5 Popular Self-Help Tips That Actually Hurt Your Career
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 ...
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!"
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 ...
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 ...
Getting Constant Feedback Leads to Poor Decisions
Love it or hate it, feedback is a crucial part of any workplace. And if you're a Gen-Yer, then chances are you love it -- it's been reported that most young workers today crave constant feedback from their bosses or downright demand it. And that makes sense: It's always better to have someone guiding you through your work, especially when it involves making tough decisions, right?
Well, no. In fact, in certain situations getting feedback can make you suck at your job. Doesn't matter if it's positive or negative -- just the act of having someone telling you how you're doing drains your attention and reduces your effectivity.
"I refuse to let all your 'flatline' negativity slow me down!"
More specifically, the harder the assignment, the less good active feedback will do. For instance, in one study, researchers asked participants to perform a difficult task; they had to figure out how to control a baby's health, which is a lot of pressure because those things are notoriously easy to break. While they were doing this, one researcher came into the room and gave them some sort of feedback. Whether the feedback was good or bad, it didn't matter, because those who received it performed worse off in the task than those who didn't get any assistance at all. The participants who were "helped" by experts ended up making worse decisions, and that's why it's probably a good thing that they didn't use real babies in this thing.
Instead of helping them, the feedback took them out of their heads and made them more confused than not. Why did this happen? Because when the task itself is difficult, there's a lot of information your brain has to keep track of, and if on top of that you also have to make sense of what your supervisor is telling you, then the information overload will distract you from making good decisions. Suddenly you won't be so sure if eating that burrito that's been on the office fridge since 1997 is a good idea or not.
"It's true my ex has a 500-foot restraining order on me ... buuuuuut maybe giving it one more shot will do the trick."
Note that the study only covered situations where the feedback was given while the task was being performed; if it comes before (based on previous work) or afterward, then the same might not be true. So when your boss cornered you in the bathroom to talk about those expense reports, he was actually doing you a favor.
Being Morally Questionable is Not (Necessarily) a Shortcut
As the cliche goes, if you want to be successful you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. Imagine the CEO of a powerful company -- there's no way that guy doesn't have some nasty skeletons in his closet, real or figurative. So maybe, just maybe, if you started being a jerk, then you'd finally experience your long-lost success. Rich people are assholes; therefore, being a smug asshole should make you rich.
In algebra, this is known as the Trump Principle.
But in the same way that having a neck full of unwashed facial hair doesn't make you any better at video games, engaging in morally dubious behavior doesn't directly help you succeed in your work. In fact, if you're the type who is actually bothered by doing terrible things, researchers have found that having dark secrets in your past literally weighs you down.
In a simple experiment, researchers asked participants to think of a secret and indicate whether it was something trivial, like that time you accidentally watched that entire Here Comes Honey Boo Boo marathon, or something deeper, like when you buried that prostitute -- everyone knows, Gary (that ought to freak out at least one reader). They then asked the participants to look at a hill and rate its steepness.
Coincidentally, this is also where you buried her, Gary.
They found that people who were reminded of their deepest secrets rated the hill as steeper than those who only thought about their tiny white lies. They then tried the experiment again, and this time had the participants judge the distance of a target. Same deal: The darker the secret, the further away the target seemed to be. It's like someone had flipped the difficulty to "hard" for those people.
Well, this isn't a coincidence. Previous research had proved that when you're physically burdened, you also perceive hills to be steeper and distances to be longer. This is a psychological effect: When we're tired, we think of challenges ahead of us as harder to accomplish. Turns out that the same thing happens when the burden is in our minds rather than on our shoulders.
Now you know why your back hurts all the time: You're a douchebag.
In other words, when you have a deeper secret that you don't want to share, something you're ashamed of, or something wrong you've done that haunts you, it literally weighs you down and makes it harder for you to work. There's a reason it's called "carrying a secret" -- the worse it is, the greater of a weight it holds on your body.
So if you want to be successful you have two options: be a good person, or become a care-free sociopath.
Read more from XJ on his writing blog and follow him on Twitter.
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