Life is complicated. Everything is connected with everything. Cause and effect. There are so many variables in life that any attempts to come up with a simple mathematical formula so far failed. Heck, we are not even able to accurately predict weather or how much satisfaction we will have from an event in the future. So what leads us believe that we have things under control and that we can predictably repeat successes we had in the past? Many of us who reached some level of success often feel that we are entitled to it and that we are somehow better than everyone else and thus anything we do will always end up being successful. And then we are surprised and feel hurt when something doesn’t go as we planned. But why? Mostly because we misunderstand what made us successful in the past. In fact, as I wrote in Human Brain, The Biggest Liar Of All Times our brain has a unique capacity to deceive us.
Misunderstanding of past successes
Depending on your current frame of mind you tend to either overestimate or underestimate your role in the past successes. Let’s say you love running and just won a race. Why did you win? I already hear you saying things like “I trained really hard, 5 hours a day, and gave it everything I had.” And now imagine you lost. What would you say? “It just wasn’t my day. I didn’t feel on top of my game and even during the preparation I trained just 5 hours a day.” You have done exactly the same before the race you won and the race you lost. Maybe it wasn’t just you. Maybe the environment was different, and the competitors were different. Maybe it wasn’t really you that made the difference but the people around you.
As Phil Rosenzweig writes in Left Brain, Right Stuff people have an imperfect understanding of how much control they can exert. When control is low they tend to overestimate their impact, but when it’s high they tend to underestimate.
Correlation, causality and single explanations
In another of his books The Halo Effect Phil Rosenzweig talks about nine business delusions that cloud our judgement. Relevant to our discussion are those of correlation, causality and single explanation.
Why were you successful in the first place? Over the years in business world I have heard many times that “we are successful because of the way we work.” But often I have wondered is it really “because” or “in spite”? In the complex environment it is often very difficult to distinguish what is the cause and what the effect, it is very difficult to understand whether a something was helping or hurting our chances. Especially, if you fall into a trap of single explanation. We tend to blame one guy when things go wrong or one hero when there is a success. We tend to forget all the other things that had influenced the outcome. Keeping in mind that “everything is connected to everything” should help you to keep an eye on these biases.
One of the most dangerous reasons why you may easily fail in the future is overconfidence. Rosenzweig splits it into three categories. Overprecision as a tendency to be too certain that our judgment is the right one. “I’m the expert. I know what I’m doing. This and only this is the right way to do things to end up in success.”
The other category is Overestimation as a tendency to believe that we can perform at much higher level than we are capable of. “Of course I can do it even though I’ve never done anything comparable. With my track record of success anything I touch changes into gold and can end only well.”
And the last type of overconfidence is called overplacement as a belief that we can perform much better than others. “I’m much better manager than majority of others. I’m, if not the best, then definitely above average software engineer and should be treated as such. Or I’m much better driver than the others.” This one is nicely demonstrated for example in a study performed by Ola Svenson asking students to compare their driving skills to other people. 93% of the U.S. sample and 69% of the Swedish sample put themselves in the top 50%. This is a mathematical impossibility and shows how unrealistic views we have of ourselves.
Sense of entitlement
Because of the reasons mentioned above most of us believe we are better than others and thus we deserve more. We deserve better treatment, more money, better life, bigger house, more promotions and we are unhappy when we are not getting it.
I can give you just one advice. Get a dose of reality and switch your mindset to one that tells you that everyone is good at something, everyone has the right to be happy, well paid, and treated with respect. You might have some strengths that others miss, but you have also weaknesses, and all in all you are not much different from the other 7 billion human beings on this planet.
Abusing relationships with the powerful
And since we are talking about the business world there is one additional danger that can hinder your future success. I would call it “abusing relationship with the powerful” or in other words using the relationship with a powerful figure in the company to advance your agenda. It may take a form of you directly requesting the big guy to intervene on your behalf or a bit more subtle you frequently invoking his name to achieve your goals.
Either of these two will have great initial effect but rather negative long-term consequences. The moment you start relying on this technique you will stop trying hard enough on your own, you won’t develop the necessary skills, and you will most likely damage your relationship with others around you. They will reluctantly comply just to make sure they won’t make powerful enemy but ultimately they will look for ways to get back at you. You are the target since they cannot touch the big guy, can they?
And then the day comes when your powerful benefactor leaves, or you move to a different group or company. And suddenly you find out that you cannot get things done as in the past, you fail at your job, and you are confronted with the hard reality of not being as good as you thought.
So what does it all mean?
Humility is your friend. Never assume that you are better than others only because you had some sort of success. Chances are that success wasn’t your alone. You should also reset your expectations of the future. Always strive for the best but expect the worst and thus have a healthy well-balanced level of confidence. A level that inspires you to do your best but not too much to take success for granted or too little to never even try.
How do you ensure that your current success doesn’t lead to future failures? What advice do you have for others to make sure they don’t sabotage their own careers and happiness?
Originally posted at LinkedIn.