The Psychology of Success: How Can Students Harness Their Own Psychology To Maximise Their Potential?
Imagine I could whisper thoughts about you directly into your mind. Whatever I whispered, you would believe about yourself. How would you feel about my having this power? If your answer would depend on what I would say, what does that make you think about what you whisper to yourself?
This is awareness of our internal dialogue. We programme ourselves, whether we know it or not. What we think matters because we cannot help believing ourselves. Hence the first step to the psychology of success is being aware of how we encourage and discourage ourselves.
Many students underperform in their exams specifically because they are exams. What’s happening inside a person suffering test-anxiety? They have thoughts just before the exam such as, “I’m going to fail. I’m not good enough. I’m about to bomb. This is going to be awful.” In short, they are programming themselves to fail.
The Science of Being Successful
There is an entire form of psychotherapy based on the impact one’s thoughts have on one’s behaviours and performances: CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). The cognitive therapist identifies the negative thoughts, and assists the patient in reframing them into positive thoughts. So, in the exam example above, that might mean reframing negative thoughts into thoughts such as “I worked hard,” “I deserve success,” “I’m going to do well and I believe in myself.” CBT works as a cure for the same reason that negative self-talk works as a disease of one’s confidence.
If we accept that a significant part of success is down to our behaviour and the actions we take, and we accept that our actions are heavily influenced by our thoughts, then it follows that actively taking control of our thinking will have a considerable impact on our likelihood of success.
We are programmable: from what we like to wear to how we like to speak to how we vote. This is confirmed by psychology, by advertisements, by parents, by employers and governments. The human mind can be influenced – by none more so than ourselves. The magic lies in taking over one’s programming, so as to create the kind of reality that yields happiness, awareness and the alignment of one’s beliefs and behaviours.
The most productive, successful mindsets neither wallow in defeat nor pretend everything is a victory. Mistakes and suffering are acknowledged but do not become excuses for their own perpetuation. Successes are worked towards with determination and humility as much as confidence and enthusiasm.
What is Success?
Any time that success becomes a means to the end of feeling good, we question ourselves the moment the journey stops yielding pleasure. It feels good to succeed, but we maintain a willingness to go through hard times along the way, because the meaning of our journey means more than either the hardships of its failures or the rewards of its successes. As Conor McGregor said, “Any defeat can end a fighter’s career, but so can any victory.”
The successful mindset, for all its strength, is vulnerable. Being willing to succeed means being willing to fail. We have to be willing to crash into our limits if we are to be willing to go past them. There is fear of failure and fear of success, but we never need fear being who we are. Courage may be a way of saying: I’m willing to be who I really am.
In believing that preparation is futile and failure is assured, many students avoid trying because they believe they will fail if they try and they will suffer if they fail. The fear of shame becomes so strong that they make sure that they never get to experience it. Yet in order to be willing to succeed, we have to be willing to fail. Part of the psychology of success involves the acceptance of failure.
So we walk the line between believing in the positivity of our efforts and accepting the negativity we may have to endure to get there. That line is the reality of life’s ambivalence. Those life coaches who perpetually preach incessant positivity are as far from reality as the curmudgeons who believe that all effort is doomed to fail.
The Science behind Successful People
With this balance in mind, we do believe in the positive because we believe in ourselves. There is however a difference between affirming positive thinking and succumbing to gratification. I recall an US Olympic athlete who had just won the gold medal in speed skating. He was asked if winning for what he had prepared his whole life was ‘the American Dream’. He said that the American Dream was to be happy, whereas he woke up at dawn everyday for 10 years and skated until he could barely stand. He said his dream involved suffering, and that he had won more because he had suffered more. His dream involved enduring the sometimes painful outworking of his willpower.
This marks a strong contrast with believing that following our dreams means feeling good. Too often, young people do not align the challenge of fulfilling their potential with their desire to succeed. They are told they are special, but somehow believe that specialness means avoiding the hard work rather than going through it. A perfect example is Rey, the heroine of the latest Star Wars trilogy. She undergoes no training before picking up a light-saber for the first time and immediately fights a master with years of training and practice. This is how young people are often seduced into a fantasy of success: they will literally pick it up. Contrast this with the great fighter Muhammad Ali. When asked how many sit-ups he did at a time, he said, “I don’t know. I only start counting when it hurts.”
Incorporating suffering and overcoming obstacles is crucial to the mindset of those who succeed. Consider Beethoven, who was as talented as anyone who has ever lived. At 25, he began to irrevocably lose his hearing. In his private letters, he lamented that of all the ears on earth, God should have protected his the most. He believed that his life, career and meaning were over and contemplated suicide.
