

Sometimes we have to make important decisions where the ‘right’ answer is unclear. I would like to suggest this process for making for those tricker decisions:

1. Which of your values are relevant in this situation?

2. What are the key facts? In this step aim to see the world the way it really is rather than as your mind tells you it is.

3. What is the relationship between the facts – how do they interact?

4. Focus in depth on different parts of the problem (whilst keeping the whole in mind). Take different perspectives – how would others view this problem? How will you view this problem in 5 years time?

5. Consider that there may be a better alternative that you haven’t thought of. Ask for advice. Do some research. Brainstorm. Consider trialling different options and observing how they turn out.

6. Be prepared to sit either with the discomfort of not deciding or with the discomfort of deciding and possibly making the wrong decision. See if it possible to have those difficult thoughts and feelings without them pushing you around. 

7. Make a decision and then check it against your values – is this a move towards what you want your life to be about?

6. Observe the outcome and be prepared to make incremental adjustments. Again, work to see the world as it really is – rather than how your mind tells you it is.

This process draws on Roger Martin’s work on Integrative Thinking

I think he has developed a great model and adding in connection to values, defusion, perspective taking and acceptance make it that bit better!

Rob wrote a great post on the costs of making decisions without any connection to values.

Who runs your life?

In this brilliant TED talk, Daniel Kahneman talks about the tensions between our experiencing self and our remembering self.

Daniel Kahneman – The Riddle of Experience v Memory

He says that our memories of the past inform our expectations of the future and determine our decision making.

The problem is that our memories are inaccurate. We fail to notice so much of what is happening in the present moment. Our memory of whether we enjoyed something is overly influenced by how the last few minutes of the experience went (Kahneman explains that it is the last minute of a colonoscopy that determine how we view the experience – good to know!). Each time we tell the story of what happened (even just to ourselves) we unconsciously slightly change the story.

Daniel Kahneman suggests that this causes us a significant problem. Our remembering self forces our experiencing self  to do things that aren’t really in our best interests. We work to earn more and more money (even though, once we are comfortably off, it won’t make much difference to our happiness). We spend our money on long, expensive holidays (even though a longer  holiday doesn’t actually make us much happier than a shorter one). We avoid doing what matters (calling Grandma; expressing our view in a meeting; doing our exercises) because our memory of the last time we did it suggests it will make us feel bad.

So how do we manage this tension? How do we make wise decisions?

The research evidence is growing that a helpful approach is to:

  • Hold the stories our remembering self tells us lightly – sometimes they are useful and sometimes not so much.
  • Clarify our values (what we want our life to be about) and then use them to guide our decision making.

Fairness is a Double-Edged Sword

In my work as an Executive coach I usually ask my clients to take the VIA Character Strengths test. The test gives you a list of your top five character strengths or ‘values in action’.

I have observed that strengths can be a double-edged sword. We can overplay certain strengths to our detriment.

For example, those who rate ‘Fairness, Equity and Justice’ in their top five can find that their determination to be ‘fair’ to others means that they can have a tendency to carry too large a workload.

The wisest response to these issues seems to be to dig a little deeper into what ‘fairness’ is. 

Carol Gilligan described three levels of ethical development;

  1. Focus on the self – making sure that my needs get met.
  2. Focus on the well being of others – a desire to do good through self-sacrifice
  3. A focus on ‘nonviolence’  – do not hurt others or self

The first two stages are easier perspectives to make decisions from – is it all about me or all about you? However, the third stage, where both my needs and yours need to be considered is a much more complex decision making situation.

What can help here is a to look at the decision from some different perspectives:

  1. The perspective of the future you – If you repeatedly make this decision, what will your life be like in 10 years time? Is that what you want?
  2. The perspective of a wise person – What would a wise person do?
  3. The perspective of an observer – If someone watched all your choices what would they say were your values? What would they think your life stood for?

Your Three Selves

Stop for a moment and think about who you are….

In response to this question most of us come up with a list of statements about ourselves, perhaps some memories; some labels about the roles we play; some values; our beliefs about our personality: I am a mother; I am a business woman; I am a gardener; I like chocolate; I am kind; I am lazy; I am messy; I have a Derbyshire accent….

We develop these ideas about ourselves throughout our lives but particulalry in childhood – who we are, what we like; what we dislike. These stories we have about ourselves are important because they help us to maintain some sense of self coherence. However, if we treat these self descriptions as true, fixed and unchangeable then they can limit us. It is helpful to hold these self-descriptions lightly. One term to describe this aspect of the self is ‘the conceptualised self’.

