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Success: Are you a self-help junkie?


This feature was contributed Dr Mike Waters, senior executive coach at Performance Coaching International. You can also read his article What is success?

It’s curious that so few of us seem to achieve success or, more accurately, to regard ourselves as successful. It may, of course, be that we simply don’t give ourselves the credit for the good things we bring into our lives. This would indicate a lowish level of self-efficacy. It may also be that we make it exceedingly difficult to succeed, in our own terms, because we set unnecessarily stringent performance criteria.

In one of his Personal Power tapes, Anthony Robbins discusses the case of an exceptionally high-achieving businessman who does not regard himself as successful because he has yet to earn $4 million a year; to date, he’s managed a salary of only $2-something million. By contrast, Robbins cites the example of a man who reckons he’s successful every time he survives to enjoy another day.

Perceptions apart, why is it that many of us do not experience what Earl Nightingale called ‘the progressive realization of worthy goals’? Some possible explanations can be found in the literature of success itself. One is that we pursue goals which are not aligned to our deepest values, sometimes because we have allowed other people to set them for us. The effect is that one part of us strives for things that other parts of us don’t truly want, so we end up sabotaging our own efforts. Wealth and career goals sometimes end this way.

Anther explanation comes from self-image psychology. In essence, it’s the theory that success has infinitely more to do with our insides than with out outsides - with what goes on internally rather than with what we do. We’ve got to see ourselves as successful, picture it in our mind's eye, and have the appropriately positive self-beliefs before we will fully allow ourselves to do the things that will result in their realization. If we have ‘high’ goals but a ‘low’ self-image, then our sub-conscious mind will see it that we remain at the lower level.

These two forms of self-sabotage - values misaligned with goals or action, and failure to change sufficiently on the inside first - are two of many. What none of the more obvious patterns of self-defeating behaviour seem adequately to account for is a phenomenon that may be peculiar to our time and is undoubtedly on the increase: the ‘failure’ of the success afficionado.

The literature of success, and this includes audio-cassette and other programmes, is prodigious and widely available. It offers both general principles for success and specific systems and step-by-step procedures for achieving success in particular areas - the financial, for example. There are also plenty of books etc. on achievement technologies that detail more specific skills and strategies for success.

Whatever we lack, then, we don’t lack blueprints, primers or models. So how come that many of us who know about these materials don’t appear to be getting much in the way of benefit from them? How come we’re not achieving all our goals at super speed?

The short answer, I’ve come to believe, is that many of us are substituting knowing for doing. Or, if we’re not substituting, then we’re mistaking.

Becoming a success afficionado, or addict(!), appears typically to occur like this. At some point we are exposed to a personal development programme - perhaps even reluctantly, at first. Our curiosity is aroused and we begin to seek out more and more books and tapes. Before we know it, we’re on our way to becoming a self-help junkie.

The condition is fast beginning to be documented. In True Success (1996), Tom Morris cites the examples of a man ‘addicted to success books’. The problem is that reading them has become an end in itself and ‘the only thing he is really successful at now is finishing these books’ and plucking from them some ‘catchy aphorisms’. Joseph O’Connor and Robin Prior, authors of Successful Selling With NLP (1995), have observed something similar amongst salespeople hooked on regular exposure to motivational training. The effect is iatrogenic in that the hype becomes ‘a medicine that fosters the condition it purports to cure’.

The term ‘nariotizing dysfinition’ has been used to describe the media effect by which we confuse knowing about an issue with taking action on it. It’s an ugly term, but it seems to fit the condition I’m delineating here.

It’s deeply ironic, of cause, that self-help literature can be disabling rather than enabling for its most fervent consumers. Being harsh on its authors and presenters won’t do, since many of them virtually scream at their readers/listeners to practice the prescriptions they dispense. Some success gurus even provide strategies for making inaction highly uncomfortable - getting their readers/listeners to associate it with pain, for example. A ‘do it or else’ approach, what Lou Tice of The Pacific Institute calls ‘restrictive motivation’, may not be the ideal basis on which to take action, but it at least indicates the importance of doing something that’s directly goal-related. Similarly, within a training context, NLP-influenced’ presenters attend to what is termed ‘future pacing’ so as to prepare participants for the implementation of the strategies they take away.

The major ‘problem’ with success literature is that it makes us feel good. It’s generally enthusing and can delight us with stories and strategies. The better it makes us feel, the more of it we want. It’s easy to see why we might come to confuse means with ends, to ‘forget’ that the objective is not to sustain a warm, internal glow punctuated with fascinating insights, nor even just to improve aspects of our day-to-day lives but to get us doing things related to longer-term goals accomplishment. Add to this the voracious appetites that serious self-improvers can come to acquire for new ideas and skills, and it’s not hard to see why preparation modulates into procrastination. Success afficionados are the Lotus-eaters of the personal development world.

So how can they, and most of us to a degree, be assisted to do rather than just to prepare to do? The solution lies in making success less fascinating and by recognizing that some of the key qualities are unsexy and so neglected. Among them are patience, conformity and self-restraint.

Once we find a strategy for moving towards goal achievement that seems right for us, we need the patience to stick with it and follow it through. Any half-decent plan for accumulating wealth steadily over time will probably serve most of us better than serial flirtation with get-rich-quick schemes we concoct for ourselves.

We also need to value conformity as much or more than creativity, and I say this as someone with the highest regard for creativity. That is, we are more likely to be successful if we tread the path to success that others have followed than if we leave it to explore other possibilities. There will always be exceptions. A few people achieve goals without setting them formally; some network marketers sign up a lot of people without first producing a list of prospects; some of us enhance our self-images without consciously formulating relevant affirmations. Most of us, however, are better served by doing the things that are known to work well. Our only concern should be with the quality of our success models. Fortunately, fields such as NLP and Behaviour Analysis now offer many quality models.

We also need self-restraint, so that once we’ve committed to a success programme we resist the temptation to immerse ourselves in success literature. We need both to ration and to target our future consumption.

Another way to keep on track is to work with a personal success coach. To be effective, a coach needs to be able to shift from inspiration mode to perspiration mode, from support to pressure, as and when appropriate, without at anytime taking over the responsibility which is properly the client’s. Varying presentation style is also a help: the positive, up-beat, sometimes high-octane style of many success programmes has its uses (eg. overcoming the friction of inertia), but a much more sober, low-key style is often more appropriate to getting tasks done, particularly if they are frankly mundane but still important.

Whatever it takes to be successful, it takes sustained application and focus: not conscious, ceaseless activity, necessarily, but certainly activity consistent with our strategy. This is the case even with short-term ‘process’ goals (improving rapport, for instance), that may not require a long-term strategy but do require the immediate, practical application of the relevant skills and techniques. Most success goals do require a strategic approach. If we’re faithful to our strategy, and it’s a quality one, then our chances of achieving our goals are good. If we become infatuated with Success itself, then we are likely to enter into promiscuous relationships that excite and delight but ultimately lead us nowhere.


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