We all want to be successful, but things like tyrannical bosses, stapler-stealing co-workers and the statistical impossibility of every single person being a CEO keep bringing us down. So we try to balance the scales by following the advice of self-help books or motivational guides -- sure, a lot of those things are probably bullshit, but it can't hurt to give them a try, right?
Actually, yes. Yes, it can hurt, because several of the "tips" that you'd expect to help you are actually messing you up. It turns out you're not a success because you do things like ...
#5. Being Too Smart Makes You Crack Under Pressure
Most of us would say that the only surefire way to achieve success (short of, you know, busting your ass for several years and making the most of your opportunities) is by being smarter than everyone else. Yet the real world doesn't seem to bear this out. How many of you have a boss who seems to be a moron and is also way more successful than you? Well, there's a scientific explanation for why smarter people can end up stuck in dead-end jobs. Basically, it's because they're more likely to screw up under pressure.
The safest thing to do when in danger is to be too stupid to know you are in danger.
When you're smart, your brain works differently than everyone else. Smart people have higher working memory capacity to work with, either because they trained it or they were born with it. This higher working-memory allows them to excel, but studies have found that it also causes them to screw up more often than the rest of us.
Researchers recruited participants and divided them into two groups: the high working memory crowd (HWM) and the low working memory doofuses (LWM). They gave them a math test and to nobody's surprise at all (except a few of the LWM guys), the HWM group scored significantly higher.
"If you'll turn to page 514 of our findings, you'll find that we're almost positive that smart people are smarter."
But performing a task for work or school is very different than doing it in a lab -- there's a lot more pressure in a real world scenario, so they changed the conditions. They told both groups that they'd have another math test, but this time their high performance would earn them cash and their results were going to be examined by math professors. The results of that next test? The score of the HWM guys dipped so badly that they had become just as horrible as the scores of the LWM, while the LWM crowd scored just about the same. The stress brought on by the extra incentives didn't affect the stupid guys at all, while the HWM were pissing in their boots.
And this isn't just because the nerdy guys were naturally more nervous. The researchers suggest that the anxiety you get from stressful situations lives in the same part of your brain as the working memory, which means that people with high working memory capacity also have higher levels of stress. By making yourself smarter, you're also making yourself more susceptible to falling into a mental wreck. They were using their extra brain power to psyche themselves out. Does that sound like anyone you know?
"I'm not incompetent, I'm a tortured genius!"
#4. Visualizing Your Own Success Makes You Lazier
You've probably heard about a little self-help book called The Secret -- if you didn't read it yourself, then chances are you know someone who did and wouldn't shut up about it a few years ago. And if you're more selective about your friends than we are, then here's a spoiler for you: According to the book, "the secret" is that you can achieve success by thinking really hard about it. Just imagine yourself riding a yacht made of diamond, and the universe will eventually provide it.
"Unfortunately, he died of cancer because he didn't want to live hard enough."
Even if you don't believe the magic behind it, on the surface it seems like sound advice. Isn't "visualizing success" what all goal-driven people do? Don't they sit around all day imagining what their lives will be like once they get the big promotion or sell their big invention? Isn't that what motivates them to make it real?
Actually, no. Science has shown that, shockingly, these type of fantasies don't help you succeed -- they actually do the exact opposite.
It turns out that the more you fantasize about something, the more satisfaction you get from those fantasies and the less motivated you feel to actually turn them into a reality. This goes for everything from getting a new job to hooking up with that girl you like: Why go through the potential embarrassment of asking her out when you can get the same kind of satisfaction just thinking about it? At least that's the way your brain sees it.
Clearly your brain has never touched an actual boob.
To study this, researchers performed several tests where participants were asked to fantasize about specific scenarios (of the non-boner-inducing kind). They then tested the participants' blood pressure -- which indicates how much energy their body is giving them to perform a certain task -- and found that people who were induced with fantastical thoughts had lower levels of energy than those who weren't.
So this isn't just a mental thing -- when you visualize yourself achieving one of your goals, your body goes, "Cool, I can take it easy now," and actually starts winding down. This explains why, according to previous studies, people who are more likely to fantasize about being successful are also more likely to apply for fewer jobs, earn a lower salary, and get fewer job offers.
This is also why you will never sleep with Scarlett Johansson and/or Channing Tatum.
And this goes for pretty much everything. You think you're going to do better at a darts game? You do worse. You imagine you're going to do well on a test? You'll even get your name wrong, probably. Researchers even had people fantasize about recovering faster from an injury only to confirm they'd heal slower, which was kind of a dick move. This isn't to say that positive thinking doesn't have its benefits -- it does and almost certainly makes you happier. It just isn't the best motivator.
On a similar note ...
#3. Telling Your Goals to Your Friends Makes You Give Up Faster
So what you really need to avoid the above pitfall is someone else to hold your feet to the fire. That's why one of the most common ways to motivate ourselves to accomplish something is simply sharing our goals with other people -- if your friends know that your New Year's resolution was to finally write that Sonic/Shrek erotic novel, for example, then you're more likely to get off your ass and do it, right? Otherwise they'll keep asking you how the novel is going and you'll be forced to admit you gave up the dream.
Hemingway probably went through the same thing when he was writing his fan fiction novels.
But once again, that's not the way the human brain works. Science has shown that sharing goals with your friends (or anyone at all) can actually make you less motivated to get shit done.
In a series of studies, researchers asked college students about what they wanted to do with their lives and told them to estimate how productive they thought they'd be the next week. The answers were filled in anonymous forms, but when the forms were being collected, half the students could clearly see that the researchers were checking out their answers, supposedly to confirm that they filled them correctly.
"In 'What do you want to do with your life?' you drew a man punching a dinosaur."
The other students had their results ignored. This was to ensure that the first half knew that someone else was aware of their aspirations and goals and also to stress to the second half that no one gives a shit about them.
Afterward, the researchers kept track of all the participants and found out that when they'd told people about their goals, the students were less likely to work toward them. You'd think that those whose aspirations had been recognized would actually work harder to avoid looking like lazy slobs, but the opposite happened: Just sharing their intentions with another person had made them more lazy.
"Screw this city council crap. Let's give that whole 'anarchy' thing a try."
Much like the "fantasizing drains your energy" thing, this comes down to the funny way our brains work and also the fact that we're all huge egomaniacs. By announcing our intentions to the rest of the world, we get a taste of the same recognition we'd get if we actually accomplished those goals. Unfortunately, for most people that small taste is enough and they'll be less motivated to follow through with their work.
But isn't getting feedback along the way important? Well ...