Talking, Taking Action, Working Hard, and Being Afraid

I remember listening to a podcast a while back and learning about a study that examined what happened with children’s performance on tests when they received praise. After being given a test, a group of students were praised for their hard work in studying and preparing for the test and told that they did well and got a good grade. Another group of students took the test and were praised for being very smart and doing well on the test. In the end, on a follow-up test, the group of students praised for working hard ended up outperforming the group who was told they were smart.  The group that was told they were smart ended up performing worse on the second test than they had on the first test. What the researchers found was that children who were told they were smart and special were afraid to make mistakes on the second test, as if not doing well on the second test would reveal that they were not as smart as they had been told. The students who were praised for their hard work on the other hand did not have the same fear of making mistakes and doing worse. As a result, the group praised for effort was more willing to take chances on hard questions and apply themselves on the second test.

 

This experiment comes back to my mind frequently. This morning I was reminded of it after reading a quote in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes about the way that our ego wants instant gratification and success. It does not want to work hard to achieve the things that bring us glory, attention, and praise. We just want to do well and be rewarded.

 

The quote that brought the experiment with children back to my mind is specifically about the time and effort we spend talking about how great our goals and plans our. It is easy, and somewhat comforting, to think about our big exciting goals, but it is hard to actually get started with working toward our goals. We can tell people all about what we want to do and even how we are going to do it, but taking the first step and actually doing things to move forward, is much more of a challenge than all our talk would make it seem. Holiday writes,

 

“Our ego wants the ideas and the fact that we aspire to do something about them to be enough. Wants the hours we spend planning and attending conferences or chatting with impressed friends to count toward the tally that success seems to require. It wants to be paid well for its time and it wants to do the fun stuff – the stuff that gets attention, credit, or glory.”

 

All our time spent talking makes us look great. Our big plans impress people and may even inspire the people around us. The action to achieve our goals however, is dangerous and scary. Once we start working, putting one foot in font of the other and making efforts to move forward, we risk failure. Just like the children in the experiment I started this post with, when we are praised for having such good ideas, we risk failure in round  two if we actually try to be smart and do well on the next test. If what we remember to be important is the hard work that we put toward solving the big problems that prevent us from reaching our goal, then we can shift our mindset and overcome the obstacles in our way. By understanding that we might not succeed, but that we can put forward our best effort and learn along the way, we can overcome the paralysis that prevents us from turning our talk into action. The ego wants to just enjoy the time we spend having great ideas and it wants the thoughts of ideas to equal the action toward our big ideas, but we know it does not. We must remember that accomplishing (or making progress toward a goal) is what really matters, not whether our goal and the way we talk about it inspires other people.

The Seed of Greatness

How do we do something great? What do we need to do in order to achieve a high level success that everyone agrees to be truly outstanding? I don’t necessarily ask myself these direct questions, but every day of my life I feel as though I am asking and trying to answer these questions. When it comes to being great, Ryan Holiday has an idea of where greatness gets it start in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes, “Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room-until you change that with results.”

 

As I write this, the NCAA Championship is getting right down to the wire. The final four games were just played, and tomorrow is the national championship game. One of the coaches is in only his third season as the head coach of one of the teams, and he seems to have appeared out of nowhere to become incredibly successful. These flashes of greatness and sudden success are what I feel we are all looking for. We want to have success drop into our laps and we want to jump into something and be instantly great and successful. But the sudden success of the Texas Tech coach, Chris Beard, isn’t really sudden success. Coach Beard has been working for years to become a better coach and to be able to lead a team to a potential national championship. His success to the outside world seems to be very sudden, but the reality is that years of work and anonymity went into his build to greatness and his sudden success in college basketball.

 

The lesson from Holiday is that sudden successes are rarely sudden successes. We look around and see someone achieve something great and often feel envious of how easily they accomplished something, but our view from the outside misses the grunt work that went into their success. The seed of greatness is planted in the habits and effort we put into every day. The work we do that forces us to focus on the tedious, the effort we spend to think about how we could constantly improve, and the small actions we take that help us learn something each day are what eventually build to greatness. To achieve sudden success, we must prepare ourselves over years of hard work so that we can perform at our best and be ready for the opportunity to fully apply ourselves.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time Talking and Too Little Time Doing

One of the aspects of Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy that I really like is the way that Holiday helps us with strategies and advice for achieving our goals. His main focus in the book is on our ego, and how our ego can trip us up and prevent us from reach the destinations we want. As he explains the pitfalls of living for our ego, he indirectly shows us what he thinks is a good life and what we can do to live a good life. The strategies and ideas he present are simple and help build habit which I have found very helpful.

 

One piece of advice from the book is to talk a lot less, especially about our goals and projects. “Research shows that while goal visualization is important,” Holiday writes, “after a certain point our mind begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization.” Our brains seem to confuse actual action on a project with thoughts about and talk about a project or goal. Our mental resources get used up in talking through and explaining our goal before we ever put any mental energy into the necessary steps to achieve our goal.

