The Surprising Secret to Selling You

There is no shortage of advice out there on how to make a good impression – an impression good enough to land you a new job, score a promotion, or bring in that lucrative sales lead.   Practice your pitch.  Speak confidently, but not too quickly.  Make eye contact.  And for the love of Pete, don’t be modest – highlight your accomplishments.  After all, a person’s track record of success (or a company’s, for that matter) is the single most important factor in determining whether or not they get hired.  Or is it?

As it happens, it isn’t.  Because when we are deciding who to hire, promote, or do business with, it turns out that we don’t like the Big Thing nearly as much as we like the Next Big Thing.  We have a bias - one that operates below our conscious awareness - leading us to prefer the potential for greatness over someone who has already achieved it.

A set of ingenious studies conduced by Stanford’s Zakary Tormala and Jayson Jia, and Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton paint a very clear picture of our unconscious preference for potential over actual success.

In one study, they asked participants to play the role of an NBA team manager who had the option of offering a contract to a particular player. To evaluate the player, they were given five years of excellent statistics (points scored, rebounds, assists, etc.)  These statistics were described either as ones that the player had actually earned in five years of professional play, or as projections of how he was capable of playing (i.e., his potential) in his first five years.

Then the “managers” were asked, What would you pay him in his sixth year? Those who evaluated the player with potential for greatness said they would pay him nearly a million dollars more in annual salary ($5.25 vs. $4.26 million) than those who evaluated the player with a record of actual greatness.  Potential evaluators also believed their player would score more, and would be more likely to make the All-Star team.

Tormala, Jia, and Norton found the same pattern when they looked at evaluations of job candidates.  In this case, they compared perceptions of someone with two years of relevant experience who scored highly on a test of leadership achievement, versus someone with no relevant experience who scored highly on a test of leadership potential.  (Both candidates had equally impressive backgrounds in every other way).  Evaluators believed the candidate with leadership potential would be more successful at the new company than the candidate a proven record of leadership ability.  (Incidentally, if you ask the evaluators to tell you whose resume is more impressive, they agree that it’s the one with experience.  They still prefer the other guy anyway.)

In other studies, the researchers showed how we prefer artwork and artists with potential to win awards over those that actually have, and prefer restaurants and chefs with the potential to be the next big thing in dining over the ones who have already made their name.  In a particularly clever study, they compared two versions of Facebook ads for a real stand-up comedian.  In the first version, critics said “he is the next big thing” and “everybody’s talking about him.” In the second version, critics said he “could be the next big thing,” and that “in a year, everybody could be talking about him.”  The ad that focused on his potential got significantly more clicks and likes.

And this is not, incidentally, a pro-youth bias in disguise. It’s true that the person with potential, rather than a proven record, is sometimes also the younger candidate - but the researchers were careful to control for age in their studies and found that it wasn’t a factor.

So, since preferring potential over a proven record is both risky and inherently irrational, why do we do it?  According to these findings, the potential for success, as opposed to actual success, is more interesting because it is less certain.  When human brains come across uncertainty, they tend to pay attention to information more because they want to figure it out, which leads to longer and more in-depth processing.  High-potential candidates make us think harder than proven ones do. So long as the information available about the high-potential candidate is favorable, all this extra processing can lead (unconsciously) to an overall more positive view of the candidate (or company).  (That part about the information available being favorable is important.  In another study, when the candidate was described as having great potential, but there was little evidence to back that up, people liked him far less than the proven achiever.)

All this suggests that you need a very different approach to selling yourself than the one you intuitively take, because your intuitions are probably wrong.  People are much more impressed, whether they realize it or not, by your potential than by your track record.   It would be wise to start focusing your pitch on your future, as an individual or as a company, rather than on your past - even if that past is very impressive indeed.  It’s what you could be that makes people sit up and take notice - learn to use the power of potential to your advantage.


How to Keep Happiness From Fading

No matter how miserable you are feeling at the moment, if you look back, there have surely been events in your life that have made you happy.  Maybe the time you bought your first car, or the time you received that long-desired promotion.  Or the time you lost fifteen pounds and were able to get back into your favorite jeans without cutting off your circulation.  When good things happen, we feel positive emotions – like excitement, relief, pride, and of course, happiness.  These feelings are essential for our well-being. 

