Revisiting a conversation with psychologist Heidi Grant about the behavioral secrets to success.
Heidi Grant, a motivational psychologist, has studied successful people and what makes them tick. In this classic episode, she and former host Sarah Green Carmichael discuss the behaviors of high achievers and how to incorporate them into your own life and work. Grant is the author of the HBR article and e-book “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.”
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
We’ve interviewed a number of people on this show about problem solving and learning from mistakes. Those are critical skills that help people continue to learn and grow in their careers.
But we don’t just learn from mistakes. There’s quite a bit of research that shows just how important successes are to learning. For example, organizations that don’t just celebrate but study their successes are more likely repeat them. And that goes for individuals, too. Studying the successes of others’ can provide a good deal of insight in how to change your own practices for the better.
For this episode, we’re bringing back a conversation with motivational psychologist Heidi Grant. She wrote the HBR article “Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.” And spoke to former HBR IdeaCast host Sarah Green Carmichael about it. I hope you enjoy it – and that it does you some good in 2022.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So first I wanted to ask you just about the genesis of this list of the nine habits of successful people, because some people have seven habits, other people have six keys, maybe someone else has five principles. So how did you settle on these nine things, and what are they based on?
HEIDI GRANT: Basically, the idea, for me, came from my background as a research psychologist. I come from sort of an academic background doing research on– and the questions I was always interested in had to do with– why some people handle difficulty better than other people do, why some people seem to be able to set goals and reach them, and other people set goals for themselves and end up not quite making it. And the answers to me were very interesting, because they’re counter-intuitive. I think, particularly in the United States and in Western countries in general, we talk a lot about, we think a lot about, ability as the main explainer of success– that if someone is very successful, they’re at the top of their game, it’s because they have some talent, some genius that we think of as innate, something they were born with. And that turns out to be surprisingly wrong.
Really, success, more than anything else, turns out to be about being able to set goals and reach them because you use the right strategies. And for, I think, a lot of very successful people, they kind of figure that out as they go along almost intuitively, that some kinds of strategies work for them and others don’t. But I thought it’d be great to make this knowledge explicit for people and say, look, here are the nine things– and really that number, nine, just came from me taking a look at several decades worth of research on motivation– and saying, what are the strategies that really stand out, that we’ve tested again and again and found them to be the most effective, to have the biggest impact on whether or not people actually reach their goals? So it was sort of saying, what would give you the most bang for your buck?
And it just turned out to be nine. Nine things that we know from really many, many studies really make a difference. And the other thing I liked about these particular strategies that I talk about is that they’re pretty straightforward in terms of once you understand what it is you’re not doing, and what you need to do differently, it’s fairly easy to implement these changes in your life. And really, knowledge is the key. I think for many of us, we just don’t understand where we’re going wrong. And why, in some areas of our lives, we seem to be very successful. In other areas we have trouble, and we don’t quite understand what the difference is. So these are the nine things that really make the biggest difference.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So one of the strategies that successful people employ is focusing on getting better rather than being good. And that’s sort of feel-good, but isn’t it important to really be good at something to be successful at it?
HEIDI GRANT: Absolutely. You know, I am glad you brought this up, because it’s something that I end up talking about a lot with people. Because I really want to emphasize again and again that this is a research-based argument. So there are a lot of people out there, particularly when it comes to motivation, saying things that sound great, the kinds of things you want to hear. Like, just think positive things and everything will work out for you. And then it turns out to not really be true. But this is one of these cases where what sounds good actually turns out to be the most effective kind of mindset you can have. And so I talk about the difference between when you’re doing something– whether you’re tackling a new project, or setting a goal for yourself, or taking on some challenging task, thinking about what you’re doing in terms of getting better. In other words, it’s about progress, rather than doing it perfectly right out of the gate.
And it turns out in many studies we’ve been able to show that when people think about what they’re doing, whether they’re taking a very difficult test of some kind, or working on a project over weeks at a time, that when they think about that as something they’re going to improve on, that they’re going to develop over time, that they might make mistakes along the way. But that’s OK because you learn from those mistakes, and over time you’ll really come to master this. When that’s the mindset you’re taking with you when you approach a task, you actually perform better.
The irony is, if you allow yourself to make mistakes you make fewer of them. And that has a lot to do with the fact that when we expect perfection of ourselves, and we expect to do something, regardless of how difficult it is or how new it is to us, when we expect to do it perfectly right out of the gate, we make tons of mistakes. Because we’re anxious, and nothing messes up performance quite like anxiety does. So you feel tense, you’re worried, you feel like you’re being evaluated, and that really disrupts performance. So this attitude of, I’m going to get the hang of it eventually if I keep trying and keep working at it, actually does result in far superior performance. Particularly when things are very difficult and challenging.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So the idea of steady improvement is so ingrained into your whole approach that some of the things you argue we can improve actually were things I always thought were innate. One of these, for instance, is having grit. That’s also on your list as one of the strategies that people use. How can we actually go about making ourselves grittier?
