It’s a common belief that achieving success in our careers or personal lives will lead to greater happiness and life satisfaction. However, social and developmental psychology research has shown that this is not always the case. In fact, the correlation between achievement and happiness is often weak or non-existent. (Diener & Seligman, 2002).
Success at a cost
One reason for this is that achievement is often accompanied by pressure, stress, and anxiety. High achievers may feel that they are constantly under scrutiny and must maintain their success in order to be seen as valuable or worthy. This pressure can lead to burnout, emotional exhaustion, and a sense of emptiness or lack of fulfilment (Curnow, 2019).
For example, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps achieved unprecedented success in his swimming career but struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. Phelps stated in an interview with CNN (2018) that he had achieved everything he had ever wanted in his swimming career, but he still felt empty and lost. Similarly, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has reported feeling depressed despite his many accomplishments. Musk once tweeted, “The reality is great highs, terrible lows and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.”
Mindset and habits
These anecdotes are supported by cognitive and behavioural psychology research, which suggests that our level of happiness is influenced more by our mindset and daily habits than by external factors such as achievement or material possessions (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). Studies have shown that individuals who practice gratitude, mindfulness, and social connection tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction, regardless of their achievements (Lyubomirsky, 2013).
Social support and emotional stability
One study by King and Hicks (2007) found that life satisfaction was positively correlated with social support and emotional stability, but was negatively correlated with ambition and achievement. The researchers suggested that high-achieving individuals may prioritise their goals over their relationships, leading to a sense of isolation or disconnection.
In conclusion, while achievement can certainly bring a sense of accomplishment and pride, it’s important to recognise that it doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness. The pressure and stress that often accompany achievement can lead to feelings of emptiness or lack of fulfilment. It’s important to focus on cultivating positive habits and a healthy mindset in order to lead a fulfilling and satisfying life, regardless of external accomplishments.
Curnow, T. (2019). The dangers of high achievement: How success can lead to burnout. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-couch/201904/the-dangers-high-achievement-how-success-can-lead-burnout
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.
Following The 1% Podcast with the brilliant and funny Des Bishop, a background thought came to the foreground with further reflection. At the outset of the episode, we settled into our conversation by talking about how past errors or indiscretions helped position us toward a new course. In that regard, we can follow a negative trajectory downward, exacerbating what has gone wrong, or gain clarity and make necessary changes by understanding how and why certain events unfold against our desires or best-made plans.
Making the most of your mistakes
Many know this but may not want to hear it. The concept may be anathema to your sense of being and thinking, and you may not even be willing to process the possibility in your workplace. Nevertheless, let’s talk about it. No matter how cautious, discerning, motivated, prepared, and skilled you are—failure is inevitable. So why does it happen, and why are we afraid of it?
Why we fail
Failure has many makers, and any of the causes below could prove costly. Yet, as a concept, it is something we should be less afraid of, if only because it is unavoidable and can aid us once we grapple with it. According to Shiv Khera, author of You Can Win (2014), we usually fail for one of seven reasons:
- Lack of persistence
- Lack of conviction
- Dismissal of past mistakes
- Lack of discipline
- Poor self-esteem
- A fatalistic attitude
Forbes magazine reiterates a lack of belief and expectation of sub-par outcomes and adds:
- The desire to not be disruptive even if required
- The instinct for self-preservation
- Losing sight of our agency
- Fear of risking what has been built and our legacy
- Real and imagined stagnation
Impatience, a lack of a clear plan, a missing long-term or contingent strategy, and poorly thought-out or unattainable objectives, can be included in the list.
Tuning in versus tuning out
Additionally, failure is frequently related to something happening in our lives. In other words, it is already within us and is a manifestation of an existing discomfort. Humans are complex entities, our psyches are even more layered and nebulous, and we are routinely impacted by unexpected and undesirable circumstances happening to us or around us. Moreover, the minutia of everyday life can easily influence all the causes above.
Therefore, to believe that unwanted aspects of our personal or professional lives can be wholly cordoned off from influencing job performance to some degree is naïve. That said, and as outlined in a previous 1% article, the ability to compartmentalise and conquer is necessary at certain moments, but what happens if and when we cannot do that entirely and are forced to face failure head-on?
Redirection through reappraisal
Random and not-so-random outcomes go against us or do not go according to expectations. Sometimes there is no logic for what has happened, at least in terms of the event itself. Befuddled as we are, we must act. In the corporate environment, often, there is little time or room for context.
