Big Ideas

What Do Successful People Do Differently?

Heidi Grant Halvorson has a theory about how she and her colleagues choose their specialties.

“Psychologists often end up being interested in something that they could not quite understand about themselves,” said Halvorson, a motivational psychologist who serves as director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center.

In her own case, Halvorson was curious about why it seemed that, when there were times in her life when something became challenging, “I would be able to hang in there and be really persistent and overcome whatever the obstacles were,” she said. “And then there were other areas of my life where it seemed like the opposite would happen — that as soon as things became difficult, I would feel discouraged.”

When as a graduate student Halvorson dug into 30 to 40 years’ worth of academic research on performance and achievement, she learned that what science reveals about what makes people successful is very different from the stories that we tell ourselves. “People have very surprisingly bad intuitions in general about their own successes and failures and their own behavior,” she said. The research suggests, she writes in her book 9 Things Successful People Do Differently, that people reach their personal and professional goals “not simply because of who they are, but more often because of what they do.”

Halvorson  will speak about “What Successful People Do Differently” at the PCMA Education Conference in Toronto next month. She spoke to Convene about the science of motivation and success, and how meeting planners can apply her research to their events.

What are some commonly held misperceptions about motivation and success?

There are two major misperceptions that I encounter a lot. One is the basic idea that much of what we think of in terms of the core talents that people have — that they are creative or intelligent or socially skilled or organized, or good with time management — are innate. That either you win the DNA lottery or you don’t, and end up being someone who is good at X or not.

The most common manifestation of this is when people say, “I’m a math person” or “I’m not a math person.” We have these beliefs that often we don’t even realize we have — that math is a kind of thing you can do or you can’t. And that turns out to be profoundly wrong.

Not that there isn’t some genetic component to ability, but it turns out to be trivial compared to the benefits of education and experience and the use of strategies to actually achieve goals. So it’s just not meaningful to talk about that when so much of the pie, actually, is very much things we can do something about.

The other big misperception that surprises a lot of people is this idea that commitment is the thing that matters. Of course, it’s important that we’re committed to the goals we pursue, that we really buy into an organization’s goals, and our team goals. It’s essential, in fact. But it’s what the philosophers would say is necessary but not sufficient. So much of how we try to motivate people — whether it’s to motivate them at work or to get them to lose weight or to quit smoking — is so focused on trying to make arguments about why this is a good thing to do and to ramp up their commitment. We don’t realize that that is just Step 1.

There is something that psychologists call the “intention/behavior gap”; sometimes people call it the “knowing/ doing gap.” And it’s this fundamental truth, that everybody knows on some level, which is [that] you can intend to do something and still not do it. It happens all the time.

People blame commitment. They say, “Well, I must not have wanted it enough.” And what they don’t realize is that is really just Step 1, and so much of motivation is what comes next, the strategies that we use to go from deciding we want to do X to actually getting ourselves to do X. And that’s a whole different set of challenges. If you look across studies, you find that roughly 50 to 80 percent of the time when people set goals, they have plenty of commitment and they don’t [reach them] anyway.

So, it’s not just that you don’t want to exercise. You do want to exercise. But you have to find time to exercise with all of the other goals you have. And how do you do that and handle the fact that you have multiple pursuits and many of them are in conflict with one another? Those issues turn out to be the bulk of what is really going on when people are successful or not. But we don’t explicitly teach people how to [handle] that. We focus on commitment, and then we say you’re really committed and that should be enough. And it just isn’t.

Your book lists nine things that successful people do differently. Do they build on each other in a particular order?

They are often interrelated, so that in order to do one of them successfully you really have to have done the other ones. For example, the very first one is to get specific about your goals. I think we’ve all heard that specificity is important by now, but I talk about it a little differently. What people don’t realize is that being specific actually has a lot do to with how our brains are wired.

But there are a couple of things that I think are core and that the research suggests are the most powerful and comprehensive. The first one is focused on getting better rather than being good — the idea that there are really these two very distinct mindsets that we have when it comes to tackling a goal. And the two can [look similar] on the surface. It can look like two people are pursuing the same goal — whether it’s to get a promotion or to have a successful relationship — but they’re thinking about it very differently.

If you have a “be good” mindset, you’re really thinking about a goal as a way of proving yourself, of proving that you have abilities, and as a source of validation. Not that other people validate you, but that you yourself prove to yourself that you’re skilled and talented and that you have worth.

The other mindset, what I call the “get better” mindset, is thinking about these same goals as ways of developing skills, of developing yourself, and developing your worth. It has a lot to do with focusing on whether or not you’re thinking about what you’re doing as a chance to prove yourself or to improve yourself.

We now know from hundreds of studies that this very subtle mental shift affects just about every aspect of the way we pursue goals. It makes us more resilient in the face of challenges, and helps us to find interest and enjoyment in what we do. People [with the get-better mindset] experience less anxiety and depression when they have setbacks. They’re better able to be creative in the solutions they come up with to problems. When you’re focused on getting better, you persist longer in the face of challenge. And persistence is probably the biggest predictor of performance that we have identified.

