Amy Cuddy on Authentic Learning and Why You Can’t Choreograph Success

It's tempting to rush success, but Amy Cuddy, professor at Harvard Business School, explains why setting your goals too big can backfire, and vouches for the value of incremental change and authentic learning over the desire to simply 'win'.

Amy Cuddy: People make the mistake of making these big goals, these big sort of New Year’s resolutions. And we also know that they often backfire. That, you know, by January 15 a lot of people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions. Why is it that we keep making them and keep failing? Because they’re so big, they’re so distant and they require a million little steps in between. And each of those steps is an opportunity to fail.

And they’re very much outcome focused. It’s not ab out how I’m going to feel, you know, tomorrow. It’s I’m going to lose this much weight. I’m going to get this kind of job. I’m going to become a better public speaker. It’s things like that. I’m going to run a marathon. I think a lot of research is showing us that we do much better when we focus on incremental change, on little bits of improvement. We’re not focused on the outcome. So we’re not focused on the grade or did you get the job or not. And you’re not focused on the, you know, big New Year’s resolution. You’re just focused on the process in this next moment that’s coming up. And that allows you to grow a little bit over time to not think of each of these steps as an opportunity to fail. And eventually, you know, in aggregate you get there. You may not even realize it until one day you turn around and say wow, this thing is much easier for me now than it was a year ago. I think Carol Dweck’s work on growth versus fixed mindsets, to me that’s the most important work around this idea of self-nudging. Carol Dweck’s idea is that when you have kids focus on school tasks not as opportunities to win or fail but as, you know, challenges that will allow them to stretch and grow, that’s a growth mindset. They do much better. You build children who are resilient and strong and actually enjoy school and end up doing well. You build children who thrive.

When kids are focused on each grade as a failure or a win, so they’re very outcome focused you’re not building resilient kids because people are going to fail, you know. So if they are set back by every one of those failures they don’t become resilient. What I’m talking about is really the same kind of thing, you know. You change your body language, you go into that next big challenge and you feel a little bit calmer, a little bit safer. And most importantly you leave not feeling that sense of regret, not feeling like I didn’t show them who I am. You leave feeling like I showed them who I am and I can accept whatever the outcome is. And that is beautiful. I would say when I look at the thousands of emails that I’ve gotten over the years since the TED talk. People tell me about some big challenge, you know, job interview, a test they took, confronting someone who they were having trouble with, standing up for themselves at work. And they don’t talk about whether or not they won. What they talk about is how the feel when they left.

And I don’t even know that they know they’re doing that. But what they’re telling me is I just felt so much better. I felt like myself. I felt that I could be brave. I left feeling good. And sometimes they even forget to tell me what the outcome was which I think is like – I think it’s beautiful because I would much rather have a world full of people, you know, feeling that they’re being themselves and able to accept an outcome even if it’s negative than a world full of people who are trying to win all the time. The way to kind of a healthy and happy life is not to be focused on winning. It’s to be focused on having real meaningful authentic interactions and knowing that you did what you could and that you can’t control everything the other person does or what they think of you. The key is that instead of managing the impression that we’re making on others, we really need to manage the impression that we’re making on ourselves, right. So we need to feel good about ourselves. We need to feel strong. We need to believe in ourselves. And that then leads us to make a much better impression on other people. But if we’re trying to choreograph an orchestrate it, you know, move your hand this way when you say this word. Nobody likes that. It comes across as inauthentic and you leave feeling like a phony.

Motivation works in some complex ways. There are reward systems, giving a person something they really want after completing a task. There’s reinforcement, punishing bad behavior and buttressing good behavior. These are ways to manufacture motivation, but sometimes it’s just not there.


When a task seems impossible, there’s little way to encourage motivation. Going from a D student to an A in a few weeks can really be impossible, so why bother studying when there’s no way it can happen? Losing 15 pounds by summer? Yeah right. Breaking a bad habit you’ve had for years seems near impossible, when it’s a part of who you are, so why bother trying?

This is why Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and associate professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, suggests keeping goals smaller in order to complete them, and to avoid being outcome focused. This is why people’s New Year resolutions fail, because many people look at a whole year, the whole 52 weeks instead of one week at a time. She recommends letting go of a fixed mindset, instead focusing on the process of improvement (and perhaps even enjoying it – gasp!) rather than the end goal. You will get to where you want to be without even realizing.

Since Amy Cuddy’s TEDTalk Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, she has received many letters, mostly about how yes, people whose motivation in themselves increased as they started to stand up stronger. Many of them have just one thing in common, they were focused on their inner selves, how they felt, how motivated and proud they were, rather than if they actually succeeded. A lot of the time, in these letters, they even forgot to mention to her whether they got the raise or the job or resolved the argument with their friend. It always seems to turn out better, or at least on a happier note, when people seem more focused on how they feel rather than if they won or not.

Amy Cuddy's book is Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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