What comes next—i.e., fixing it—requires consideration. Once we figure out how and why we can devise and execute a response. That does not simply mean carrying out damage control, although that, too, is a skill. Rather it entails an alteration of our mindset. We must reappraise the situation as well as ourselves. What was our role, if any, in this? What could have been done differently? What was learned, and how can we turn it into a gain? Mistakes can represent an opportunity, one specifically for change.
When we fail, we are highly conscious of the meaning of that setback and its repercussions. Our self-awareness is heightened, and we become more malleable and open-minded because we may be less sure of decisions or what is happening around us. Humans and markets are not always predictable or rational. However, these conditions help enact evolution and transformation, which are metonyms for progress. In that regard, failure precedes success.
Ad astra per aspera
You may know the meaning of the somewhat ambiguous, albeit ubiquitous, Latin phrase above (a rough road leads to the stars), but did you know that it adorns the memorial plaque for the astronauts who died on Apollo I? Not only is the phrase befitting, but its application to this tragic event is instructive.
On February 21, 1967, a cabin fire killed the three astronauts on board during a launch rehearsal. The mission had failed before it had even gotten off the ground. Rather than lose hope and stop, the American space programme looked inward and studied the series of mistakes that led to the accident in granular detail to learn from its errors. It saw fault within itself and did not attempt to shift blame or explain away the tragedy to either bad luck or the unknowable. Ultimately, NASA was better for it.
This shift was embodied by Gene Kranz, the legendary boss of Mission Control, who delivered this impassioned speech three days after the tragedy:
“Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung-ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. […] From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. […] Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased.”
These words are known as the ‘Kranz Dictum,’ and they remain pillars of the programme. Surprisingly, Kranz’s 2009 book about the missions he was a part of is entitled, Failure Is Not An Option. Although inspiring, his title is a little misleading. Kranz, and everyone involved with Apollo I, failed. However, they were not defined by this and are instead remembered by their response. Two years later, the programme landed three men on the moon, one of the crowning achievements in the history of the human race.
Looking back, although NASA was interrupted by catastrophic failure to such a degree that it suspended crewed flights for twenty months, they were undeterred and used their mistakes as a catalyst for self-improvement. If we choose (and it is a choice) to use reflection, understanding, and growth as tools, every one of us can harness misfortune and miss-steps similarly.
References & Resources
Khera, Shiv. You Can Win: A Step by Step Tool for Top Achievers. Bloomsbury India, 2014.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Simon & Schuster, 2009.
There is more to leadership than being the smartest or most charismatic individual in a room. Leaders influence and inspire through action. They determine the company culture from the top-down. But what truly makes a leader great? And why is great leadership so important?
According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, 1 in 3 employees don’t trust their leaders. This lack of trust in leadership has a direct impact on retention, job satisfaction, and overall performance, which influences the company’s success. In fact, 79% of employees quit their jobs due to a lack of appreciation from leaders. It is no doubt a great leader directly impacts the business, for better or for worse.
What are the traits of a good leader?
- Emotional Intelligence: This includes self-awareness, empathy, communication skills, and the ability to be vulnerable and ask for help when needed. Emotional intelligence means recognizing that different people require different styles of management and adjusting based on the individual.
- Competence: Leaders must know what they are doing and be able to do it well. You cannot get a promotion or get to the top of a company without having the skills to do the job itself. Competence is an essential leadership trait.
- Charisma: It’s not always what you say that matters; it’s how you say it. Charisma on its own is not enough for great leadership, but a great leader does need the skills to inspire others. Martin Luther King Jr. is an example of a great leader because of his ability to move people in an authentic way.
- Vision: A great leader needs to be able to see the big picture. Vision enables the leader to make strategic, long-term decisions, especially in the heat of the moment. Having a clear vision keeps a leader motivated and helps them stay true to their mission.
- Integrity: Integrity is essential to great leadership. This requires honesty, openness, and trust. It means a leader acts in ways that align with their values and has a strong moral compass.
- Decisiveness: Often, leaders will have to make the decisions that others don’t want to make. Great leaders are also not afraid to ask for input to ensure they have all the information necessary before finalizing a decision.
- Innovative: It’s important for great leaders to be innovative and to inspire innovation in their employees. It may be comfortable to follow the status quo, but greatness doesn’t come from comfort. Innovation is also profitable. According to a Booz & Co. report, innovation organizations saw 11% more revenue and 22% more growth than their counterparts.
- Risk-Taking: Innovation also requires taking risks. Risk-taking does not mean reckless decision-making, however. It means having the ability to make an informed and calculated risk, assessing whether the cost outweighs the benefit. Further, research shows that leaders who take risks are better liked by their employees, regardless of the outcome of their decision.