Beethoven was completely deaf when he composed his masterpiece, the 9th Symphony. He was allowed to conduct it in its premiere as a courtesy, but being deaf, he was off tempo and another conductor discreetly led the orchestra. Beethoven had to be turned around to witness the silent thunder of applause that surrounded him. How bittersweet to dedicate his life to his music, to give it to the world, and yet never to hear it!
Success is not about the rewards it yields, even though we often enjoy the fruits of our labour. Success is not about being recognised for our work, even though we enjoy recognition. For every Picasso who is exalted, there is a Van Gogh who dies alone, poor and miserable. Success is not about being rewarded by others. For every Churchill who is celebrated by his people, there is a Joan of Arc who is betrayed by those whom she saved. Success is ultimately self-defined; we cannot turn to others for our standards or validation.
Defining Our Own Success
Defining our own success means having the power not to surrender when times are hard. It is too simplistic to tell someone to simply think positively if they suffer from low self-esteem or have performance anxiety. But having the space to witness our fears as feelings and not as our truths marks the crucial difference between having perceptions and being controlled by them. Our thoughts and feelings are meant to inform our decisions, not make them. When our pain becomes more intense than our baseline state, we believe that our pain is more real than we are, and so it determines our reality.
It can also be helpful to remember that struggling with success is not something you get out of the way so that you can succeed. In fact, struggles are often the very way you succeed. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. Yet he believed “[s]uccess is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures.” Kobe Bryant shot four airballs in a playoff game during his rookie year. “It was an early turning point for me in being able to deal with adversity, deal with public scrutiny and self-doubt. At 18 years old, it was gut-check time. It helped shape me.” Nelson Mandela served 27 years of what he thought would be a life sentence, usually in solitary confinement, before being freed and becoming president of the nation that had incarcerated him, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He maintained his optimism thus: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
We tend to focus on the bright side of things when considering what kind of mindset creates success. But we also see that the other half of the mind comprises how we deal with doubt, failure and hardship. Witnessing these experiences not as obstacles but advisers, showing us where we need to grow, takes us out of bitterness and into awareness. Part of the psychology of success involves seeing our failures as the teachers who give us the needed lessons our successes never could.
We witness Superman lifting cars but forget about his childhood as an orphan keeping a secret from everyone besides his parents. We see Spiderman sailing past skyscrapers but forget the guilt that racked him for not saving his Uncle Ben. There is a reason our heroes hold two identities: one is for the heroism they offer the world, and the other is to privately deal with the sufferings that got them there.
Imagine a support group for superheroes who have to live up to constant expectations, fear the consequences of failure, and wonder if all the sacrifices are worth it. They do what you cannot do, but they struggle with the same challenges you have always known. Superman breaks his vows to try to keep a very human romantic relationship while Spiderman throws away his mask to enjoy his life. Duty vs ease. Comfort vs responsibility. Success brings an added question: once you are finally there, was the journey worth it?
Part of the psychology of success means maintaining an awareness of why we enter the struggle to begin with. Success is not a banner we wave at our parents to stop their pressure or a goal towards which we push our children to make up for our unlived lives. Success is, in Nietzsche’s words, “becoming who we are.” We only succeed within our true identity, which suggests that even superheroes keep a second identity because they too are confused about who they are when they aren’t slaying their dragons.
Success comes when we want to become who we really are. This gives us a reason, the why behind our efforts. Facing our challenges is simply how we get there. Hence Nietzsche also teaches us that “[h]e who has a why can endure any how.”
Why do skaters practice until they can barely stand? Why do heroes sacrifice personal needs? Because they love what they do, believe in who they are, and remember this every time it’s easier to quit. Perhaps the best thing to remember is: You are worth it.
Practical tips for improving your own psychology of success
- Start to notice your own thought patterns: when you face a new challenge, or something you find difficult, do you find yourself encouraging yourself with positive thoughts, or are you very self-critical?
- If you find you’re being self-critical, try to spend a small amount of time (even 5 minutes!) at the start of each day using a basic mindfulness practice and meditating or repeating positive thoughts to countervail negative ones. So, for example, if before a difficult task you start thinking, “You won’t be able to do this, you always find things like this hard”, encourage yourself to think instead about times in the past when you’ve taken on new challenges and succeeded. Repeat a positive thought like “I am capable of all that I put my mind to”.
- Explore different ways in which you can spend a little bit of time each day developing new, more positive thought patterns. There are now a range of apps (like Headspace, which you can get for free if you have a Spotify Premium account with a student subscription) which can support you to do this.
Mitch Artman, a 3rd generation teacher, attempts to create the classes he wishes he had attended as a student. He teaches psychology, sociology, public speaking, political theory and literary theory. He lives in Oxford with his wife and twin daughters.
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