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The Learning Curve

5 ways to set yourself up for success

There is no sure-fire formula for success, but you can be better prepared to create your own.
(Credit: Tryfonov/Adobe Stock)
Key Takeaways
  • There’s no shortage of pre-packaged success strategies out there.
  • But any formula for success must be personalized, starting with your values and life goals.
  • Here are five ways to better prepare for that personal journey.

Most people want to be successful. It’s a powerful psychological driver, not only because we find self-worth in our achievements but also of the value society places on them. We’re infatuated by the concept, and no CEO, movie star, entrepreneur, or vaguely successful YouTuber can seem to have a conversation without someone asking, “What’s the secret to your success?”

But for my money, American editor and journalist Herbert Bayard Swope gets credit for the best answer to that question. As he (allegedly) put it: “I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.”

This quote gets to the core of anybody’s success: It isn’t one-size-fits-all. No matter how well-intentioned a successful person’s advice may be, it doesn’t provide you a formula for your success. It only details how that person prospered in their unique situation.

For anyone to be successful, they need to cipher their own formula based on their unique goals and circumstances. And there is a vast range of success variables out there for you — not all of them tied to your career or bank account either. You can find life wins in your relationships, your charity work, your health, and even your affinity with yourself

Here are five things to consider to set yourself up for success — whatever that success means to you.

1. Start with your values, not your goals

The first trap to avoid is believing that success requires you to be successful at everything. In trying to do everything — forget doing it well — you’ll quickly find yourself handling too much. That way madness, stress, and time famine lie. You’ll be overwhelmed before you even start.

To counteract overloading yourself, Nir Eyal advocates you begin with your values and use them to discover the successes that resonate with you.

“Don’t spend a fraught number of hours weighing the importance of every goal and task. Instead of starting with what we’re going to do, we should begin with why we’re going to do it. So we should start with our values,” the tech entrepreneur writes for Psychology Today.

Start by categorizing your values into three life domains: yourself, your work, and your relationships. Then use these values as guides for determining where to place your attention, what goals you want to accomplish, and how much time you’ll need to dedicate to those goals.

Eyal further recommends following the 80/20 rule. That is, assign your goals and time to “the values that will result in the most significant traction toward your ideal self.”

Consider exercise. Your health is valuable. No questions there. Unfortunately, people can often feel like failures when their faddish, over-hyped, and unsustainable fitness programs don’t produce idealized results in the promised 6 weeks or less. They end up yo-yoing between short bouts of intense diet and exercise, followed by long stays in the inactive doldrums.

But does your health, relationships, work, or self-worth require bodybuilder-like gains ready to grace the glossy covers? If not, then why dedicate time to chase them? Instead, set realistic goals that make you happy and healthy and are centered on the forms of exercise and lifestyle you value.

2. Learn before you leap

Another mental trap is to assume you understand what is necessary for success and begin chasing it right away. 

In an interview discussing success in leadership roles, Michael Watkins, professor of leadership and organizational change at IMD, pointed out: “There’s lots you don’t know, and in fact, there may be lots you don’t even know that you don’t know. The time before you actually start […] is a really crucial time when you should focus on preparing yourself.”

Rather than jumping in and trying to make their mark, Watkins advises new leaders to focus on climbing the learning curve. They should take time to comprehend their new team and goals, think through how they’ll engage, define their vision for the role, understand the company culture, and learn from those who have knowledge of their upcoming struggles.

While you may not be transitioning into a leadership role, this advice works for other goals too, such as learning a second language, a musical instrument, or the intricacies of indoor gardening.There is a caveat, though. In preparing, some may fall prey to over-preparation and never actually begin working toward their aims. This is why both Eyal and Watkins connect the mind game of success with effective time management. “Your calendar isn’t completely full. You’ve got a bit of time to reflect and think about things and really get yourself ready to move forward,” Watkins said.

Transitions are a momentum game. You really need to be identifying places where you can get some early wins.

– Michael Watkins

3. Build early momentum with small victories

Sometimes, the necessary changes can seem too big. With so many steps between you and your ultimate goal, you may find the process infeasible or intimidating. But success begets more success, no matter how small the victory may be.

