“What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” is not a book about how to become successful in life. It is a much rarer gem: a book about how to remain successful. The latter is much more difficult than the former. Get ready to discover why – and how to “turn the maze of wrong turns in the workplace into a straight line to the top.”
The trouble with success
Consider the hot hand fallacy. Less a fallacy, it’s more a glitch in our thinking which occurs when our brain puts too much weight on past events, firmly believing they will have a decisive effect on future outcomes.
Say you have guessed correctly on which side a coin would land four times in a row. Now your brain will have you believe that your odds of guessing accurately on the fifth flip are greater than usual. However, assuming the coin is fair, the chance is still 50% – exactly what it was each time before. Unlike you, a coin has no memory. Each toss is independent from the others.
The hot hand fallacy is prevalent in sports. If an NBA player sinks four shots in a row, both he and the fans are more likely to believe that the next shot will go down as well. The strange thing is that even if it doesn’t, the player will interpret it as a minor anomaly and still believe that he’s got a hot hand. The same holds true for golfers. They are not only delusional about their successes – believing they are better than they actually are – but they are also delusional about their weaknesses, which they usually deny. That is why they spend most of their time training to be better at what they are already good at.
But, then again, every human being tends to repeat behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement. When we do something right and that brings us results, we want to repeat it. We also want to remember it and use it as an indication of our “real” potential. If a golfer breaks 90 one time out of a hundred rounds, in their conversations, that outstanding round will quickly become their “usual game.” Just as well, if you beat a grandmaster at chess just once, you believe you are secretly just as good as them – even if you lose each of your next thousand games. However, success is all about consistency. And, quite paradoxically, consistency is all about change.
The success delusion, or why we resist change
The more successful we’ve been in the past, the more confident we become that great things await us in the future. Not unlike a golfer after a great round or a hot-handed NBA player, we begin to have more faith in our abilities, while losing our readiness to accept other people’s advice. We start overestimating our contributions to the overall success of the team and we even go so far as to take credit for successes that truly belong to others. While conveniently ignoring our costly failures and denying responsibility for them, we exaggerate our own impact and take full credit for our successes.
Believe it or not, this is not a bad thing, at least in the beginning. In the words of Marshall Goldsmith, our “wacky delusional belief in our godlike omniscience” instills us with confidence, saves us from doubts, and blinds us to the risks and challenges in our work. After all, it’s the hot-handed players who take the last shot: everyone else is just too afraid to accept the responsibility.
The problem is that after some time, hot-handed players become so self-assured that they stop trusting their teammates and start taking wild shots, even when everybody else is open. The very attitude that helped them become leaders of the team begins to erode the entire organization. Therein lies the paradox of success: the beliefs that carry one to the top of the ladder are the ones that will eventually cause their downfall.
Four key beliefs help us become successful: “I have succeeded,” “I can succeed,” “I will succeed,” and “I choose to succeed.” Each of them makes it difficult for us to change and can sabotage our chances for continued success by infusing us with an unshakeable belief in our own abilities and an unflappable optimism for the future. There is a season for everything, however, a time for every activity under heaven. There is a time to be an idealist, and a time to expect the worst. There is a time to act as if you know everything, and a time to act as if you are the least intelligent person in the room. A time to build and a time to tear down. The ones who succeed – the ones who truly and consistently succeed – are the ones who understand this. The ones who change.
The 20 habits that hold you back from the top
So, on the whole, just as there are delusions caused by failure, there are delusions caused by success as well. These delusions usually manifest themselves in the form of 20 destructive workplace habits. They are not flaws of skill, faults of intelligence or unchangeable character defects. They are merely 20 “challenges in interpersonal behavior,” or more descriptively, 20 “egregious everyday annoyances that make your workplace substantially more noxious than it needs to be.” Since they are interpersonal, they don’t happen in a vacuum – they are always performed by one person against others.
The 20 habits are:
- Winning too much. The more you win, the more you want to win. However, as Goldsmith says, your “need to win at all costs and in all situations (when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally beside the point)” makes it impossible for everyone else to just do their job. So, stop turning everything into a competition.