So this difference in mindset is a big-level strategy. The other strategy is very different. It’s much more of a concrete tool: “if/then” planning. The idea is that one of the major mistakes we make when it comes to reaching goals is in missing opportunities to act on them.

My favorite example of this is if you’ve ever heard someone say, “I wanted to work out today, but I didn’t have time,” or “I wanted to return that phone call, but I didn’t have time.” It’s something we say all the time, and it feels really true when we say it. But it’s almost never actually true. What is true is you had time, but you chose to do something else with it. Sometimes that choice is not very conscious. You make that choice for lots of reasons — because some things are urgent and others aren’t, some things are important and others are not, some things are less aversive [laughs] and others aren’t. Or we get distracted — there are a lot of different reasons why we can miss that moment.

The strategy of if/then planning basically gets around that. It’s incredibly effective — the research suggests that you’re about two to three times more likely to reach your goals if you use this strategy. It’s very simple: When you set a goal for yourself, you identify the specific actions you need to take. And then you pair those actions with when and where you’re going to do them in advance. If you just take that extra moment to think, I want to return that phone call to Bob today — when am I going to do it? Taking that extra moment to decide in advance dramatically increases the odds that you’ll actually remember to do it and that you’ll seize that moment when it happens.

It also turns out that it takes a lot less willpower. If you decide in advance that you’re [only] going to order coffee when the dessert menu comes, you’re much more likely to make that choice than if all you said to yourself is, “Well, I’ll just try to be good.” It’s a very, very simple strategy, and it’s just profoundly effective.

We know, for example, that people who decide exactly when, where, and how they’re going to exercise each week in advance are three times more likely to actually do it. The success rate goes from about 30 percent to about 90 percent. And that’s something we find again and again in professional goals as well as personal ones.

You write that people reach their goals because of what they do, not who they are. Do some people have to work harder at success?

I think there is certainly truth to the idea that some people will, say, pick up on new technology faster than others. Interestingly, that often has to do with things like comfort level.

So it’s not necessarily, again, an innate ability, but you’ll find that some people are temperamentally more anxious…. And so when they encounter something new, like a new technology or a new system, they’ll have a little bit more trepidation and maybe it will take them a little bit longer to get comfortable.

Again, it has a lot more to do than people realize with the amount of effort and the time you’re putting into it, and, again, how many other things you’re juggling. The reality is that none of us are just pursuing one goal or trying to learn one thing. We’re all trying to pursue lots of goals and learn lots of things. And so those trajectories will look different. And some people will appear — and I use that word very deliberately — to learn things very effortlessly. And that’s almost never really what is going on.

People may have different attitudes or different emotional states. They have more or less on their plate. But in general, what is always true is that if you use the right strategies and you persist, you will get better. You will improve over time. And sometimes improve dramatically.

I think the much bigger problem that people have is not that they’re doing things that they’re never going to be great at, but that they’re closing the door on things that they might have been actually very good at if they had given themselves a little bit more time and been a little bit more patient.

As a frequent keynoter, as well as through your academic work, you attend a lot of conferences. As a motivational psychologist, do you observe things that are very conducive to success, or that are not?

[Successful event organizers] leave a lot of room for engagement between the people who are presenting and the audience. I think that is really important. There is a whole other level of processing and retention that happens when people feel engaged in the process of learning.

Participation in even very simple ways, like allowing people to rate what they’ve seen or to give them time to talk about it afterwards, creates a whole level of engagement with the material such that people will, a year later, say, “Oh, I remember this conference I went to was really rewarding. I learned X, Y, and Z, and so I’m going to go back. Because I can’t wait to learn A, B, and C.” It really is necessary for people to engage the things in order to retain [them].

The other thing that is very, very powerful for learning and for engagement is the feeling of choice. Psychologists call this the feeling of autonomy — that you’re participating, that you have a voice, and you’re choosing your own experience. And what we know, very interestingly, is that the feeling of choice matters more than actual choice.

So, for instance, you can go to a conference and choose different seminars you’re going to go to. And that is actual choice, right? But sometimes that isn’t the nature of the event. Sometimes you’re going to sit there and we have certain speakers lined up and that’s whom you are going to hear.

But you can create the feeling of choice by doing things like having people choose things like where they sit or what they eat. I do a thing, for example, in one version of the “Nine Things” talk, where I talk about a couple of the strategies and then have [the audience] vote on which of the nine things they want me to talk about with the remaining time that I have. It’s kind of like “American Idol” — I have them vote using SMS polling, where you text to a number.

I did it just for fun once, because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to talk about. And what has been fascinating for me ever since is that every organization, every place I go to, I get different answers to what people really want to hear about. They get really engaged. I’ve had people offer to buy someone else’s choice — “I’ll pay you $5 if you’ll text number seven.” They’ll shout this stuff out and they become really involved in it, because they feel like the speaker is responding to their choice. And even if they don’t get the one they voted for, they feel like a choice is made by us as a group. And I get really good feedback about that.

So to the extent that planners can incorporate these little choices in ways that people feel they can participate and make a choice, you’re going to see a much bigger increase in satisfaction and a much bigger increase in engagement from people just feeling that their voice was heard in some way, even if it’s a really, really minor way. It’s going to have a big effect on their experience.

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.