But the problem is, happiness doesn’t usually last.  The excitement of that first car purchase wears off, the thrill of the promotion gives way to the anxiety of handling the responsibilities that came with it.  Sure, you think, it’s nice to be a size 8 again.  But it would be really great to be a size 6...

Psychologists call this phenomenon hedonic adaptation – the idea is that no matter how good something makes us feel (or, for the record, how bad), most of the time we drift back to where we started, emotionally-speaking. One often-cited study famously showed that despite their initial euphoria, lottery winners were no happier than non-winners eighteen months later.  The same tendency to return to “baseline” has been shown to occur after marriage, voluntary job changes, and promotions – the kinds of things we usually expect to change our happiness and well-being for the better in a permanent way.

Why can’t we make the happiness last?  Psychologists (and renown happiness experts) Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky argue in a recent paper that our hedonic adaption occurs for two reasons. 

When a positive change first occurs (say, you move into a great new house), there are usually lots of positive events happening as a result.  You get to break in that new six-burner range, take a long bath in your first soaking tub, and appreciate the roominess of your new garage. But over time, there are fewer positive events to experience, because you get used to all the home’s features, and after a while you just don’t notice them anymore.  With fewer positive events, and thus fewer positive emotions (excitement, pride, happiness), your newfound well-being can’t be sustained.

The second reason happiness fades is that even when positive events continue – if, for instance, your fitness and healthy eating habits leave you looking great, and this results in lots of new opportunities for romance on a regular basis -  the change begins to simply be seen as the “new normal.”   And as a result, your aspiration level shifts – you feel like you need to look even better.  Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has referred to this process as a kind of “satisfaction treadmill.” Because we continuously shift our standards upward once we’ve reached them, we’ve got to keep running in order to feel satisfied again.

But don’t despair – it is possible to make happiness last, by slowing the adaptation process, or even halting it all together.  Sheldon and Lyubomirsky found in a recent study that two anti-adaptation tools were effective in sustaining gains in happiness over time:  variety and appreciation.

Variety is, as we all know, the spice of life.  But it’s also a potent weapon against  adaptation, because we don’t get “used to” positive events when our experiences are novel, or unexpected.  When, on the other hand, a positive experience is repetitive – when you know exactly what to expect - you don’t get the same kick out of it. 

Positive changes that are experienced in a variety of ways are more likely to lead to lasting happiness.  So you’ll be happier with your new spouse if you spend time doing new things together, rather than getting stuck in a boring routine.  You’ll be happier at your job if you are able to tackle new tasks and challenges – if there is some day-to-day variety in what you do.   You’ll be happier with your soaker tub if you run out and get yourself some new bubble bath, or try lighting candles (or maybe ask someone to join you in it.)

The happiness you get from doing anything will fade if you do it the same way every day, so mix things up.  Think about this before making a change because you believe it will make you happier – will you be able to experience whatever it is in a variety of ways?   Because if the answer is no, don’t expect the happiness to last.

Tool #2, appreciation, is in many ways the opposite of adaptation – it’s going out of your way to focus on something, rather than taking it for granted or letting it fade into the background.  Appreciating can mean paying attention or noticing, but it is even more powerful when you take it further – when you savor something, delighting in its qualities and relishing how it makes you feel, or when you experience gratitude, a sense of being fortunate for being in your current circumstances compared to others, or compared to where you have been in the past.  When we appreciate our positive experiences, when we turn our mind’s eye toward them again and again in joy and wonder, we don’t just make our happiness last - we kick it up a notch, too.

Human beings spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will make them happy, but not nearly enough time trying to hang on to the happiness they already have.  In a way, this is like focusing all your energy on making more money, without giving any thought to what you’ll do with the money you’ve already earned.  The key to wealth, like the key to happiness, is to not only look for new opportunities, but to make the most of the ones you’ve been given. 

Don't forget to check out my new online course, The Optimal Mindset.


