In 1979 researchers asked Harvard MBA graduates about their goals. 84% had no specific goals, 13% had goals but they weren’t committed to paper. Just 3% had clear, written goals with plans to achieve them. In 1989, the reviewers interviewed them again and found that the 3% who had goals were earning ten times as much as the other 97% put together. Incredible right? Just one thing. The study is a lie. It never happened. In fact you’ll find a version of it that happened at Yale university in 1953. That’s also fiction. Yet there are thousands of references to this “scientific study” on Google. It has been cited by many personal development luminaries including Anthony Robbins and Brian Tracy. Many years ago I spoke about it on one of my audiobooks before a kind listener alerted me to the truth.
Unfortunately the personal growth field has propagated many myths about success. Why? Often the myths contain seeds of truth. Research does show that people with clear, written well-formulated goals tend to be more successful than those without. Exaggerate that truth with a fictional study and you give me an even more compelling reason to write down my goals. The lie almost seems worth it. The problem is that these exaggerations set us up for disappointment. If I write down my goals and don’t start achieving massive success I may start to think there is something wrong with me and quickly give up. Worse, I may think that writing down goals is the only thing that’s required for success.
I love the personal development field. It’s given me the tools to live the life of my dreams but I also think its time to separate fact from fiction. Fact is not always as sensational as fiction but its way more empowering. So here are seven myths about success followed by seven truths.
Success Myth 1
An abundance consciousness will make you rich. Really? Just look around you. Have you never seen a rich miser with a scarcity consciousness and a financially poor person who lives with a sense of abundance and gives generously? I know I have. The truth? An abundance consciousness may not make you richer but it will almost certainly make you more generous and research shows that generous people are happier.
Success Myth 2
“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve.” These words from Napoleon Hill are the foundation of much of the personal development field. They pretty much sum up “The Secret”. Like most myths you only have to do a little self-reflection to realize the lie. Most people don’t believe they will get divorced, go bankrupt or get cancer. Yet many people do. The truth? Belief is essential but not enough. If you don’t believe you’ve got a chance you won’t try, but without action, expertise, practice and a list of other things, that belief may just be a delusion.
Success Myth 3
Visualizing yourself achieving your goals makes you achieve them. University of California psychologists found that students who visualized getting good grades actually did worse. The brain doesn’t differentiate well between reality and fantasy. Visualizing achievement may tell the brain that no more action is required. Students who visualized themselves studying did far better. A compelling vision of the future can inspire you to take action but instead of just visualizing the outcome make sure you also visualize the action you need to take.
Success Myth 4
If you want to lose weight go on a diet. Research at UCLA based on over 30 long-term diet studies found that most people who go on diets will initially lose weight and then gain back even more than before they started. Whether it’s Atkins, South Beach or Zone, the long-term results are almost equally disappointing. Permanent weight loss depends on lifestyle changes that address multiple factors including exercise, stress, sleep and hydration.
Success Myth 5
Affirmations program your brain for success. Research published in the journal of psychological science found that when people with low self-esteem repeat affirmations such as: “I am a well loved and respected person capable of greatness,” they actually reduce their self-esteem. Why? How do you think you would feel if you just had your arm blown off and then repeated an affirmation that said: “I have two beautiful, healthy arms.” You’d probably find yourself focusing even more on what you know to be the truth: that you don’t. Affirmations work when they are congruent with one’s values and beliefs. A Carnegie Mellon University study found that thinking about ones top values before a test increased student’s problem solving ability by 50%. The researchers believe this is because the positive statements reduced the students stress levels.
Success Myth 6
Follow these 10 irrefutable laws and success is guaranteed. You will find a version of this across the personal development field. I confess you’ll probably find a version somewhere in my four books and seven audiobooks. Steve Jobs broke nearly every “law” there is about good leadership. Perhaps he would have been an even better leader if he didn’t, but a success strategy that works for one person may not work for everyone. In an uncertain world we crave certainty and we’ll pay good money for it even when it’s a myth. After fifteen years in this business I can tell you what works most of the time for most people but there will many exceptions. And no, the exception does not prove the rule because there are no rules, just guidelines. If there was a sure path to success we all would have taken it already. Embrace the uncertainty, that’s what gives life its thrill.
Success Myth 7
There aren’t just seven success myths there are a lot more. Personal development experts mostly use the numbers “3, 7, 10 and 21” because these are popular and add to what Stephen Colbert calls “thruthiness”, something that feels true even when devoid of evidence. So yes, I too am guilty as charged!
I’ll probably never stop using popular numbers or other rhetorical flourishes. These are harmless parts of persuasive communication. But I commit to you, my readers, audiences and workshop participants; I will work harder to separate fact from fiction, truth from truthiness. A myth is like a sexy one-night stand, it’s seductive but ultimately disappointing. The truth is like a long-term loving relationship, it won’t always titillate but it has far more power to change your life.
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