When asked to name the major cause of success, most people point to education, experience, skills, and personal characteristics. This list is broad, but it almost never includes a factor that can lead to dramatic and sustainable change and can be deployed over and over as circumstances change. This powerful factor is context and in particular, the aspects over which people have control.
Context includes everything from our physical space to the people with whom we interact and much of it fades into the background, even though people are greatly affected by environment. A process known as habituation, while normal and sometimes helpful, makes what was once novel, barely noticeable. Habituation enables people to adapt and simplify what would otherwise be needlessly distracting. However, it’s not useful when people adapt to what interferes with their ability to do meaningful work or have constructive relationships. Habituating to a bad boss or a hostile work environment isn’t helpful. Sometimes, creating the conditions for success means making big changes in context. However, in less dramatic instances there are a few things anyone can do, anytime, that are helpful.
First, establish your intention – what are you trying to create? Second, eschew irrelevant criteria. Third, create habits that support success. This process can be used over and over and can help people re-examine the path they are on, illuminate different choices, and pivot.
1. Create a picture of your ideal future. People who dream big may not all become well-known or wealthy, but few who achieve great things do so by ignoring their impulses to create what didn’t previously exist. Starting big pushes for strategic thinking and temporarily ignoring the barriers that are all too easy to see from a lower cognitive altitude.
One way to make this process less vague is to follow a specific process, one that asks big questions, rather than those based on the dissection of “what is.” Ayse Bursel’s book, Design the Life You Love, provides a terrific guide. Her book takes the reader through a process of envisioning that can lead to extraordinary insights precisely because it is a design process and helps the reader step away from habitual thinking and assumptions.
2. Eschew irrelevant criteria. Criteria frequently touted to measure success are particular credentials. People often assume they create credibility. Is it true? It depends. Some are necessary and relevant, such as degrees required for a particular profession. Initially, credentials can be impressive and may help people get their foot in the door. Once in the room, credentials are soon forgotten in favor of actual contributions.
Instead of thinking about certifications, consider how to acquire relevant knowledge and the ability to apply it pragmatically. One executive, Mark, was preoccupied because he didn’t have an MBA. He believed that lacking this credential he would not be promoted, despite his stellar performance. Once he began to focus on what made him successful – the conditions for his success, he was able to amplify those and the corresponding results. Simultaneously, he began to talk with his boss about how he was getting outstanding results, something his boss came to understand and appreciate about Mark. He was happier and proud of his achievements. In hindsight, Mark was able to see that he was focused on the wrong indicator of success, realize what he could do differently, and pivot.One way to break the chains of habits that are not in line with your ideal future is to create the conditions for success. Click To Tweet
3. Choose habits that support success. A fundamental underpinning of traditional economics is that people are rational actors who make decisions in their own best interest. It turns out that isn’t true. People make decisions based on what they perceive to be in their best interest and the matter gets further complicated by time. The longer it takes for a reward to be forthcoming, the harder it can be to change. This is one of the explanations for the number of people over age 60 who have little financial resources for retirement.
In order to evaluate habits, people need to observe them first. A powerful way to do this is to think about patterns of behavior, when and where they occur and what outcomes they lead to. This process can begin through reflection and may involve the views of others, but only later.
Here are a few questions:
- What have I achieved that makes me proud? How did I organize myself, my environment, and who was supporting me?
- What work gives me joy – the experience of being happily absorbed in what I’m doing?
- What changes have I initiated for myself that were successful? What decisions and actions were associated with that success?
- Who do I deeply admire? What can I learn about how they created the conditions to achieve their goals?
“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken”, Warren Buffett. One way to break the chains of habits that are not in line with your ideal future is to create the conditions for success. These three ideas can get you moving in the right direction.