We all, of course, want to be successful. We chase it incessantly, talk, read, write about it, and visualize it. Success feels great, tastes great and can give us an influx of endorphins. It’s a high like no other. So far so good. The culprit, though, is when we mis-interpret what it means to be accomplished and what we must do to get to the coveted sunshine land.
Here are 5 myths which we should stop trumpeting about as they are not the sure path to reaching our dreams:
1. Failure is good for you
Yes and no. We absolutely must deal with our failings stoically, take a note and move on, however, we worship success, not mishaps—we link it directly with individual worth. If someone isn’t thriving per society definitions, their stock doesn’t have much value.
Research from MIT also reveals that we learn more from success than from failure. When we win, our brain cells remember what we did and repeat it the next time around. Failure’s down feelings are stronger than the lesson learned, so the benefit may not be that great.
Admittedly, it’s easy to fall into the “everyone fails” trap and become fascinated by tales of the Silicon Valley wonderboys who started in their parents’ garage, failed a hundred times while working on the world’s next break-through and ended up billionaires.
Failure isn’t always followed by success. Sometimes, it’s just this—unsuccess. Not every downturn has a happy ending. Just be mindful of this before you start cheering up for the failing adage.
“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” – Herman Melville
2. Be yourself
Approach with caution, as it can also mean: “You don’t need to improve, you are perfect just as you are.” The belief that we just happen to be a wonderful respectable person can be a flawed assumption. It proclaims passiveness and dampens the incentive to better our characters. We must seek change and learn to adapt.
Prof. Brian Little’s famous idea of “free traits” states that it’s sometimes necessary that we act as socially desirable, so we can fit in. Not all the time, but enough to get a job done. “Unless you are Oprah, be yourself is a terrible advice,” also believes Prof. Adam Grant. Being our “true selves” can damage our motivation to grow, improve, and can make us feel inferior. Instead, aim to be sincere and strive to be the person you claim to be.
Although there’s value in authenticity, sometimes, a situation calls for a different skill-set, leader or approach. Not adapting (which, for the record, is different than faking it) to these demands is likely to put us on the losing side. Remember Darwin’s theory of evolution?
3. Fake it ‘till you make it
It’s another flawed self-help motto. True, research reveals that acting more assertively can provide many advantages personally and professionally but, all this is telling us is that it pays to be confident.
“Acting out of character,” in the context of “upping our game” or shining as our best selves, is admissible. As in when you need to dazzle everyone while giving a presentation or convince an interviewer to give you the job. Stepping in a Superman suit on such occasions does create a more positive aura for us.
But it’s not sustainable. If you lack confidence, pretending every day that you do isn’t going to make you more confident. Acting as someone you are not is mentally exhausting and puts a strain on your body too. Suppressing your feelings bears the risks of eventually escalating them. But if you believe that you are worthy, as trivial as it sounds, the world will see it too. You won’t have to fake anything, you’ll simply play yourself.
4. If you don’t like your job, just quit. Follow your passion.
The small print to this should read: “Of course, this only works if you don’t have bills to pay, have substantial savings or other means of generating regular income.” So, let’s have a second thought for a moment. According to statistics, between 80% to 90% of the new ventures fail—“follow your dreams” is often not a profitable undertaking.
One option is to remain “a cog in a large wheel”—i.e. work a 9-to-5 job until your side endeavor takes off or focus on what you put your most time and effort on instead, per entrepreneur billionaire Mark Cuban. “Go with your bliss” is a terrible advice, he believes. Although you can be passionate about professional sports, for instance, doesn’t mean you can excel at it personally. So, going after a dream is absolutely worth pursuing but, “free solo” style may not be the best way to reach the mountain top.
“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” – Colin Powell
5. You can be anything you want
On the surface, it’s powerful—no matter your background, you can still become rich and famous. Take a note from the many rags-to-riches stories. The problem isn’t with dreaming big, it’s with the “anything” part of the advice. As kids, no one told us that we can’t become the next Beyoncé if we can’t sing, or the new Stephen Hawking if we don’t like physics and math.
That is, ask yourself why and how the accomplished individuals you adore have become so good. It’s really simple: because they were born with a certain talent, knack, mojo—whatever you call it. And they built on this foundation and perfected it.
Susan Cain, in her great book, refers to this as the “rubber-band” theory of personality—i.e. we can only stretch ourselves so much. “Bill Gates is never going be Bill Clinton,” she writes, “no matter how he polishes his social skills, and Bill Clinton can never be Bill Gates, no matter how much time he spends alone with a computer.” So, we can be anything we want, but within our expanded personalities.
In the end, the achievement of what we dream of and aspire is a wonderful thing. We do need to talk, read, write and visualize about being successful—that’s how we learn, grow, and how we become our better versions.
But, just because someone tells you how they think you can become prosperous, doesn’t mean that it is so. Success trajectories are often unique and beware of the fallacy of the greener grass.