You Are (Probably) Wrong About You

If you want to be more successful — at anything — than you are right now, you need to know yourself and your skills. And when you fall short of your goals, you need to know why. This should be no problem; after all, who knows you better than you do?
And yet your own ratings of your personality traits — for instance, how open-minded, conscientious, or impulsive you are — correlate with the impressions of other people (who know you well) at around .40. In other words, how you see yourself and how other people see you are only very modestly correlated.
Who's right? Who knows you best? Well, the research suggests that they do — other people's assessment of your personality predicts your behavior, on average, better than your assessment does. The truth is, we don't know ourselves nearly as well as we think we do. When it comes to performance, our surprising self-ignorance makes understanding where we went right and where we went wrong difficult, to say the least.

At the root of the problem is the human brain itself. There's a lot going on in there, but just because it's your brain doesn't mean you know what it's doing.
In his fascinating book Strangers to Ourselves, psychologist Timothy Wilson summarizes decades of research on what he calls our adaptive unconscious, showing us just how much of what we do during every moment of every day — what we think, how we feel, the goals we pursue and the actions we take — is happening below our conscious awareness. Some of it we can notice if we engage in a little self-reflection, but much of it we simply cannot — it's not directly accessible to us at all.
Why would our brains work this way? For the most part, the answer seems to be because it's wildly efficient. I've often made the analogy that if our nonconscious mind's processing power is like that of a NASA super-computer, then by comparison, our conscious mind can handle roughly the contents of a Post-it note. It's limited and slow, and when too much is asked of it, it starts dropping things. If we had to do everything we do consciously, then we'd be so busy remembering to breathe and not fall over that we couldn't get much else accomplished. By handing operations over to the nonconscious mind — including high-level, complex operations like pursuing goals — we make productivity possible.
The downside, of course, is that when things go wrong we have an understandably difficult time figuring out why, given that we weren't completely conscious of what we were doing in the first place. It's like an old-fashioned murder mystery — there's a dead body on the floor, and it's the detective's job to figure out what happened, even though he was miles away when the murder occurred. He rounds up the suspects and weighs the evidence, and thereby discovers who's to blame.
When you fail to reach a goal — say, for instance, you give an important presentation and it doesn't go well — you become the detective (once again, largely unconsciously). You gather up the usual suspects to see who is responsible for your failure: lack of innate ability, lack of effort, poor preparation, using the wrong strategy, bad luck, etc. Of all of these possible culprits, it's lack of innate ability we most frequently hold responsible, like the much-maligned butler in an Agatha Christie novel. In Western countries — and nowhere more so than in the U.S. — innate ability is the go-to explanation for all of our successes and our failures.
The problem is that the evidence — the kind gathered by scientists over the last thirty years of study of motivation and achievement — suggests that innate ability is rarely to blame for either succeeding or falling short. (If you've blamed your poor performances in the past on a lack of ability, don't feel bad. We've all done it. The butler seems guilty. Just please don't do it anymore.)
If we are going to ever improve performance, we need to place blame where it belongs. We need solid evidence about where we went wrong. Unfortunately, that's the kind of evidence that usually doesn't make it to our consciousness on its own, making self-diagnosis practically impossible. We need help getting the right answers.
The good news is that this is basically what research psychologists (particularly those working in social, cognitive, and consumer psychology) do for a living — we figure out what questions we can ask you to get at what's really going on underneath the surface. Because if we ask you flat out why you didn't get that promotion, or why you can't get along with your coworkers, or why you can't seem to lose that last 15 pounds, you'll probably say something like "I just don't have what it takes," and we already know that's wrong.
But what if you're not working with a psychologist, or doing a 360 review, or getting enough feedback from your boss or your coworkers? Then what do you do?
I wrote a blog post (that became a Harvard Business Press e-book) called Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. In the time since it was first published, I've received more than a few emails from readers asking how they can know if they are doing enough of each thing. How do I know if I am really a realistic optimist? Am I being specific enough? Have I built up enough willpower? Good questions. And once again, very difficult to self-diagnose — and improvement is impossible without good answers. This is why I recently created the Nine Things Diagnostic. It's a set of questions you can answer online and get immediate feedback (for free) that tells you which of the Nine Things you need to work on, and which ones you have already mastered.
You certainly don't need to take my diagnostic to figure out how where your weaknesses lie. The point is that you will absolutely need feedback — the kind you can trust — because trying to figure it all out on your own is close to impossible. Relying on our intuitions alone for self-knowledge is dangerous, because thanks to the nature of the adaptive unconscious, they are often no more accurate than a shot in the dark.