Myths of success

Written by David Keane, The Art of Deliberate Success

Successful people, those who achieve extraordinary results, have a certain way of approaching their lives. The success they achieve is never down to good fortune or even the ability to work hard. Successful people achieve simply because they see the world differently from everyone else. And then they act on what they see.

Developing the ability to look at your world in a new way involves questioning some common thinking patterns and rejecting the myths that keep us from achieving our full potential. Three of the most restrictive myths are: stress is bad for us; our goal should be to achieve happiness; and that being busy is a good thing.

Myth 1: Life is Stressful

In survey after survey, stress is identified as one of the most pressing problems of our age. Indeed, for organisations, stress has major implications as it is the prime contributor to absenteeism, workplace conflict, low productivity and low morale. It is also behind the recently reported phenomenon of presenteeism, a situation where employees are physically present but their minds are not on the job. According to the Harvard Business Review, a study conducted by Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston found that presenteeism costs employers far more than absenteeism.

During my workshops, I ask participants to identify the causes of stress in their lives. All can easily generate a long list of factors, such as financial woes, relationships, childcare, ageing parents, work/life imbalance, unclear expectations at work, or too much to do with too little time and so on. I then ask the participants to examine these factors one by one, with the aim of isolating the underlying reason each factor causes them stress. In one hundred percent of cases, it is not the factor itself that is stressful but the participants’ reaction to the factor that causes them stress. This is a very important point. Once recognised, it can fundamentally change your life.

In simple terms, it means that you can choose to be stressed or not.

Now, in putting forward this argument, I am aware that some stress — which I prefer to call pressure — is actually healthy and useful. It helps us to get out of bed in the morning and raises our energy levels when there is a task to be done. The interesting question is at what point does stress turn from being healthy to unhelpful and potentially destructive?

I believe that you already know the answer to this question. If you look at situations where you were in the unhealthy zone, you will notice telltale signs. For example, some people become very quiet and introverted, some develop a short fuse and become irritable, and some develop excessive behaviours such as eating, drinking or sleeping too much or too little. I know one person who knows she is stressed when a rash appears on the inside of her left wrist!

The key point here is for you to develop an awareness of the signals that you are moving from feeling healthy pressure to unhealthy stress. When you become sensitive to stress in this way, you can take action and make decisions that dramatically reduce the problems of stress in your life.

This, then, is one of the most important steps towards becoming successful. It is becoming so self-aware that you can actually use stress to your advantage.

Myth 2: Happiness is the Goal

If your goal in life is to be happy, I can guarantee that you never will be. Now that is a pretty strong statement, but I wanted to shock you into looking at the idea of happiness again.

The trouble with happiness is that it is a feeling that gains a momentary foothold only to be replaced by other feelings. It is a bit like the sun on your face: wonderful while it lasts, but after some time the clouds come.

If we set up our lives seeking happiness, we are assured of disappointment. I have seen that people who are driven by the search for happiness are never really successful because their mental state is highly volatile and unreliable. The quality of their lives is determined by what happened yesterday (or five minutes ago), and they are constantly seeking the next high to make them happy. This self-perpetuating state of dissatisfaction explains why, for some people, spending money, eating and drinking, or even working hard can become such addictive activities.

In my experience, it is far better to see happiness not so much as a goal or something to be achieved, but rather as a result or by-product of doing something else. And the best way I know of doing that is to make ‘living a life of purpose’ your primary motivation. As the writer Richard Leider so beautifully put it: “The purpose of life is to live a life of purpose”. When you know what your purpose is, and live every day moving closer and closer to what is important, happiness is what you get. Happiness, therefore, is not something you go after. It comes to you.

Myth 3: Busy is Best

How often have you been asked if you are busy? It’s a most interesting question because behind it lurks some fundamental assumptions that colour how you might answer – irrespective of the truth. Perhaps the most significant assumption is that being busy is a good thing. And, conversely, not being busy – being idle – is undesirable. For some reason, people assume that to be busy is to be productive and, by extension, content.

Now you may think I am harping on a technicality here, but I am convinced that this one question has a profound influence on how we live and the results we get in our lives. To test this, the next time you are asked the question, ‘Are you busy?’ simply say ‘no’ or ‘not really’ and see what kind of reaction you get. You may hear, ‘Oh dear, what’s wrong?’ ‘It will come right’ or, my personal favourite, ‘Lucky for some’ – in other words, ‘I am busy and you should be too’.

If you are feeling really adventurous, you could try it with your boss and see what happens. The most likely outcome is that you are given more work to do!

The problem is that this mistaken logic is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even notice it. For example, people who are seen to be the busiest are more sought after and more highly rewarded in organisations. And, if you are a parent, there is thought to be something wrong with you unless you are constantly ferrying your kids from one sporting activity to the next. The implication here is that being busy is socially acceptable and normal, while not being busy is abnormal. This leads people to generate busyness in their lives for the sake of being busy.

It is far better to be busy with the things that really matter and to ignore the things that are not that important. In this way, you can really focus on things that are moving you closer to real success. Incidentally, my answer to the question ‘Are you busy?’ is ‘I am as busy as I choose to be!’

When you take these three myths and subject them to some healthy questioning, you may be surprised by what you discover. I believe you’ll begin to see your professional and personal life in a new way. And when you see with fresh eyes, you’ll act in ways that bring about extraordinary success.

Dr David Keane will lead a special half day workshop - The 10 Behaviours of Successful People – the day before the 2016 PRINZ Conference (May 12-13) in Auckland. For early-bird pricing, book your place by 6 April 2016.

Image credit: iStock