- Adding too much value. The more confident you are in your skills, the more you believe that your opinion matters. However, your overwhelming desire to add something to every discussion can result in robbing others from their rightful contributions. The higher you are in an organization, the less you should try to add value to someone else’s ideas.
- Passing judgment. The need to rate others and impose your standards on them benefits you and your ego – not the others and their careers. So, rather than passing judgment when someone expresses an opinion, just say, “Thank you.” Judgments bring arguments. Gratitude brings harmony.
- Making destructive comments. Cutting sarcastic remarks make you sound sharp and witty, but they serve no other purpose than to put people down. So, think twice before taking a jab at someone.
- Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However.” What these negative qualifiers secretly say to everyone is, “I’m right. You’re wrong.” Replace them with, once again, a simple “Thank you.”
- Telling the world how smart we are. Being smart is admirable; telling people how smart you are is pathetic. Stop this behavior with the following three-step drill: 1) Pause before opening your mouth to ask yourself, “Is anything I say worth it?” 2) Conclude that it is not, and 3) Say, “Thank you.”
- Speaking when angry. Emotional volatility has value as a management tool, but only in relation to “sleepy employees.” Otherwise, anger makes things spiral out of control. Keep it to yourself.
- Negativity. The phrase “Let me explain why that won’t work” is analogous to a “Do Not Enter” sign outside your office. When not specifically asked, do not share your negative feelings about anything.
- Withholding information. Even if not sharing information gains you an advantage over others in the short run, over time it breeds mistrust and suspicion that cancels the rewards. So, share information as much as possible. It’s difficult to err on the side of honesty.
- Failing to give proper recognition. The inability to praise and reward is a sibling of withholding information. But it’s worse. “Of all the interpersonal slights we make in our professional or private lives,” writes Goldsmith, “not providing recognition may be the one that endures most deeply in the minds of the slighted.” Except for…
- Claiming credit that we don’t deserve. The only thing more annoying than failing to give proper recognition to others is overestimating your own contribution to any success. This is nothing short of theft. Share the wealth instead. Rather than being a credit hog, aim to become a credit Santa.
- Making excuses. Neither blunt nor subtle excuses work. When you hear yourself saying “I’m sorry I’m late but I couldn’t get a cab,” stop talking after the word “sorry.” Then, start thinking about what you can do to not be late the next time.
- Clinging to the past. It’s true that the past trained us to behave in a certain way, but it’s also true our present will become the past for our future selves. So, stop blaming your past for your present failures and start changing.
- Playing favorites. We like our dogs more than our spouses because they never talk back, and are always happy to see us. However, when people do the same, it’s a trick: some employees heap unthinking, unconditional admiration upon their bosses to get something out of it. Stop treating them like you treat your dog. Because it means you’re treating everyone else unfairly.
- Refusing to express regret. Successful people don’t like to apologize for their actions because it makes them feel as if they have lost a contest, as if they have ceded power or control. However, the inability to take responsibility for our actions is tantamount to failing to recognize how our actions affect others. Refusing to apologize leads to interpersonal flaws – even when it makes you feel better on a personal level. So start saying “sorry” more often.
- Not listening. This is “the most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.” Pay attention.
- Failing to express gratitude. “The most basic form of bad manners,” according to Goldsmith. Everyone likes to have their efforts acknowledged. Sometimes a simple “thank you” is enough.
- Punishing the messenger. Messengers share useful information. Sometimes this means sharing bad news. It’s misguided to attack them just because they are warning us of something bad – they are only trying to help.
- Passing the buck. This is the flipside of claiming undue credit – the need to blame everyone but ourselves. Do the opposite: own your mistakes.
- An excessive need to be “me.” Stop forcing people to accept you the way you are. It’s nothing more than an ill-advised attempt to exalt your faults as virtues. People should not accept your faults. On the contrary: you should accept their criticisms. And then change for the better.
