Lately, I have been really interested in what traits it takes to be successful. My question and ultimate hypothesis was that certain cognitive imbalances might be crucial to achievement and going the distance. What is it then, that makes people get back up and keep going in spite of the knocks and the opposition. Why do some people born in the gutter rise to the heights of power, disregarding countless obstacles and life-and-death problems? But then others, born in privilege and loaded with ambition, why do they get derailed by an unsupportive parent or some slight misfortune?
The answer that I came up with from my reading: It is all how you look at life.
It’s a way to explain the world around you. It is a psychological term to describing a patients instincts for dealing with a problem. Good or bad, when something happens do you take responsibility for it (internal), assume it to be permanent (stable), conclude that it will affect your entire life (global). Pessimists–and by default, the less successful–tend to do this for both positive and negative events, or with good fortune, they’ll attribute it to external causes and never themselves. Optimists are not as even-handed, instead they take credit for success, believe it will be lasting and all encompassing. But when it comes to failures, they blame others, consider it fleeting and limited to a specific sphere. This inconsistency is a pretty obviously example of cognitive dissonance, perhaps even delusional. But that might just be what it takes.
Not all of the dogs in Seligman’s experiments, however, became helpless. Of the roughly 150 dogs in experiments in the latter half of the sixties, about one-third did not become helpless, but instead somehow managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation in spite of their past experience with it. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with optimism; however, not a naïve pollyanna optimism, but an explanatory style that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent.
It seems that having an optimistic explanatory style is crucial in avoiding the pitfalls of Learned Helplessness. This is the phenomenon of victims of repeated trauma who suddenly accept that they have no control over the events surrounding them. And that because of this, they give up. The Skinner experiments on conditioning–shocks, random starvation, inconsistent incentive systems, seemingly random punishments, harshness–to me seem a lot like life. Look at the system, does it not function on whim and unexplained traditions? Good ideas are regularly squashed by entrenched players, people hate so much that they enjoy other’s failure, innovators are forced to endure ridicule and the successful are often punished proportionally to their level of accomplishment. Life it seems is a potential breeding ground for learned helplessness.
Depending on your explanatory style this life can be as dark, brutish, and short as Hobbes supposed it was. As Oettingen said, a pessimistic explanatory style is linked with depression because it holds that the future will be a place with an “abundance of negative events, where positive events will be hard to come by.” So the lethargy of learned helplessness is a natural result of our world, but how then, do you explain the people who persevere and succeed? A lopsided explanatory style.
How do you get there?
Well a lot of it has to do with your upbringing. Evidence indicates that those with faith in something (religion or natural forces or a destiny) are more likely to be lopsided in the beneficial way than evenhanded in a detrimental way. It works because it gives you something to attribute negative events to, it makes them appear that they had purpose and when be lifted when “God” feels it is right. But I was talking to Dr. Rob and he believes that you can shift in a positive direction based purely on will and effort. He has his patients check and challenge their SIGs (stable, internal, global) to avoid depressive impulses. So it seems that you can break the cycle.
But the most important factor is your cultural and life structure. A study of Eastern and Western Germany during communism found higher rates of the pessimistic explanatory style on the socialist side of the Wall even though they had almost identical customs and identity. Since under the Soviet government successes were rare–and when they occurred, never to the direct credit of the individual–people never developed the ability to create a positive self-identity. Since the dogma was so pervasive, the tendency to attribute things globally and stably was a natural extension. Their devaluation of religion and faith and competition had the same effect. And finally, the idea we’re all equal and must simply endure our fate ultimately lead to the despondency of learned helplessness.
There is some great news. Shortly after the Wall fell, researches returned to find things had changed. Even though the economy of Eastern Germany was worse, the people were happier and more lopsided in their explanatory style. Which shows that if you’re in a work culture that punishes you for success and tells you that unhappiness is the norm, breaking out can absolve of that burden.
So do certain delusions or biases help with success?
I was dealing with an artist recently who felt like giving up. He sent a big, melodramatic email expressing his disillusionment with the process and ended with “What’s the point?” This, Tucker and I concluded, was the most illustrative statement. It probably wasn’t going to go all the way. The Executive agreed. His point was that with all the bands and stars he’s worked with, only the narcissists have made it. Only the people with the seemingly endless lust to continue and almost complete obliviousness to decorators punched through. That is what it takes, there can be no “but it’s hard” or “what if it never gets better” only fortitude and it appears, illogical self-centeredness. Because think about the attitude it takes to be rejected in audition after audition but still believe that the whole world will love you. And again, I’m not claiming to know from experience, but this is what I’ve aggregated from people who have been there.
If you want to be one of the dogs that didn’t lay down and wait to die, you just have to have faith. Faith in your abilities to 1) Create Success 2) Know that failure lasts only as long as you want it to. If this was just having thick skin, it wouldn’t be anything new. Instead it is about trying to avoid the pessimist’s cycle of internalizing negativity and letting it overwhelm you. There is no question that such an attitude is detrimental to success and that its opposite–taking credit for positive and convincing yourself that it can continue–is the ethos of our most inspiring leaders.
It might seem a little extreme to brush off negatives, but you simply can’t concern yourself with that. You must keep moving. That was the problem in Eastern Germany, their doctrine was so pervasive that it blocked that and forced them to wallow in grimness. Being born with that attitude helps, but there is no reason you can’t create it now. That is the attitude I try to wake up with each morning.
As the authors of Overcoming Bias pointed out last week , accepting certain biases for their apparent benefits is a risky business. If I told you that thinking that cars couldn’t kill you was the ticket to the top and you believed me, it would all be moot when you died crossing the street. Which of course is the cliche example from Driver’s Ed: “having the right away doesn’t matter in a fatal crash.” The positive benefits from the lopsidedness don’t help if they prevent you from connecting with the world around you or relating to people. So narcissism or an explanatory optimism might be the only way to make it through the dip but those attributes do not come without downsides. They can also be your undoing. Actually, extreme lopsidedness can be as dangerous as extreme even handedness because they are both are their core radically departed from reality. It only takes one mistake–one overstepping of your bounds–to make it all meaningless, so is it worth it?