Excerpt from SUCCEED: Building the Self-Control Muscle

2003 was not a good year for me.  It was the year that I turned 30, separated from my first husband, and lived in near-constant dread of not finding a job before my postdoctoral funding ran out.  I coped badly with the end of my marriage and the uncertainty of my career.  I ate whatever I wanted, gave up completely on exercising, and rapidly packed on the pounds.  I went out most nights to bars with friends and drank a bit too much.  Some days I slept until noon.  My apartment was a mess.  My work suffered.  I spent money impulsively, thinking new clothes and dinner at fancy restaurants would make me feel better, and blew right through my savings.  It was the lowest point in my life, and I was miserable.
Eventually, having hit bottom, I began the slow crawl back up again.  Oddly enough, that change began when I brought home a 10-week old puppy.  Lucy is a Miniature Schnauzer, and anyone familiar with the breed, or with terriers in general, knows that the little buggers are very demanding dogs.   Lucy required a lot of me – regular walks, house-breaking, grooming, feeding, playing, and eternal vigilance to prevent the destruction of yet another of my prized possessions when I wasn’t looking (Lucy is a chewer – my shoes, books, and coffee table were her favorites).  Since I was living in an apartment in New York City, she had to be walked several times a day in order to do her doggie business.  This typically started at around 5am – quite a change from my usual habit of trying to get up before lunch. 
The long and short of it is, I was exercising a lot of self-control in order to care for this dog.  It took effort, it took planning, and it took a whole lot of patience.  The first few weeks were incredibly difficult, mostly because I had grown so unaccustomed to being responsible for anything.  But as time passed, it started getting easier.  I got used to my new routines, and after a while getting up at 5am didn’t seem nearly so hard.  The funny thing is, other aspects of my life started improving as well.  I stopped going out so much, started eating better, and rejoined the gym.  My apartment was looking cleaner (despite Lucy’s best efforts to redecorate), my laundry pile was shrinking, and my bank statements grew less terrifying.  I clipped coupons, I looked for sales.  My work improved – I was publishing papers again, generating new ideas, speaking at conferences.  I interviewed for and was offered a professorship at Lehigh University.  And shortly after my 31st birthday, I met my future husband (ok, that one I can’t really take credit for, other than for recognizing a good thing when I see it.)
I’m telling you all this because I think that year in my life nicely illustrates something about the nature of self-control.  In the beginning of this book, I introduced you to the idea of the self-control muscle.   Just like the muscles in your body, your capacity for self-control dwindles when you don’t exercise it.   When I turned 30 and my marriage fell apart, I basically put my self-control on bed rest, and  it atrophied.  When the time came and I needed to rely on my self-control again to care for a new puppy, it was much like returning to the gym after a years-long absence - it hurt like hell and I was easily winded.  Then, as I exercised my self-control each day, by sticking to my new routines, it started getting stronger.  With that new strength, I found I could start tackling my other challenges and get my life back on track.  
I am not, for the record, recommending that if you’re having trouble reaching your goals, you run out and buy a dog.  There are lots of ways to strengthen your self-control muscle, and I’ll share with you some of the ones psychologists have tested in this chapter.   It’s also important to remember that, like your bicep or tricep, your self-control muscle can get tired-out from exercise, leaving you vulnerable immediately after you’ve given it a workout.  So you’ll need to know how you can help your self-control to bounce back after you’ve done something really taxing.  You may also benefit from learning a few other strategies you can use to compensate in those moments when you’ve used up all your strength and can’t afford to wait for your second wind.    

Want to learn more?  Check out the paperback or e-book versions of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

How Firstborns and Secondborns Compare

People have long been fascinated with birth order and how it shapes our lives.  If Abel weren’t the younger brother, would Cain still have jealously murdered him?  Is Alec the most successful Baldwin because he is the eldest?  What role did birth order play in the destinies of the Kennedys, the Bushes, or the brothers Clinton?

There are countless books on the subject, though the claims they make are not always based on objective evidence.  But thanks to recent research conducted in Belgium and the Netherlands, we now know that first- and secondborns do indeed see the world differently in ways that impact their motivation and likelihood of career and personal success.

We all approach the goals we pursue with one of two mindsets: what I call the Be-Good mindset, where the focus is on proving that you have a lot of ability and that you already know what you’re doing, and the Get-Better mindset, where the focus is on developing your ability and learning new skills.  You can think of it as the difference between wanting to show that you are smart versus wanting to get smarter.

When we have a Be-Good mindset, we are constantly comparing our performance to other people, to see how we “size up.”  A Get-Better mindset, on the other hand, leads instead to self-comparison and a concern with making progress– how well am I doing today, compared with how I did yesterday, last month, or last year?

In a study of over three hundred undergraduates (sets of siblings), the researchers found that firstborn siblings were significantly more likely to have Get-Better goals and use self-referenced standards, than secondborns.  Secondborns, in contrast, were more likely to pursue Be-Good goals and compare their own performance to that of others.  (Incidentally, these differences emerged whether the siblings were describing themselves, or one another other.)

