Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Secret to Success

The only real secret to success is that there is no secret.

A few years ago the world was all agog over a book called The Secret.  It pretended to reveal a secret that had driven all of the world’s most successful people.

In brief, it suggested that you can become more successful by imagining yourself successful. For a population that already places too much faith in the power of thought, it was catnip. And for a population that believes that reality must follow the dictates of its fantasies, it was like speed.

Credit where credit is due. The book and its attendant visual and auditory aids was a feat of marketing genius. By now everyone should know that it preyed on our extreme gullibility. But it also demonstrated how averse we had become to the notion that we might actually have to work in order to succeed.

It was much more appealing to think that we needed but improve our fantasy life.

But when you fantasize about how rich you are going to be when your new invention becomes a household name, are you engaging in what we call “positive thinking?”

According to Heidi Grant Halvorson the public discussion of positive and negative thinking is seriously inadequate. Happily, she offers an excellent clarification.

If positive thinking means that you are optimistic about your ability to reach your goals, that is a good thing. If positive thinking means that you believe that you will be able to reach your goals by imagining that you have already reached them, that is not such a good thing.

Similarly, if negative thinking tells you that you have never accomplished anything and never will, then it not your friend. But if negative thinking tells you that you are facing a daunting challenge and will have to work hard to achieve it, then negative thinking will work to your benefit.

For my part, I would not call see the latter kind of thinking “negative,” but that is neither here nor there.

Halvorson is trying to show people how to succeed. She begins by showing that if you imagine that you have achieved your goals without having achieved them, the image will make it much less likely that you will succeed. .

She explains: “ [Psychologists] Kappes and Oettingen argue that when we focus solely on imagining the future of our dreams, our minds enjoy and indulge in those images as if they are real. They might be reachable, realistic dreams or impossible, unrealistic ones, but none of that matters because we don't bother to think about the odds of getting there or the hurdles that will have to be overcome. We're too busy enjoying the fantasy.”

If we act as though the fantasy is real, as though the wish were realized, we are going to feel like we’ve been drugged.

We will experience the enjoyment that comes with success without having to put in the work, and without having achieved the success.

How do you get to success? Halvorson explains that you have to do it one step at a time.

In her words: “In fact, study after study shows that people who think not only about their dreams, but about the obstacles that lie in the way of realizing their dreams--who visualize the steps they will take to make success happen, rather than just the success itself--vastly outperform those who sit back and wait for the universe to reward them for all their positive thinking. Whether it's starting a relationship with your secret crush, landing a job, recovering from major surgery, or losing weight, research shows that if you don't keep it real you're going to be really screwed.”

Success lies in methodical, tedious step-by-step effort. Cognitive psychologists have known this ever since Aaron Beck confronted a depressed patient who could not get out of her bed. She said that she could not walk to the door. Beck asked her if she could put one foot on the floor. Then he asked her if she could put a second foot on the floor. And so on.

The new research suggests that she might have had difficulty walking across the room because she kept imagining herself as having walked across the room.

And of course, let’s not overlook the genius of what are called 12 step programs, where an alcoholic or other addict is led to overcome his addiction step by step.  

They are clearly more effective than asking him to imagine himself enjoying the fruits of sobriety.

Steps involve work, often hard work. And people are more motivated to work when they feel that they are facing uncertainty. That is, when they do not feel that they are guaranteed success.

Halvorson reports that research shows that: “people who imagined an uncertain and challenging future reported feeling significantly more energized, and accomplished much more, than those who idealized their future. “

Does the same rule apply to the grand philosophical debate between idealism and realism?

At a time when the media in this country seem to believe that their task is to present the world as they would like it to be, especially in sitcoms and docudramas, ought we to conclude that their traffic in feel-good images is really making it that much more difficult to achieve the goals they have set out?


stg58 said...

I ran into "The Secret" in 2006 at a sales meeting for Primerica. I have never seen such horseshit in my life. People who are officially described as "visionaries" told me that I could succeed by tapping into the power of the universe. I walked out of that meeting and never dealt with them again. I doubted their business acumen if the leaders of the group could fall for this.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

What was it doing at a sales meeting for Primerica?

I wonder whether the visionaries really believe it themselves, or whether they are pure hucksters. On the other hand, if it's making them rich, maybe they have been seduced by the money.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, these types are full of it. I've never succeeded in anything. Past experience tells me to proceed with EXTREME caution due to consistent failure in all areas over 20 years. But they would have me believe that my "negative thinking" did me in. Ah, but I was very positive coming out of the gates and for many years through successive failures. It was a long time before I understood my reality. Then they tell me that even when I was "positive" that there was something lurking deep, deep I say, deep within me that was "negative." Oh, i see. Well I can never feign a positive attitude now anyway. It's been too long and way too little.

But that's what they tell me anyway?

Megan said...

To my mind everybody have to glance at it.