- Invest in People: To lead people is to invest in them. All great leaders value their employees and their continuous growth as well as their own. The people are the company’s greatest asset, and great leaders know this.
- Holistic Health: A burnt-out leader is an absent leader. Those who care about their overall well-being such as their diet, exercise, sleep, and work-life balance are not only helping their own performance but are setting a better example for their employees. Moreover, research shows that self-care improves performance and productivity.
These ten traits are some of the core values of great leadership. All of these are important to inspire loyalty, trust, and retention in the workplace.
Lastly, what’s most essential is a leader who cares, whether that’s about their people, the business, or their overarching mission. Passion is contagious, and that is what true leadership inspires.
What does it mean for a person to function at their peak? Peak performance means that all basic needs are met so the mind and body are nourished, which allows for the highest level of success. It’s about long-term, consistent, and sustainable growth.
Often, peak performance is a term used in the athletics world. Athletes are in a constant cycle of training and recovery, learning their body’s cues in order to perform their best in matches or competitions. But the same mentality and techniques can be applied to entrepreneurship, the business world, or to anyone who is striving to live their best life. Superhuman status is not just for the elite.
“Peak performance in life isn’t about succeeding all the time or even being happy all the time. It’s often about compensating, adjusting, and doing the best you can with what you have right now.” — Ken Ravizza, Sport PsychologistKen Ravizza, Sport Psychologist
The power of the to-do list
It may seem simple, but one way to achieve peak function is by writing down goals and to-do lists for accountability. The goals should be SMART goals: specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound. But a to-do list can include everything from long-term planning to what to accomplish before breakfast the next day. To-do lists help to organise the mind in a more linear fashion and create space to focus on the present moment rather than stressing about what’s to come.
It is also important to not rigidly adhere to a to-do list. Psychologists have found that a growth mindset is more indicative of long-term success and motivation. Part of being a highly successful person is learning to adapt to the inevitable fluctuations of life.
Mindfulness & mental health
Mindfulness and meditation can help with stress and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Prioritising mental health is equally important as physical health and the items on a to-do list. Goals are important, but they also need to be sustainable.
In fact, in a study in The Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, athletes who performed just twelve minutes of meditation a day showed higher mental resilience than those who didn’t. They also had more improved focus during training. Rest and recovery can often seem counterintuitive when schedules are jam-packed and the lists endless, but ultimately, taking the time to be present and slow down will lead to more effective results.
Diet, nutrition & sleep
A healthy diet, nutrition, and adequate sleep are essential to achieve peak performance. Sleep debt — fewer than seven hours of sleep — may be an ‘unrecognised, but likely critical factor in reaching peak performance’, says Cheri Mah, researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorder Clinic and Research Laboratory. There is a strong correlation between diet and nutrition and quality of sleep. For example, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol negatively impact sleep, whereas eating a Mediterranean diet, and a diet high in Omega fatty acids, may lead to more restful sleep (Godos et al., 2019).
Many high performers work around their ‘peak performance hours’, which is the time of day when a person is most efficient based on the body’s chronotype and circadian rhythms. In other words, knowing whether one is a night owl, or a morning bird can help determine the day’s structure for optimal success.
The importance of deep work & flow
Lastly, the ability to be in flow is not only a factor in success but also happiness and overall life satisfaction. ‘Flow’, a term first coined by positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, refers to being completely immersed in the task at hand. It can be achieved by avoiding multitasking, focusing on quality of the work rather than doing as many things as fast as possible, and by doing a task that is enjoyable.
In the book, The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance, the authors explain that optimal focus also requires some level of stress. Too much stress will inhibit focus, and too little leads to a lack of motivation. To achieve deep flow, then, there needs to be some sense of urgency in the work. There needs to be a purpose driving the task.
Peak performance is not achieved overnight. It requires consistent practice, having clear goals, and holding oneself accountable, while also maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Anyone can achieve peak performance and success by implementing the right habits.
More on sleep
- “Studies show that reducing sleep by as little as 1.5 hours for even a single night could cause a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32 percent, while also doubling the person’s risk of sustaining an occupational injury.” (Read more)
- The Power of Sleep: Unlocking the Secrets to Success with Elite Sports Sleep Coach Nick Littlehales
- Cracking The Performance Code with Justin Roethlingshoefer
- Performance improvement lessons from leading sleep expert Pat Byrne
- The impact of sleep on performance with Motty Varghese