Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, and his first start-up, Traf-O-Data, was a big failure. J. K. Rowling was divorced, depressed, and on welfare. Theodor Seuss Geisel had 27 different publishers reject his first book. Albert Einstein was expelled from high school and was refused admittance to Zurich Polytechnic. What these people all have in common is that, at one point in their lives, they were abject failures. Yet without these “failures,” we would not have Microsoft, the Harry Potter series, Dr. Seuss, or the Theory of Relativity.
Some people seem destined to succeed in their chosen endeavors, in spite of any failures they encounter along the way. Others seem to experience difficulty bouncing back from defeat or disappointment, and they have only intermittent success or no success at all. What is the difference? Is it intelligence? Interpersonal skills? Charisma? Or is it just luck? There is research about the relationship between emotional intelligence and success, personal characteristics and success, and intelligence and success. However, the research in those areas does not explain how the view or perception of one’s success is what leads ultimately successful individuals to be persistent in the face of failure.
The most important ingredient to being successful on a sustained basis is how we interpret our success. This interpretation, or our explanatory style, is the way we explain our success or failure to ourselves—it is directly related to how likely we are to experience success or failure in the future. Are you a complainer and subject to focusing on a black cloud in every silver lining? Are you prone to having a consistently negative and pessimistic view of life, needing “a check-up from the neck-up,” as motivational speaker Zig Ziglar used to say. Or are you someone who regularly sees the glass as half full and therefore failure as a passing event and a learning opportunity on the way to success? Optimism, pessimism, resilience—or the lack thereof—are all rooted in how we talk to ourselves about our successes and failures. Our interpretations make all the difference in whether we have any control of our lives and our outcomes.
In fact, there is a clear difference between people who consistently complain about their plight and those who do not. Those who have a sustained level of success actually think differently from those whose success is fleeting or non-existent. The way you think about yourself is foundational. These three characteristics are critical to experiencing success on a regular basis:
- Personal Control: Successful people believe that their success is a result of internal qualities over which they have some control, such as attitude, effort, preparation, experience, or skill set. People with lower levels of success feel like success is more dependent on external circumstances over which their control is minimal. As a result, when a typically low-performing individual does experience success, they attribute it more to luck or coincidence. A typically successful person experiencing the same success will recognize the link between the outcome and personal characteristics, such as their effort, preparation, skill set, attitude, and determination.
- Generalizability: Successful people believe that success is not an accident of time, location, or circumstance. Instead, they believe they will continue to have similar successes at other times and in other settings. Successful people believe that if they are successful in one situation, they are capable of being successful in other situations. That does not mean they avoid risk or failure. Quite the opposite—they are not afraid of risk or failure because they are determined to persevere until successful. Both Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were not successful until late in life, after they had both experienced many public failures. In spite of those earlier failures, both of them changed history dramatically.
- Stability: Stability is the degree to which you think that the capabilities you have are reliable over time, because they are an internal part of you. Successful people know that they can rely on their capabilities when learning new tasks and facing unfamiliar challenges or situations, while unsuccessful people experiencing success do not have the confidence that it can be attributed to a stable trait they possess. They are more likely to say they had a “good day,” “dumb luck,” or “a one-time thing,” not likely to happen again. These people are more likely to live life like a lottery ticket purchaser, with the expectation that the odds are strongly against them winning or being successful.
The roots of victimization are feelings that, no matter what one does, the outcome will be not be good. Individuals who have a “victim” mentality go through life believing the “cards are stacked against them,” and have little motivation to make a difference in their lives or their work. Risk is to be avoided at all costs. Failure and lack of effort begins to define them. On the other hand, people who are consistently successful in life believe that success is a product of personal choices that we all have in response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
There is a clear link between the outcomes of our lives and the attitude, effort, persistence, and abilities we apply to various circumstances. When failures do happen, they are considered passing events that do not define us. Zig Ziglar cautioned us to “remember that failure is an event, not a person.” Taking on new risks and challenges can be seen as adventures to explore that offer new and exciting things to be learned. What defines us is a realistic appraisal of our abilities and attitudes, including a confidence that can be applied to any new situation. How we view our success or failure will either move us forward or back. How will you choose to interpret your successes and failures?