“Succeed” is that rare and precious thing: a self-help book based on science, instead of woo-woo psychobabble, new age mysticism, or religious faith in the cosmic power of positive thinking. I highly recommend it.
Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is an award-winning social psychologist who is an expert in the science of human achievement. Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals
(Published by: Hudson Street Press, 2011. Hardback; 263 pages. US $25.95) is her first book. It aims to gather together the best research on how individuals can meet their personal and professional goals, and then distill it into straightforward strategies and techniques that anyone can use. It succeeds brilliantly.
We’ve all succeeded at some things and failed at others. And we all have theories–even if we don’t make them explicit–about why we succeed and why we fail. Many of these informal theories discourage us from even trying to change. Other common ideas about how to reach our goals are just plain wrong. Summing up the best available research on how to achieve our goals, Grant Halvorson explains what really works: commitment, planning, effort, strategy, self-control, and persistence. Just as importantly, she takes these concepts and shows how to translate them into manageable tasks and techniques.
“Succeed” is straightforward and easy to follow. It benefits from a tight focus on how to set and achieve goals. Each chapter outlines key strategies and techniques, with the scientific evidence and explanations behind them, and then concludes with a bullet-pointed recap of the takeaway lessons. While the bulk of the book deals with how individuals can reach their own goals, it also provides valuable advice on how to help others—such as children, colleagues and employees—achieve goals.
The last book I read about self-improvement and success was Barbara Ehrenreich’s clinical dissection of the “self-help industry”: Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
I now feel that any book that promotes positive thinking also needs to deal with Ehrenreich’s account of the pitfalls of perpetual positivity. I was therefore relieved to see that Grant Halvorson praises Ehrenreich for her “vigorous critique of the American culture of illusory optimism”. Grant Halvorson goes on to distinguish between the types of positive thinking that are realistic and constructive and the blind optimism that is so unrealistic as to be delusional and destructive. She also shows that negative thinking has a valuable role to play in selecting the best goals and the most realistic strategies for reaching them.
Perhaps the most important research finding about success is that we shouldn’t try to do everything at once. Our “self-regulatory strength” — the self-control and self-discipline necessary to change behavior or establish new habits — is like a muscle: if we use it too much all at once, we will exhaust it; but if we use it regularly, pushing it without overdoing it, we will gradually build up our self-regulatory strength, so that over time we can take on more and more challenges. Furthermore, once we master a new behavior, we then internalize it so that it becomes a matter of habit. We no longer require a conscious effort to do it: we have delegated the goal pursuit to our unconscious mind.
Succeeding at our goals takes time as well as effort. We need to have a plan and implement it over time, and then go back and develop a new plan to reach the next level of success. This is just one reason why “Succeed” is a book that you will want to return to each time you reach a new level in implementing your plans for success.
If there is one weakness in focusing on the science of success, it is that it has much more to say about how to reach your goals than about what those goals should be. Sure, you should choose goals that align with your core values, but the question of what those values should be belongs more to philosophy than social psychology.
Even here though, Grant Halvorson is able to highlight some important findings. For example, goals that are likely to make us unhappy are goals that come from our desire to show off. If your goal is to become rich and famous and then flaunt your success to prove your self worth, then you are likely to be disappointed. These goals will not only fail to bring you happiness, they will obstruct your pursuit of goals that really can make you happier.
And what are these goals that really will make you happy? Grant Halvorson says they are goals “that satisfy your basic human needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy.” That means building genuine relationships and contributing to your communities, developing new skills, and giving yourself the freedom to pursue the goals that best reflect your core values.
Isn’t that why we start our own businesses? We want to build real relationships that help people; we want to learn and benefit from new skills; and we want to do it on our terms without having to compromise our principles.
Whether you are looking to boost your fitness, develop a new skill or hobby, or motivate others to succeed, “Succeed” will give you practical and proven techniques to help you, yes, succeed. But for me, and I think for my audience, the greatest value of this book is that it can help us meet our business goals in ways that also meet our basic human needs for “relatedness, competence, and autonomy.” And that, surely, is the greatest success of all.