 

“After spending so much time thinking, explaining, and talking about a task, we start to feel that we’ve gotten closer to achieving it … although of course we haven’t.”

 

Actual action requires that we stop talking and planning. We have to stop telling people about the great thing we want to do and put forward the energy to make that thing a reality. Planning in our mind, getting excited about a project or goal, and  thinking through all things we could do to either achieve or heighten the goal is at some point just as much of a distraction for us as social media, the next Marvel movie, or that box of girl-scout cookies. We must get moving, even if the action is small and seems insignificant at first. Talking and over thinking a goal will lead to inaction and will not actually help us do the things to reach our goal.

 

Holiday adds a rhetorical question (italics his), “I just spent four hours talking about this. Doesn’t that count for something? The answer is no.”
Ego is the Enemy

Accomplishing What We Seek

The key to learning, growing, and becoming successful is iterative action. We will never achieve our dreams by going out and taking one massive step to reach our goals instantaneously. Success, and the pathway to success, is defined by the everyday actions we take that build into habits and bend our path toward the outcomes we want. This advice comes from Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy.

 

Our ego, Holiday explains, wants us to be successful right now and wants us to swiftly achieve success so that we can brag and show off to others. We want to demonstrate how easy it is for us to be great and we want other to see that we didn’t even break a sweat in the process. Maybe, like a typical movie, we want to put in a short hard work stretch with some inspirational music attached, but we only want that hard work phase to last for a minute or two and include awesome power-shots of us doing those rope swinging arm exercises at the gym while our favorite high tempo song blasts in the background. This is what our ego sees and imagines for our path to success.

 

Reaching for success without ego looks differently. It involves self-awareness and a commitment to the daily grind, even when those around us can’t see how hard we are working. Holiday describes it this way early in his book, “We will learn that though we think big we must act and live small in order to accomplish what wee seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative — one foot in front of the other, learning and  growing and putting in the time.”

 

We can still have great visions, but we must understand that great accomplishments and success do not come in the form of a lottery. Our goals won’t be achieved in a single windfall. Instead, we reach our goals slowly by preparing ourselves to be the type of people who can become successful through hard work, focus, good habits, and meaningful actions. The grind and the daily small steps can be exhausting, unrewarding individually, and so small that no one recognizes them, but they build a life of purpose and give us something to look back on at the end of the day and feel proud of. Through all these steps and the changes they make to our lives and who we are, we will reach success and feel fulfilled with what we achieve.

Believing in the Self and Achieving Success

Ryan Holiday encourages his readers to be confident in who they are, but to build their confidence through real work and effort and to base their belief in themselves on real achievement. His book Ego is the Enemy is a look at how our egos can ruin our lives and put us in situations where we cannot be successful unless we are honest with ourselves about our abilities. He quotes a biographer of a little known Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman, to help us see what honest and sincere self-confidence looks like. The full passage that he quotes is:

 

“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable – those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the shame of insincere self-deprecation but the modest of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.”

 

When we believe in ourselves despite having no reason to believe that we can accomplish what we desire, we risk pursuing a goal without being honest about ourselves, our position, our advantages, and our limitations. We put ourselves in a position where we believe we understand more than we truly do and where we believe that we know more about the world than we do. This may help us bulldoze our way to success, but it may also cause us to be brash around colleagues and friends who may be better suited than us for achieving goals to make a true difference in the world. Ultimately, this form of ego reduction requires that we also shift the traditional view of success. If our success is not tied to our own income and to being better than other people, then we can see success as helping improve some aspect of the world, and we can then improve the way we learn from others and achieve success by helping others make a difference. Modesty and a healthy appreciation for ones abilities can aid us in our growth by allowing us to be comfortable in a position where we make a big difference, even if we are not in the spotlight. While keeping us grounded on our true abilities, strengths, and weaknesses, humility helps us grow and learn and so that we can develop the skills necessary to accomplish things that matter most.

The Achievement is Not Really Yours

The great thing about an individualistic culture is that you get to own your success and feel great about your achievements. You can feel pride in winning a race, skiing down a mountain, having the best Christmas lights, or getting a promotion. Individualistic cultures treat these achievements as something more than just activities and outcomes. They become reflections of you and who you are, and in many ways your achievements become part of your identify. We show our friends our achievements on Facebook, we hang our achievements behind us on our office walls for everyone to see when they look at us, and we celebrate achievements with shiny objects that sit around on shelves and desktops.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to take a deeper look at our achievements than we typically do in an individualistic culture. He encourages us to look deeply at the successes in our lives and to ask how we contributed to the success, how other people had a hand in our success, and the role that luck played in our achievements. When we truly reflect on our achievements, we can begin to see that what we my think of as our own achievement was really a convergence of our own hard work and effort with many other factors that we had no control over. The outcome that we call an achievement is often less of something that we directly influence and more of something connected to the larger groups and societies to which we belong.

