Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

2019 — Q2W15 — Success

Could it be that we have been getting wrong advice all along?

How to succeed by working hard. How to succeed by not even trying. How to succeed by doing what others have done… New lists, methods and books keep popping every day. Here is my take on it.

The quality of your learning indicates whether your endeavours will succeed. And that’s not the learning your teacher prescribed.

When young, we are told to study hard at school to succeed. As we grow, we see that success in school does not necessarily predict success in life. Yet, a recent article of MIT Technology Review, “How the data mining of failure could teach us the secrets of success”, clearly brings back the connection between success and learning. But not just any learning.

The researchers proved through big data what we’ve known all along. “Neither chance nor learning alone can explain the empirical patterns underlying failures”. Yet, they found a clear connection between the level of learning from experience and success and failure.

When the level of learning from experience is below some threshold, you are doomed to fail. And vice-versa. When the level of learning from experience is above a certain threshold, you will eventually succeed.

Learning from experience is not something we should take for granted. Two things are important here. First, how we learn from experience and what are the types of our experiences. A lot can be said on how we can learn from experience. The most important boils down to learning to reflect on experiences and listen to our intuition.

As far as types of experiences, Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas nailed the term “Crucibles of Leadership” 15 years ago. According to them, “one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.”

They go on to say that learning from difference is by far the most important. “A crucible is, by definition, transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity. It is perhaps not surprising then that one of the most common types of crucibles we documented involves the experience of prejudice. Being a victim of prejudice is particularly traumatic because it forces an individual to confront a distorted picture of him- or herself, and it often unleashes profound feelings of anger, bewilderment, and even withdrawal. For all its trauma, however, the experience of prejudice is for some a clarifying event. Through it, they gain a clearer vision of who they are, the role they play, and their place in the world.”

I was recommended this article when taking a course in Authentic Leadership at the Copenhagen Business School. I loved it then because it helped me make sense of the crucibles in my life. By rereading it now I see the much bigger effect this concept had on me. And, here comes my next point.

Your success is defined by how good you are at mastering seemingly opposite aspects.

According to Travis Bradberry, it’s about being passionate and rational, convergent and divergent, energetic and calm, liking work and play, ambivert (both introverted and extroverted), naive and smart, humble and proud.

I could not agree more. And to make things more complex, the list is endless: tough and empathetic, rational and intuitive, spiritual and scientific, mastering your female and male sides, youthful and wise, team player and a leader, business-like and artistic, commercial and authentic, risk-taking and safe, decisive and collaborative, techy and fuzzy and so on. The bottom-line is that rather than being an either-or choice, it is about mastering seemingly opposite aspects. By far my favourites are: committed and flexible and patient with a sense of urgency.

Ta-dah! Here comes my formula for success.

If you are following my blog, you know how inspired I am by this theme. I would expand here on the definition I have given in my article “The Intelligence of the Opposites”.

To succeed, we need to keep creating opportunities to experience the transformative tension of what we perceive to be opposite to us people or opinions, and learn from them. And second, we need to master what we perceive to be opposite qualities and competencies.

So, next time someone tells you how important it is to be persistent to succeed, tell them it’s equally important to know when to stop. If they tell you it’s important to network and you should “never eat alone”, tell them it’s equally important to spend time alone and reflect. And next time you feel you are failing or someone tells you are, remember: if you have learnt something from that experience, you are one step closer to success than you were.

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