For this reason, Watkins also recommends using small successes to propel you to larger ones. “Transitions are a momentum game. You really need to be identifying places where you can get some early wins, even if those early wins are really about building personal credibility or being seen to become part of the organization,” he said.

Another approach is to take your large goals, break them into bite-sized steps, and tackle them one at a time. Because smaller steps are both more feasible and less intimidating, you’ll be more likely to start and accomplish them. That in turn builds confidence in your ability to succeed, and each accomplishment becomes a milestone you can use to propel yourself further still.

In an interview, Amy Herman, founder of the Art of Perception, explained how this approach helped her succeed in overcoming cancer in 2014. When she first received her diagnosis, she was overwhelmed by the challenges and emotionally fraught road ahead of her. The sessions of chemotherapy, the surgeries, the diet, the side effects, it was all too much.

Instead of focusing on all that, she broke down every step in the process, focused on the upcoming one, and didn’t worry about the others until they arrived.

“Before I knew it, eight [chemo sessions] were done. Then nine. Then ten. And then there I was at the last chemo,” Herman said. “I know that sounds overly simplified, but things don’t get more complicated than having a cancer diagnosis.”

4. Don’t go it alone

Another means of building momentum is to tap into your network or, if those relations don’t exist for you yet, begin building them as part of your goals.

“You need to be thinking in terms of the key relationships that you need to build, the alliances you need to create, as you really begin to move forward with those critical early initiatives that are gonna create momentum for you,” Watkins said.

Despite the myth of the self-made man, anyone who has ever been successful has done so with the help of coworkers, friends, relations, mentors, and a host of others. That was as true for Octavian Caesar Augustus as it was for Tokugawa Ieyasu and Bill Gates.

One advantage is problem-solving. On your way to accomplishing your goals, you’ll inevitably encounter problems, and that impediment to your progress risks festering as self-doubt. By bringing others into the problem-solving process, you can avail yourself of much-needed emotional support and potentially an outside perspective that leads to a solution.

For example, a 2018 Harvard business school study found that a group’s collective intelligence outperformed individual problem-solvers at solving traveling salesman problems. While individuals created a wide range of possible solutions, the quality of those solutions varied wildly in quality. Conversely, intermittent collaborators tackled the more complex problems more effectively and creatively. 

Another reason to work with others: It makes your success more meaningful. Helping others and receiving that help is a way to build and strengthen relationships by creating a sense of belonging and, ultimately, shared triumph.

What keeps us living and what keeps me vitally engaged is a constant pursuit of betterment.

– Nick offerman

5. Setting up success with failure

While we may intellectually understand that any success has failures built into the foundation, we’re also constantly bombarded with the triumphs of others on TV, in newsletters, and through our social media feeds. And by the time those reach us, their failures are well into the background while our own are anywhere but.

This can lead to debasing self-talk that psychologist Ethan Kross refers to as “chatter.”

“Chatter consists of the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing,” Kross writes. “It puts our performance, decision-making, relationships, happiness, and health in jeopardy.”

If you’re prone to such chatter, you’ll need to recalibrate your introspective voice to view failure differently, and there are many different ways to do this. 

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Kross has what he calls the “chatter toolkit.” This collection of behaviors and practices help you escape the echo chamber of your mind to “adopt a broader, calmer, and more objective perspective.” One such practice is distanced self-talk — that is, talking to yourself with the same compassion and distance that you would a good friend. Another is creating a ritual that gives you a sense of control over the present moment.

You can also short-circuit chatter by actively reminding yourself that success and perfectionism are not the same pursuits. Success isn’t a condition without failure; it’s the condition of overcoming failure and improving.

As actor Nick Offerman noted in an interview: “I often espouse a general philosophy in my life of pursuing a discipline of one sort or another […] But it’s not to ever approach any level of perfection.” Offerman said. “Instead, what keeps us living and what keeps me vitally engaged is a constant pursuit of betterment.”

And that is one definition of success, I think, everyone would do well to set themselves up for.

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