Regardless of your definition of success, for most people the biggest obstacle on the path to success is self-doubt. We make big plans, we commit, we go to the gym a few times, we look in the mirror and see no progress—self-doubt creeps in, "maybe I'm not cut out for this". We try to watch our diet for a few weeks, we check the number on the bathroom scale and see it frozen in place—self-doubt again, "this is not going to work, sigh". Or, we try a different approach with an underperforming employee, a month later most of the issues are still there—self-doubt, big time, "I am not a good manager, maybe I should go back to coding".
I don't know if you've noticed, but there's been more than a couple of weeks since my last article. And the reason is—I wanted to write how a good leader is like an orchestra conductor—highly visible, and seemingly unnecessary. I wanted to say that the leader's most important job is the coherence of vision! But what's this "coherence of vision"?! I couldn't find the right words… The self-doubt was right there, "writing is really hard for me, why even try?"
And then I remembered reading about numerous writers' struggles with writing. Natalie Goldberg, Douglas Adams, Anne Lamott, Stephen King—the list goes on forever… What they all wrote about is simply doing the work. Sitting down, opening the notebook, and putting words to paper. Ignoring the voice of perfectionism and just laying down the "shitty first draft".
So, am I talking about grit? You hear this often—the biggest predictor of success is grit. People who can persist in the face of failure and setbacks are the ones that achieve their goals.
The trouble is, no matter how hard psychologists look for it, they can't find the trait we'd call grit—it doesn't seem to exist!
The proponents of grit say, "get on the treadmill the next day, eager to try again." But what if you're not eager to try again? What if yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that, and this whole past month were too freaking exhausting, and you're seeing no results!?
Regardless of whether you believe grit is a trait you're born with, a skill you can develop, or a complete myth entirely—the advice to "just get back on the treadmill" is not useful. Besides, grit has suspiciously too many letters in common with grind. And we all know that grind is how you achieve burnout, not success.
Another common advice is to have the unwavering faith in yourself. To blindly believe that no matter what, you will succeed, so just keep going.
There's a sizable kernel of a sound idea in this advice. Most of us can recall a time in our lives when we wanted something so bad and believed in our ability to get it, that no obstacle seemed to matter. If you believe you can, you'll find the way, right?
The trouble is, I don't know about you, but I can't reliably make myself believe things I don't believe. No matter how many times I repeat an affirmation or use other tricks, sooner or later the voices in my head will point out to me when I'm not living up to my dreams. And poof—there goes my unwavering faith.
Ah, the voices! According to some studies, 70-85% of us have some sort of internal chatter. Most of the time our inner voices are telling us we're not good enough, and other negative things about us and the reality around.
Some psychologists believe that the so-called Default Mode Network is responsible for our internal chatter. And that our prior conditioning—parents, teaches, culture, prior experiences—largely determine the contents of that chatter. Evolutionarily speaking, we are negatively biased. It's better for our survival to overestimate the danger than to be eaten by a predator. So, our prior conditioning tends to be on the negative side. And the more we fire the pathways in our brains responsible for that negative chatter, the more robust they become. In a very real way, our negative self-talk reinforces itself.
So perhaps injecting a healthy dose of blind optimism is a good strategy to counteract the negative bias. Though it's not surprising that for most of us it's extremely difficult to have the faith in ourselves against that negative backdrop of critical self-talk.
There's also the research to suggest that reducing or interfering with inner speech might increase impulsivity, disrupt problem-solving and working memory, and overall negatively affect the executive function. Oops!
On the other hand, another study have found that imagining positive events makes you feel better than thinking about them verbally. So visualizing good outcomes might help overcome the self-doubt and increase your faith in yourself to some degree. My own experience and working with clients seem to confirm this empirically.
Half-ass to success
Up to this point you're hopefully still with me, but I suspect the opinions to divide sharply here.
Some of you will be thinking, "never half-ass anything", "you can't half-ass your way to success", "can't cheap your way to the top", "know what you want and go after it, relentlessly", "one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration".
Okay! But let me ask you this: how's this strategy working for you so far?
As someone who grew up with undiagnosed ADHD, I've heard it all—how I'm not living up to my potential, how I'm wasting my talents, how half-assing through life I'm not going to amount to anything. And you know what, my parents, and teachers, and other well-meaning adults were right—I've struggled in school, failed in college, and have been fired from a job for not meeting expectations—twice!..
But somehow, I ended up here—a successful professional, an executive coach, guiding numerous leaders on their own half-ass journey to greatness!
Thing is, half-assing allows you to move forward, one tiny step at a time, even on your worst day, even when completely unmotivated—progress over perfection! And science tells us that action leads to a reward (or celebration—more on this below), which in turn increases our confidence and motivation, which leads to further and bigger action, and so on and so forth.
You start tiny and slow, and it might take some experimentation before you find the right tiny action and the right celebration (more on celebration below). But the law of compounding will eventually turn your tiny efforts into an unstoppable steamroller of a momentum. And before you know it, you'll be full-assing it! Because half-assing is not the goal, it's not about striving for less—it's about resisting less, getting out of your own way, and celebrating any progress, no matter how small.
Okay, what's the deal with celebration? Many of us find it difficult to feel good about walking down a couple of flights of stairs and stepping on a barely moving treadmill belt for a couple of minutes. Especially, if our goal is to run a marathon some day. But it's the positive feelings and emotions that quite literally wire in new habits! So, the Stanford psychologist Dr. BJ Fogg came up with an ingenious idea—celebrate your tiny actions! By celebrating, you create the feeling of "shine", as BJ calls it, and help your brain to wire in new behavior and make it almost effortless over time.
In the fall of 2007 I was starting a company and working from home, well into the night on most nights. I lived in an apartment complex in Sunnyvale, CA, with a 24×7 gym just below my apartment. Almost every night I would get stuck on a problem and walk down two flights of stairs and get on a treadmill for a couple of minutes just to clear my head. And when I say “get on a treadmill”, I don’t mean running—I would step on the belt, wearing my slippers and jammy pants, and flip through the channels while barely moving my legs. Cooking and home improvement shows were my jam!
I’ve done that for probably a couple of weeks when all of a sudden I started wanting to go a tiny bit faster—it just felt good! So, I started putting on my sneakers before heading out of my apartment.
Then in another two weeks I wanted to go a little faster still, and I was starting to sweat a bit, so I began to put on some gym clothes…
Fast-forward a couple of months and I was running outside, almost every morning, rain or shine, wearing proper running attire, a heart rate monitor, and a Garmin Forerunner to track my pace and distance. I was committed, and I was having so much fun!
Do you think I would have become a runner if I started right there—outside, in the rain, at 6 in the morning? There's just no way, I would have quit before I even started!
And you know what half-assing is not? Half-assing is not quitting!
Different people can achieve not quitting in different ways. Some, perhaps with better executive function, can just "get back on the treadmill the next day". Some might have the "unwavering faith in themselves", no matter what. But for the rest of us, half-assing and giving ourselves the permission to feel great about it, is the real way to success.