The Success Trap: How Achieving Success Can Be A Limiting Factor


Johnny Cash said, “Success is having to worry about every damn thing in the world, except money.”

Whether in life, work, or money, the word “success” is so often used. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It works because of its malleability—everyone can make up their own definition. In addition to the legendary Man in Black, here are a few more classics from undeniably successful folks:

  • “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it,” said poet, Maya Angelou.
  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer said, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”
  • Orison Swett Marden, who founded Success magazine in 1897, one of the earliest publications on self-improvement, wrote, “Success is not measured by what you accomplish, but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.”
  • And one of my favorite all-time quotes from Sir Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

A snippet from this last quote is our focus in this post: “Success is not final.”

The author may well have intended to suggest that success can be fleeting, and indeed, we’ve all heard plenty of riches-to-rags stories. (It seems like there are entire TV stations dedicated to such themes, doesn’t it?) But is it also possible that it becomes a limiting factor once we reach a point where we might deem ourselves successful?

This was a question recently posed by my colleague and co-contributor, Tony Welch, when he observed that confirmation bias may lead those who’ve reached self-determined success to conclude that they must be right—about everything. They may conclude that they don’t need to change or continue pursuing personal or professional development because they’ve already made it. Sadly, they may be missing out on whole other levels or channels of future success because of their present success.

And it makes sense, right? Imagine for a moment that you come from a modest middle-class background, and you’ve definitely leveled up. You worked hard, graduated from college, and superseded the financial success of your parents—maybe even your own hopes and dreams. You’ve won the game, right? And thanks to confirmation bias (more on that in a second), your belief that you are undeniably successful may lead you to conclude that you are the exceptional anomaly and that anyone else who challenges you to change or further improve must surely be wrong.

I’m not picking on you—us—here, because this is how we operate. “The confirmation bias is the tendency to cherry-pick information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas,” says behavioral economist Shahram Heshmat. “Confirmation bias explains why two people with opposing views on a topic can see the same evidence and come away feeling validated by it. This cognitive bias is most pronounced in the case of ingrained, ideological, or emotionally charged views.”

Yes, politics and religion may be the first things that come to mind when we think about views that are ingrained, ideological, or emotionally charged—but none are more so than our belief in our own general rightness.

That’s why behavioral economists call it “the fundamental attribution error,” which professor and author Richard Thaler describes as, “the bias that leads us to overestimate the role of personal characteristics and underestimate the role of situational factors when explaining other people’s behavior. When someone else does something, we tend to think it is because of who they are rather than the situation they are in.” Meanwhile, when we screw up, we attribute it to situational factors rather than our misbehavior.

But it’s not all bad news on this front. Dr. Meir Statman, a behavioral finance expert and professor at Santa Clara University, helps us see why these inherent biases can be helpful. Confirmation bias, he suggests, “helps us preserve our existing beliefs and protects us from the mental distress of constantly questioning our assumptions.” Even the fundamental attribution error “can be seen as a way to simplify the complex social world and make it more predictable.” Indeed, behavioral finance isn’t all bad behavior.

So, how do we net all of this into something hopeful and helpful?

  • The pursuit of whatever definition of success you have isn’t a bad thing. Having a goal-based orientation helps move us to positive action.
  • We should absolutely celebrate when we reach milestones along our path.
  • But let’s not deliberate too long glorying in self-satisfaction, lest we miss out on the opportunity to participate in some version of success that may be far beyond our wildest dreams.

Oh, and let’s also remember that the pursuit of another “S”-word—SIGNIFICANCE—may be a far-worthier objective than whatever version of success we’re after.

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