Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, is a motivational psychologist, researcher, and consultant. She writes about the scientifically-tested strategies we can use to be more effective reaching our goals at work and in our personal lives. Her new book is Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press). Heidi serves on the Board of Advisors to Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center. She is also the co-editor of the academic handbook, The Psychology of Goals, a regular contributor to the BBC World Service’s “Business Daily,” and an expert blogger for Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fast Company, SmartBrief, Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Her website is www.heidigranthalvorson.com.
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Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) in your life that set your career on the course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Halvorson: I started college, believe it or not, as a chemistry major. I’ve always loved science, probably because I have always wanted to solve mysteries like Sherlock Holmes, and science is essentially about problem-solving and figuring out what’s really going on beneath the surface.
I took a psychology class my junior year, just to fulfill a course requirement, and discovered that not only was it a science, but it was the best possible kind – a science about people, why they do the things they do, and how to change what they do for the better. What is more interesting than that? Or more useful? That course changed my life, and put me on a path to using the methods of science (testing, objectivity, etc.) in order to help people lead happier, more effective lives. Succeed is my attempt to take the scientific findings, and break them down into easy-to-implement steps (in plain English), so that people can find the solutions they need.
Morris: You have written countless articles and a few books in which you share what you have learned about human achievement. More specifically, about why people tend to blame their failures on the wrong reasons. For example?
Halvorson: There is a strong tendency, especially in the U.S. but in Western cultures more generally, to attribute our successes and failures to ability. And by that we usually mean some innate quality or aptitude. So you either win the DNA lottery and end up with lots of intelligence, or creativity, or willpower – and are therefore successful – or you don’t, and you fail.
This explanation is wrong in two very important ways. First, ability simply doesn’t work that way. No matter which ability you’re talking about – whether it’s intelligence, creativity, athletic prowess, conscientiousness, or self-control – research shows them to be profoundly malleable. In other words, no matter what you start with, what you end up with has everything to do with experience, learning, and effort. If you want to be smarter, you can get smarter. If you want to have more self-control, you can build your willpower “muscle.” But when we think of our abilities as fixed and innate, we give up on ourselves when we encounter difficultly, and resign ourselves to failure (“I guess I’m not just good at this sort of thing.”)
The second way in which this explanation is wrong is that no matter how much ability you have, successfully reaching a goal has everything to do the actions you take (or don’t take) along the way. Effort, strategy choice, help-seeking, mindset, motivation, confidence, planning, and monitoring of progress are the true keys to achievement, and they are much more powerful than “ability” or “aptitude” when it comes to predicting who will ultimately succeed. But until we start rejecting explanations like “I’m just not smart enough” or “I don’t have what it takes,” we won’t start looking in the right places for the real problems, and figuring out solutions.
Morris: Are there any “right” reasons to explain failure? Please explain.
Halvorson: Absolutely – we need to look to our actions, rather than our abilities. We need to think about the aspects of our performance that are under our direct control: the effort we put in, the strategies we used, the critical steps we may have neglected to take, whether or not we considered the obstacles to success and made plans for how to deal with them, etc. Succeed is, more than anything else, a guide to diagnosing where you went wrong, and putting you back on the right path.
Halvorson: You’re right, “success” is very subjective. In the book, I typically use it to mean reaching whatever goal you’ve set for yourself, so “success” will look very different from person to person depending on what they want out of life. There do, however, seem to be goals that are more likely than others to lead to lasting happiness and well-being, because they satisfy three universal human needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. In other words, pursuing goals that make us feel connected to others, help us to master skills and acquire knowledge, and allow us to engage in activities that reflect our personal values, will lead to the kind of life satisfaction that we can probably all agree constitutes “success.”
Morris: In Denial of Death, a book published two months after his death, Ernest Becker said physical death is inevitable but another form of death could be denied: that which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us. What do you think?
Halvorson: When we think about our goals in terms of seeking validation and approval from others (wanting to prove that we are smart, likable, and worthy – or what I call trying to “be good”), it has several very unfortunate consequences. First, it diminishes our interest and enjoyment, because we are too focused on the final performance rather than the process of getting there. We can’t savor the experience of the journey, because we are too worried about the destination.
It also increases the tendency to see our performance as a measure or reflection of our ability or self-worth. When things get difficult, it creates anxiety and withdrawal – two very powerful goal saboteurs. People who seek validation are more likely to give up on themselves too soon, and suffer from longer, deeper episodes of depression.
If instead, we look at our pursuits as opportunities to learn and develop – to seek growth, rather than validation – a very different pattern emerges. I call this kind of goal a “get better” goal, because it’s more about progress. It’s about getting smarter, rather than proving that you already are smart. When we frame our goals this way, studies show that we enjoy what we do more, feel less threatened by challenges, and persist longer when the going gets rougher. We are less concerned with making mistakes, and consequently we make fewer of them. We’re less likely to be anxious or depressed, and more likely to experience lasting well-being. Switching from the be good to the get better mindset is the subject of a full chapter in Succeed because it has been shown to have so many life-altering benefits.
Morris: You believe that there is a “science” of success. How so?
Halvorson: Absolutely! Success isn’t random or accidental – there are reliable principles involved, ones that have been uncovered through hundreds and hundreds of studies over the last 50+ years. We know a great deal about why some people reach their goals and others don’t – and why otherwise successful people still end up having goals that give them trouble.
We know which strategies work, and which ones don’t. And we know why some intuitions about success are spot on, and why others are dead wrong. It can be very difficult (actually, it’s impossible) to look at your own behavior objectively and figure out what you did right or wrong, but the picture becomes clearer when we step back and look large groups of people striving for the same goal. We can identify more easily the key elements that bring about success, and feel more confident that we’re on the right track.
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