How we can change for the better
The underlying factor for many of the 20 destructive habits is the 21st habit: goal obsession. By spending time plotting out their long-term goals, many people forget that behavioral change can only start in the present and that it is, essentially, not a difficult endeavor. After all, the roots of most of the annoying habits are the same; consequently, the solutions are similar as well. With this in mind, Goldsmith suggests a seven-step method to rise up to the challenge of all 20 habits and make the subsequent changes permanent. The method consists of the following:
- Feedback. There are four types of knowledge about us: public (known to both us and others), private (known to us, unknown to others), blind spots (unknown to us, known to others), and unknowable (unknown to us, unknown to others). Finding the blind spots is the final goal of all real feedback. Start changing your behavior by being proactive about feedback. Make a list of people’s casual remarks about you, observe your behavior at home and carefully listen to your own self-aggrandizing remarks. Also, whenever a colleague or an employee gives you negative feedback, don’t respond by arguing about it. Instead, thank them, write the feedback down and consider it later when you are calmer.
- Apologizing. Apologizing, in Goldsmith’s opinion, is “the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make.” So, do it often and do it right. Once you are prepared to apologize, say “I’m sorry,” add “I’ll try to do better in the future,” and then – say nothing at all. Don’t explain it, don’t complicate it, don’t qualify it – you only risk diluting it.
- Telling the world, or advertising. Once you’ve apologized about your past behavior, try to define the changes you are going to make in the future in relation to your apologies. Believe it or not, it’s actually easier to change your behavior than to change people’s perception of it. So, try to become your own press secretary! In other words, let everyone you know that you’ve started making adjustments to your behavior. And don’t settle with the results until you get their approval. “Think of the process as an election campaign,” suggests Goldsmith. “After all, you don’t elect yourself to the position of ‘new improved you.’ Your colleagues do. They’re your constituency. Without their votes, you can never establish that you’ve changed.”
- Listening. Not listening to others when they speak to you is the root cause of many of the 20 destructive habits. Just as well, learning from others is a proven path toward success. So, listen to them, and listen to them with respect. Don’t interrupt and never finish the other person’s sentences. Do not use words such as “no,” “but” and “however,” or phrases such as “I knew that.” Don’t even agree with the other person before they are done. Above all, don’t ever let your eyes or attention wander elsewhere. Rather than striving to impress the other party, think of a conversation as a see-saw ride, as a delicate dance, as a game of catch. Paradoxically, “the more you subsume your desire to shine, the more you will shine in the other person’s eyes.”
- Thanking. When someone does something nice for you – even if it’s not something useful or something you needed – they expect some sort of gratitude. Withhold it, and they will think less of you; say it out loud, and they will help you once again. There is a reason why Academy Award speeches are nothing more than catalogues of “thank you’s” – the only way to remain successful is by thanking everyone who has contributed toward your success.
- Following up. Becoming a good person, a good employee or a good leader is not an event, but a process. In other words, you don’t get better without following up. After all, the only way to stay in shape is by exercising regularly: doing a few exercises now and then or merely understanding the theory of working out won’t cut it. Similarly, it’s not enough to apologize once, listen from time to time or say “thank you” here and there – you have to do these things consistently. So, stay diligent and keep your focus. The only way to turn your resolutions into habits is by following up.
- Practicing “feedforward.” Once you’ve identified the interpersonal habits that have been holding you back and apologized for them, once you’ve mastered the essential skills of apologizing, listening and thanking, and once you’ve learned how to be more diligent about follow-up, you are finally ready to feedforward. As much as feedback is about what you did wrong in the past, feedforward is about what you want to do right in the future. It is, essentially, a four-step process: 1) Pick a behavior you would like to change; 2) describe this objective in a one-on-one dialogue with anyone you know; 3) ask that person for two suggestions for the future that might help you achieve a positive change in your selected behavior; and 4) listen attentively to the suggestions. Then start acting accordingly – and repeat the process with someone else. It’s as easy as that.
What Marshall Goldsmith so persuasively demonstrates throughout “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” is that the very beliefs that contribute to our success, in time, become obstacles on our road to greatness.
In other words, the book is a gentle reminder that the age-old dictum “evolve or die” remains true at all times. Even after you have succeeded.
Successful people think they are successful because of their behavior in the past. The challenge is to make them understand that often they are successful in spite of their past behavior. Only then they will understand the need to change.