Why do first- and secondborns end up with different mindsets?  At least in part, it’s because when they are young, firstborns generally don’t have anyone to compare themselves to – and neither do their parents.   When little Alec starts crawling, speaking, and walking, he hears things like “Wow, two weeks ago he could only sit up and now look at him go!”  “Last month he seemed to only say a few words and now he never stops talking!”  The focus of attention is on individual progress, with only your own past behavior as a reference – this naturally leads to more Get-Better thinking.

Younger siblings, on the other hand, have someone to compare themselves to from the very beginning.  So little Daniel is more likely to hear “He spoke sooner than Alec did,” or “He’s not crawling as quickly as Alec, is he?”  It’s quite natural for parents (and children) to make these comparisons, but their unintended consequence is the potential for much more Be-Good thinking.
The problem with Be-Good goals is while they are very motivating, they tend to backfire when things get hard.  We quickly start to doubt our ability (“Oh no, maybe I’m not good at this!”), and this creates a lot of anxiety.  Ironically, worrying about your ability makes you much more likely to ultimately fail.  And if you think you don’t have what it takes to succeed, you give up on yourself way too soon and never reach your full potential.

Get-Better goals, on the other hand, are practically bullet-proof.  When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and improving, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur. 

Now, of course there will be plenty of firstborns with a Be-Good mindset who feel they need to be better than everyone else (think Cain), and plenty of secondborns with a Get-Better mindset who aren’t obsessed with comparison (Prince Harry seems to be more of a march-to-your-own-drummer type).  But if you are a secondborn who suspects you’ve been a victim of too much Be-Good thinking, don’t despair!  You can retrain your brain and shift your mindset with patience and practice.

How can you reframe your goals in terms of Getting Better? Here are the three steps:

Step 1:  Start by embracing the fact that when something is difficult and unfamiliar, you will need some time to really get a handle on it.  You may make some mistakes, and that’s ok.

Step 2:  Remember to ask for help when you run into trouble.  Needing help doesn’t mean you aren’t capable – in fact, the opposite is true.  Only the very foolish believe they can do everything on their own.

Step 3: Try not to compare yourself to other people – instead, deliberately compare your performance today to your performance yesterday.  Focusing on getting better means always thinking in terms of progress, not perfection.


The Success Myth

This post appeared originally on WSJ.com (At Work)

Quick: Think of a successful person.  Someone who is really good at what they do.

Now, in a word or phrase, tell me why that person has been so successful. What makes them so good?

Obviously, I can’t hear your answer.  But I’d be willing to wager that it had something to do with innate ability

“He’s so brilliant.” 

“She’s a genius.”

“He’s a natural leader.” 

These are the kinds of answers people -- particularly Americans -- tend to give when you ask them why certain individuals have enjoyed so much success.

Pro athletes, tech whizzes, bold entrepreneurs, accomplished musicians, gifted writers: We marvel at their extraordinary aptitude, assuming they must have won the DNA lottery to be so good at what they do.

Deep down, many of us believe that the key ingredient to success is innate ability. So, naturally, we try to stick to doing the things that come easily to us, while avoiding wasting time and energy on the things that don’t.  (How many times have you heard someone say “I’m just not a math person”?  How many times have you said it?) 

This would all be fine, if success really was all about innate ability. 

But it isn’t. It isn’t even mostly about innate ability.

When you study achievement for a living, as I do, one of the first things you learn is that measures of “ability” (like IQ) do a shockingly poor job of predicting future success.  Intelligence, creativity, willpower, social skill aptitudes like these are not only profoundly malleable (i.e., they grow with experience and effort), but they are just one small piece of the achievement puzzle.

So, what does predict success? Research tells us it’s using the right strategies that leads to accomplishment and achievement. Sounds simple, but strategies like being committed, recognizing temptations, planning ahead, monitoring your progress, persisting when the going gets tough, making an effort, and perhaps most important believing you can improve, can make all the difference between success and failure.

The problem with thinking that success is all about ability, is that it can lead to crippling self-doubt.  When something doesn’t come easily, we assume that we “just don’t have what it takes,” and we stop trying. We close doors, robbing ourselves of opportunities to realize our full potential.

By contrast, studies show that people who believe that their skills and abilities can grow not only succeed more, but they also enjoy their work more, cope more effectively with challenges, and experience less anxiety and depression.

So the next time you find yourself thinking, “I’m just not good at this,” remember, you’re just not good at it yet.


Try the (free) Nine Things Diagnostics and Pinpoint Your Goal Saboteurs!

Many readers of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently have written to me, asking for a way to figure out how well they are doing with respect to each Thing.  Am I being specific enough?  Am I a realistic optimist?  Do I have enough grit?  

Now, you have a tool you can use to assess your goal strengths and weaknesses, and determine which areas you should concentrate on to maximize your success.  It's called the Nine Things Diagnostics, and it's free!   Answer the questions online, and at the end you can print out a summary of your results to use as a guide.

Or, ask your employees to complete the Diagnostics, to help them get a better handle on where they should focus while reading the Nine Things e-book.  I also offer webinars and on-site seminars for more in-depth Nine Things training.

Good luck with your goals!

Heidi Grant Halvorson