Why “If You Believe It, You Can Achieve It” Is the Worst Possible Success Advice and What’s a Much Better Plan for This Game of Life...
I was prompted to write this after a conversation with a connection about what it is that we’re ‘believing’ when we tell ourselves we just need to summon up some self-belief and then things will work out.
In this case the person I was talking with was talking about building a new business, but it can just as well apply to anything — running a marathon, writing a blog post, taking on a complex project….
There’s a common phrase that’s thrown around in personal development and that pumped up “you can do it!” kinda coaching / motivational speaking,
If you can believe it, you can achieve it.
The obvious implication (were this phrase true) is that, if only we can convince ourselves to believe something, then, assuming we can work hard enough, the achievement is inevitable.
But all we get down that road is hard work. And then more hard work!
I’ve seen how easy it is to confuse belief in things outside us, with real, true belief in our capacity as humans to create what we want in the world.
It’s a subtle, but important distinction. Let’s unpick it…
What Looks True (to me)
1. My happiness and peace of mind do not come from my external circumstances. I don’t ‘need’ my projects to work out in a particular way in order to be ‘happy’ or to feel ‘successful’.
‘Success’ is simply a construct of my imagination. Nothing more, nothing less. Sure, it looks pretty solid because a lot of people happen to have constructed it the same way, but that doesn’t make it true.
That would be like saying that ‘success’ is finding a good place to bury a bone, or making a great cup of coffee in the morning. Both are fun and enjoyable, but they don’t have any more meaning than that which we create for them.
2. My state of mind goes up and down throughout the day. I can wake up happy and excited for the day regardless of what’s on my agenda; or I can wake up frustrated and tired and that feeling will pass as soon as I engage with what’s in front of me. Or it won’t. Who knows!
Knowing that the way I feel does not relate to my external environment means that I can be more present to the tasks and the people around me, regardless of how I’m doing in that moment, and, surprise, surprise, this can help create or reinforce a feeling of connection and joy.
3. When it comes to creating things, whether that’s my business, my job, or my children (!), I absolutely do not control the results that I get. Full stop. No matter how much it might seem like I’ve ‘done’ something, there is always a randomness and an unknown factor in creating anything.
[I could become even more philosophical and ask who is the ‘I’ that is creating, but let’s leave that for another day...]
Of course, I have a part to play in achieving outcomes. If I didn’t sit down and write, then nothing would get published. If I don’t respond to emails and calls from people wanting to work with me, chances are I wouldn’t have much of a business.
I’m not saying I’m not responsible, I’m saying that, even when I do the very best I can, there are always things beyond my control.
It’s the difference between the tennis player who loses a match because she has a weak backhand — better work on the backhand! Versus the tennis player who loses the match because she’s having a bad day. Oh well, no point dissecting what could have happened differently, some days you win, some days you lose.
In business, I want to build the very best products and services I can, I want to listen to customer feedback, to look at what’s selling and what isn’t, to test, to experiment, to play the game of business full out.
I want to be persistent, and yet, the most successful entrepreneurs will tell us that there is an element of being in the right place at the right time. Luck. Serendipity. Things outside their control. Like the tennis player, I master my skillset, I do the best I can, some days I win, some days I lose.
The key to winning at the game of life is to not take the losing — or the winning — personally.
4. I believe that I have infinite potential for new ideas.
[Side note: I actually typed out ‘good’ ideas but then I realised that maybe not all my ideas are ‘good’! Let me call them ‘new’ ideas and allow the quality to be revealed in the testing.]
I also know that those ideas are more accessible to me when I step outside of ‘needing’ anything, and when I step outside of ‘needing’ the business — or the tennis match — to turn out a certain way.
That potential for innovation and creativity (new ideas) is greater the less I have occupying my mind, the less self-conscious I am in asking for things that sound crazy or embarrassing to my tiny ego. Ego is a construct of my thinking self, it isn’t the part of me that creates amazing results in the world.
I believe it to be true that I have no idea how things will turn out and the more I hold this space the greater chance I have of stumbling upon success. Success, in this context, meaning a positive (and likely unpredicted) result for the business.
5. And, at the end of the day, I come back to 1. I am fine, regardless.
If the business does not work out, then I will take another path. To me, finding another path in the world has no more ‘real’ consequence than going for a walk and finding the way blocked by a flooded river. We take another route; one that looks interesting to us in that moment and, who knows, it could turn out to be a much more enjoyable walk than the one we had planned. Or not.
What Doesn’t Look True (to me)
1. If I believe it, I can achieve it.
I don’t believe this is true. At all.
I believe that I am capable of way more than I can imagine AND I believe I don’t control the results of my efforts.
If this sounds contradictory, I ask that you reflect on it for a moment and consider where have you achieved more than you thought you were capable of? And also consider where have things turned out differently to the way you expected? Not necessarily better or worse, just different.
There is good evidence that ‘blind’ self-belief can even have a negative impact on results; it leads to complacency because we think there is nothing to do other than ‘believe’. More tripe. There is plenty to ‘do’ in the world of creating things.
2. If I simply work hard enough, or long enough, I will get the results I want for my business. Again, this does not look true to me.
There are some things that won’t happen no matter how hard or long I work. Sure, I need effort (and this is another piece that can sound contradictory); I need to do something, but who knows whether there is a better way to do something, or even if the thing I want is even on the cards for me.
So, what to do instead? What can we control and where should we focus our efforts?
A Plan for This Thing We Call Life
The way it looks to me is that I have no idea whether the things I’m working on are going to work out or not — but I do them anyway.
I have some belief that I’m heading in the ‘right’ direction, otherwise I wouldn’t be going that way, but equally, I don’t know what diversions and roadblocks and landslides are ahead of me. I don’t make failure personal.
Like the tennis player who realises she just isn’t getting to where she wants to get to, changes sport and becomes a world champion at something else. Who knew!?
Where I see people getting very lost (and me too sometimes!) is equating one thing with another.
The unwritten subtext of the exchange I had with my contact went something like this,
I’m a failure at my business if my business doesn’t make money.
How could this possibly be true?
The way it looks to me is that business is like a play thing. We do what inspires us, we seek to master our craft (the craft of business as well as the craft of our business), and we aim to make money. BUT, holding out for money as the only measure of success is like saying art is only valuable if it looks a certain way, or it achieves a certain price point.
Sure enough, just like art, some things will sell better than others. And, like an artist, maybe we take commissions, maybe we find a patron, or maybe we find a part-time job until we’ve figured out whether people want to buy what we’re selling or whether we want to sell what people are buying.
But, again, ask anyone who’s had ‘success’ at what they do, and you’ll find a long string of ‘failures’ behind them; things that didn’t work out the way they expected.
Yes, of course, there is some judgement to make about how long to continue something that doesn’t seem to be working out, what to change, when to ‘pivot’ and so on. But judging ourselves for creating a painting from time to time that no-one wants to buy — to me that looks like craziness! It’s just one painting, put it aside and move on.
We have an inspiration, and we play full out to make a go of it.
The belief part comes from knowing that ideas are unlimited, that my potential for having ideas is unlimited, that I have way more capacity than I am aware of, and that I am OK regardless of how this particular chapter turns out.
As soon as we take our focus off things having to turn out a certain way, then it’s amazing how much more ‘success’ starts showing up for us.
I wonder what your experience has been of where ‘self-belief’ has served you, and where, perhaps, it’s just led you down a road of hard work.
And maybe there could be another way?
P.S. I cover topics like this, and more, in more depth, in my podcast ‘Tuning In’.