HEIDI GRANT: Grittier, yeah. You actually run into the same argument about the getting better mindset, that people say, well, if I don’t think that way, how can I become somebody who thinks that way? And the truth is that all of these things are very malleable. So even the mindset that you approach a task with is something that you can change over time. So the more you keep telling yourself, I’m going to think about this in terms of growth, I’m going to think about this in terms of improvement, then that becomes the new habit over time. And it’s the same thing with grit. We tend to think about grittiness, which is basically persistence in pursuit of long term goals, being able to bear down and hang in there when the going gets tough, and not give up on yourself. So grit, it’s tempting to think that is something that is kind of innate, that some people are gritty and others aren’t. And that again turns out to not be the case.
Grit is something that is learned. And we find that grittiness really comes from, in many ways, your underlying beliefs about the nature of ability. So if you believe that you can get smarter, you can become more creative, you can become a better leader, you can become more socially skilled, you can become a better communicator, if you believe that human abilities are things that grow with effort and experience, it kind of makes you naturally gritty. Because when things become difficult you say, all right, this is really an opportunity for me to develop this skill. And if I just hang in there eventually I can master this. We find that the people who lack grit tend to be those who believe that abilities are fixed, that you sort of either win the DNA lottery or you don’t. And you are born smart, or you’re born creative, or you’re born a good leader or you’re not. And so when they encounter difficulty and things are challenging to them, that don’t come easily, they are very quick to conclude, well, I guess I’m just not good at this. I guess I lack this ability. And so they give up. So grit really is just fundamentally about hanging in there. And that turns out to be really more than anything else a function of whether or not you believe you can improve.
Now if you’re somebody who in the past has tended to think of your abilities as sort of fixed, and tended to say, oh, I’m just not good at this and given up on yourself, then what I encourage you to do is read the book, or read some other things that people, not just myself, but other people in psychology have written about. Abilities, as it turns out, abilities don’t work that way at all. We have now decades of research showing that intelligence is profoundly malleable. It grows absolutely with experience and with effort, that creativity is something that also can be developed. Self-control can be developed, and that’s another thing I talk about.
One of the nine things is working on your self-control muscle, that idea that willpower is not something that’s innate. It can be developed. Leadership skills can be developed. Social skills can be developed. There are no skills, there are no human abilities that cannot be developed. So once you embrace that and realize you’ve been, maybe without realizing it, believing some things that weren’t true about your own ability it becomes much easier to really become a gritty person.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: I’m glad you mentioned the idea of strengthening your willpower muscle. The way you talk about that is kind of surprising. This idea that as you’re working towards getting better at something like improving your willpower you may actually temporarily exhaust your so-called muscle on willpower. How do you work towards getting better at something in a way, like on willpower, that makes it so that you keep moving forward instead of that suddenly you just crack and dive into the box of doughnuts or whatever?
HEIDI GRANT: Well, I think many of the strategies that I talk about are related to each other. I think again, with willpower you need to take the long view, that this is something you’re going to develop over time. We have really several problems when it comes to willpower. One is that we don’t understand how it works. Again, this willpower turns out to be one of these things people often assume you either have or you don’t. You see the people, the very skinny vegetarians who are non-smokers, and you say, oh, that person was born with a lot of willpower. And again that’s really not how it works. Nobody is born with a lot of willpower. It’s developed over time like a muscle. So the first thing we need to do is realize anybody can get more willpower if you feel you don’t have enough.
But at the same time willpower is always going to be limited because that’s another way in which it’s like a muscle. You can, just like your biceps or triceps, you can work them out and you can get them stronger. And you can develop huge biceps and triceps. But it’s still always going to be true that after a really long, hard workout those muscles are going to be tired, and they’re going to kind of feel like jelly. And so your willpower is like that. You can develop it, you can absolutely get more of it. And there are exercises, literally, you can do that I talk about, ways you can train yourself to have more willpower.
But I think at the same time you need to be thinking about your day, thinking about your life, the goals you’re pursuing, the times of day where you’re most likely to have low willpower because you’ve used it up. So for many of us that’s immediately after work. You spend all day putting out fires, and dealing with stressors, and your willpower’s going to be at its lowest. It needs a little bit of time to rebound. So that’s going to be a time you’re very susceptible to temptation.
And then we need to make plans, which is another thing I talk about among the nine things, plan how you’re going to deal with that low willpower. So rather than just saying, oh well, I’ll just resist temptation, don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Instead, come up with an alternative. Something you can do that’s going to keep you out of harm’s way when temptation abounds and your willpower’s low. So it’s about building the muscle while still being smart about how it works, and protecting yourself really, when you need to.
SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So in the blog post, and then at greater length with more detail on exercises in the ebook, you talk about these nine strategies as positive ways to move forward and improve and move toward success in achieving your goals. Are there things though that are counterproductive that you see people doing, kind of shooting themselves in the foot, strategies we should avoid?
HEIDI GRANT: Absolutely. There are a bunch, and unfortunately there are a lot of people kind of advocating for these strategies, and I think with good intentions, because they seem like they should work. One of the things that you hear a lot about among people in the self-help literature, and then in the business world too, is this importance of a positive outlook, that optimism is so important, and that positive thinking will get you everywhere, that if you just sort of visualize the success that you want it will manifest itself. And that would be great if that were true. I mean really, I would absolutely love it if that were true.
But it turns out that not only is it not true in the sense that there is absolutely no evidence that if you visualize yourself in a successful position that that will just somehow materialize, it’ll just happen. In fact, actually there’s now good evidence that that kind of thinking actually sabotages your success. So in other words, when people are only positive in their thinking– they’re sort of wild-eyed optimists, they’re unrealistic optimists, they just focus on the positive and they don’t think at all, don’t allow themselves to think about the obstacles that need to be overcome in order to make that dream a reality– that actually they’re less likely to succeed. And it has everything to do with this idea that, the way I talk about it, is sort of that visualizing success is bad. The idea is really you need to visualize the steps you need to take to make success happen.
So I still think of my message as sort of optimistic, in the sense that what I’m telling people is they really can be more successful then they are currently if they apply these strategies. But that said, it involves thinking seriously about what your obstacles are, what kind of problems might derail you and figuring out how you’re going to deal with those problems. That’s how you make success happen. Some people call that negative thinking, thinking about obstacles, thinking about what could go wrong, coming up with a Plan B. That kind of thinking gets, I think, a bad rap. But really it’s a very critical part of being successful. Really successful people are what I call realistic optimists. They believe they can succeed, which is very important. But they believe that they’re going to have to make that happen by thinking very realistically about the problems that lie in their way. So that’s, I think, one example of the kind of strategy that’s out there, this sort of relentless positive thinking that really sabotages people.
And related to that is, I think, this idea that we think a little bit too much about when it comes– especially to trying to change our behavior. So to, say, stop flying off the handle and losing your temper when people, your colleagues, irritate you, or if you want to stop smoking or stop snacking. We think a lot about what we’re not going to do. And we really focus on that. So I’m not going to smoke, I’m not going to lose my temper, I’m not going to eat the doughnuts in the conference room. And what we really need to be doing– again, there’s been recently quite a bit of research showing that this focusing on not doing things actually ends up being very counterproductive. And it has to do with, I think, a lot of people may be familiar with this idea, of thought suppression, that don’t think about white bears idea, that when you tell yourself don’t think about white bears, suddenly all you can think about is white bears. So there’s this ironic rebounding that happens when you try to suppress a thought, that it kind of comes back into your mind. And it turns out the same thing happens with behavior. So if you say I’m not going to lose my temper, I’m not going to eat these doughnuts, then suddenly all you want to do is lose your temper and eat doughnuts. And it turns out that people who make those kinds of resolutions end up doing more of the thing that they promised themselves they wouldn’t do.
So the key becomes, actually, instead of saying what you won’t do, say what you will do instead. So instead of saying I won’t lose my temper, say OK, well, the next time my colleague irritates me I’m going to step aside and take three deep breathes and remind myself that it’s not worth getting angry over. Or instead of having a cigarette, I’m going to chew some gum. Or instead of having a doughnut I’m going to go make myself a cup of tea. So it’s the what you will do instead part that turns out to be very powerful.
Our brains like to have an action plan. And they don’t like plans that are in the form of I won’t do x. They want to know what you will do, and those plans turn out to be very effective. So the strategies that are effective often turn out to be just sort of subtle changes to things we’re already doing. Planning is great, and we all know planning is great, but you need to plan in the right way. Being optimistic is great. Thinking about believing in yourself is great. But you have to engage in positive thinking in the right way. And so for many of the things that I talk about in the Nine Things, it’s really saying look, there’s more than one way to plan. There’s more than one way to be positive. There’s more than one way to think about willpower. Here’s the ways to do these things that are really going to pay off, that are really going to lead to greater success.
CURT NICKISCH: That was motivational psychologist Heidi Grant, speaking with former host Sarah Green Carmichael.That was episode 273. Between that one and this one, there are more than five hundred more episodes to listen to. So, if you’re ever facing a particular problem at work or challenge to your business, there’s probably an episode an out there about it. Just scroll through past episodes or search for IdeaCast plus whatever you’re facing, and you’ll likely find something to help you manage things better. If you don’t, let us know. Maybe we can cover your specific issue. Tell us at episode was produced by Mary Dooe and Adam Buchholz. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt.

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