There is another aspect of self. This is the part of us that watches what is happening in each moment. The part of us that can notice our thoughts, feelings and actions. Research on mindfulness suggests that if we can learn to observe our thoughts and feelings with openness and curiosity we can make better decisions, perhaps because we get better at noticing our thoughts and feelings rather than being unconsciously controlled by them. This aspect of ourself is called ‘self-as-awareness’.

The third self is the ‘observer self’. This is the ‘you’ that is the context in which all of these thoughts and feelings occur. The ‘you’ that notices that you are noticing your thoughts. The ‘you’ that has been consistent all through your life, even though you have grown and changed. Sometimes we become aware of this unchanging part of ourself during a moment of crisis. People who have coped resiliently with traumatic events often talk about connecting with this part of themselves: ‘I realised that there is a part of me that can not be hurt by painful thoughts, feelings and memories or even outside circumstance.’ Steve Hayes describes this aspect of the self as like the sky – our thoughts and feelings are like the weather, constantly changing, but the sky is always there. Having a sense of this unchanging aspect of the self can help us to handle difficulty with more grace and less panic.

Is This Really MY Value?

When I run workshops on identifying and living values, someone usually asks me:

But how do I know if this is really MY value? Perhaps I have just been brought up to believe this is right?

This is an important question. When we live other people’s values, our lives tend to lack vitality. So how can we tell?  Here are some tests you can apply to your values, to see if they really are ‘yours’:

Think about a time when you have been living that value. Looking back, are you proud of how you behaved? For example, I am English and I have been raised to value politeness. Looking back, there are times when I feel good about being polite (Thanking a waitress. Giving someone my seat in a crowded bus) and others when I feel uncomfortable with my ‘polite’ behaviour (Failing to challenge homophobic comments. Not giving my real opinion about something important.) This exploration then helps me to see that I don’t really value politeness. I value being kind and thoughtful.  It also tells me that I value being authentic and standing up for my beliefs.

Use the perspective of time. If for the next 7 years you live this value, you let this value guide your behaviour, over and over again. Will it have supported you in being the person you really want to be? Or not? The perspective of time is helpful because of the risk/regret tipping point. We tend to make wiser decisions if we take a longer term view.

Give yourself permission. If I gave you an ironclad guarantee that everyone important to you would think well of you, whatever values you lived – would you still want to live this value? (This one was created by Russ Harris author of The Happiness Trap.) You might notice your mind getting hooked by this one ‘Yeh right! Like they would approve of me if I became an axe murderer’. If that happens, thank your mind, and see if you can do it anyway. It is just an activity! If the only thing holding you back from being an axe murderer is that your Mum would disapprove – I recommend therapy! However, if the only thing holding you back from living a rich and meaningful life is that your Mum would disapprove, I recommend this book.

What is Psychological Flexibility?

The main focus of ACT is to increase something called psychological flexibility.  But what is psychological flexibility and why is it important?

Of all the psychological phenomena that we have studied, this is the one that is of by far the most help to the people we work with in organisations.  Becoming more psychologically flexible helps people not just cope with stress but to do more of what it is they really value.  So what exactly is it?

Psychological flexibility has been defined as “the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious human being and to change, or persist in, behavior when doing so serves valued ends” (Biglan, Hayes, & Pistorello, 2008).

‘Contacting the present more fully’ means willing to be present with difficult thoughts and emotions and to accept ourselves as we are, not as we think we should be.  This is a critical difference, because research shows that trying to get rid of our difficult thoughts and emotions increases their frequency, strength and duration (Wegner, 1994).

It also helps to understand psychological flexibility’s opposite orientation—experiential avoidance (EA).  EA is the tendency to avoid or control unpleasant thoughts and feelings, even when doing so creates problems for a person.  For example, someone who has the thought that they “are stupid” may avoid situations (e.g., a classroom) that might embarrass them.  However, this strategy has the effect of systematically narrowing one’s options in life.

It’s easy to see how EA can be a problem in career change, but empirical evidence also associates EA with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, poor work performance and chronic stress.  Conversely, becoming more psychologically flexible allows people to cope with life more effectively and to derive wellbeing as a consequence of valued living.

Being psychologically flexible doesn’t make life easier or more pleasant.  But it makes it more vital and  values-directed.  And that, incidentally, is what most of our clients want from their career change; a life worth living.