 

In detail, he writes, ” Recall the most significant achievements in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, the convergence of favorable conditions that have led to success. Examine the complacency and the arrogance that have arisen from the feeling that you are the main cause for such success.”  In my own life, I look back at my achievements and I never have a problem remembering the hard work that I put in to achieve my goals. It is easy to remember the studying and reading I put forward to graduate from college. It is easy for me to think about how much I did to earn my grades, but if I am being honest with myself, I can also see how often I was not serious about my studies and how often I was able to benefit from a nice curve on a test.

 

Hanh continues, “Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach.” I received substantial financial support from an uncle during college, and as a result I did not have to work full time and was able to enjoy leisure time. I was able to focus on my studies and had time to be in the library because I did not have to work 40+ hours a week to support myself and complete college. My success academically is directly tied to the support I received from my uncle. I can think about completing my college degree as my own success and as a display of my own virtue, but I relied heavily on assistance from a family member, assistance I can take no credit in receiving.

 

What is important to remember, and what Hanh highlights, is that in an individualistic culture we are often too willing to give ourselves credit for our successes and to view our achievements as entirely our own. When we do this, we artificially inflate ourselves to levels that we do not honestly deserve. It is important that we acknowledge the assistance provided to us from a fortunate birth, our family, random strangers, great teachers, and sometimes from just being in the right place at the right time. Letting go of our achievement as badges of our identities reduces our arrogance and makes us more open to helping others and connecting with those who have not had the same fortune as ourselves.

Moral Uplift

A question I am always asking myself is how much personal responsibility we should assign to individuals when it comes to success in terms of finances, relationships, careers, and life in general. The society that we live within is complicated swirling atmosphere that lifts some to the highest levels and buffers across the ground. Recently I have been writing about the challenges that minorities face in the United States, and the relative advantages experienced by our country’s white majority. At the same time, I have been listening to Tyler Cowen and thinking about his most recent book which I have not read, The Complacent Class. Several of the authors that I have read who focus on race in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Michelle Alexander, and Michael Tesler, have emphasized the ways in which factors beyond an individual’s control, such as race, shape the opportunities and futures that we have. Other authors that I have read or listened to extensively in podcasts, Cowen, Ryan Holiday, and Richard Wiseman, seem to suggest that mindset matters a great deal, and that we can adopt better thought patterns to achieve great success. These two views are not mutually exclusive, but are tied together in a complex set of interactions by personal responsibility.

 

About personal responsibility and society in The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “Urging the urban poor—or anyone—to live up to their highest ideals and values is a good thing, as it demonstrates confidence in the ability of all people to stretch, grow, and evolve. Even in the most dire circumstances, we all have power and agency, the ability to choose what we think and how we respond to the circumstances of our lives.” Alexander’s quote puts the idea of mindset to action in this quote, highlighting the importance of believing that anyone at anytime can find success. She emphasizes the importance of self-efficacy, believing that one has the ability to reach beyond their current situation and to make the most of who they are and where they find themselves. Alexander continues, “The intuition underlying moral-uplift strategies is fundamentally sound: out communities will never thrive if we fail to respect ourselves and one another.”

 

I believe that Alexander is correct that we have to respect ourselves and believe that we can make changes and advance in our own lives if we are to be successful and if we are to contribute to society. At the same time, I think it is important that we recognize that our personal responsibility also extends to how we interact with society and with those who are also facing obstacles of their own. The challenges that middle and upper class white people face are real, but so is the ability for them to recover, receive coaching and mentoring, and to get a second chance. For our low income populations and our minority populations, the personal responsibility piece holds true, but the ability to recover and find a second chance is not related to personal responsibility and is not always available.

 

Alexander looks deeper at personal responsibility and our reactions to ideas of personal responsibility writing, “As a liberation strategy, however, the politics of responsibility is doomed to fail—not because there is something especially wrong with those locked in ghettos or prisons today, but because there is nothing special about them. They are merely human.”

 

Malcom Gladwell in episode 4, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, from his podcast Revisionist History, explains the ways in which even our top performing youth from low income families can be derailed from a path of success. The consequence, he explains, of failing to overcome a single obstacle for a child born to the lowest SES families are overwhelmingly large, and the second chances or ability to recover from a stumble that is afforded to middle and upper class children is non-existent.

 

Somewhere tied between all of these factors lies personal responsibility. We are responsible for how we choose to react to the world around us. Our mind is the only thing we control and can be a tool for overcoming obstacles and not just a camera that reacts to what it sees around itself. At the same time, we cannot control the windfalls of success or adversity that we will face. And all the while we must remember that it is our personal responsibility to be there for others and guide and mentor those who are also facing challenging times. Where we draw the line of personal responsibility matters. It determines how we analyze the future potential of ourselves and others, and it determines how much assistance we receive and give to those around us. The problem is that it is invisible, connected to social responsibility, and entangled with all the things that drag our nation down that we want to forget.