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10 Reasons You Aren’t Achieving Success

10 Reasons You Aren’t Achieving Success
10 Reasons You Aren't Achieving Success

    A couple of months ago, I asked you not to fear failure, saying that embracing failure — or at least the possibility of failure — was essential to success. But, of course, in the end the goal is to succeed, and fear of failing isn’t the only thing that keeps us from succeeding.

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    I speak from experience here. Six or seven years ago, I was the picture of success — a straight-A graduate student, top of my class, a job I loved, a relationship that I was happy in, the whole enchilada. And then, those successes started slipping away. Nothing obvious at first, but gradually I found myself stuck in a rut academically, my relationship dissolved, things just weren’t going my way. I wasn’t failing, per se, just losing my grip on the successes I had won.

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    In the last couple of years, I’ve been reassessing some aspects of my life, trying to figure out what had happened so I could rebuild. To some extent this has worked well — I have a job I love (although I need to develop it into a career, not just a job), I have a book coming out in my academic field, I’m writing quite a bit, and most importantly I have a new relationship that is going strong. To get here, I’ve had to figure out what I was doing wrong in the years in between, where I had lost my footing, and I think I’ve figured out a thing or two in doing so.

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    If you’re not reaching the kind of success you imagine in the areas that area important to you, one or more of the following things might well be true of you, too:

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    1. You don’t have a goal. A lot of time we find ourselves “spinning our wheels”, struggling through a day-to-day routine that isn’t getting us anywhere because we don’t know where we want to go. Sometimes we had goals when we set ourselves on a particular path, but we’ve changed along the way and those goals are no longer that important. Sometimes we simply did what was expected of us without ever stopping to think about what we eventually wanted to accomplish for ourselves. Whatever the case, figuring out what your goals are and, just as importantly, whether your current actions are helping to achieve them, is important.
    2. You don’t have a vision. Setting goals is important but isn’t enough to drive you to the finish line; it’s important, too, to be able to imagine yourself as the achiever of your goals. How will you feel, what’s the payoff, why is it worthwhile to follow these goals and not some other ones? If goals are the end result of a journey, your vision is the fuel to get you there.
    3. You don’t have a plan. If goals are your destination and a vision is your fuel, your plan is the map to get you there; without a plan, you have no idea what immediate steps to take to achieve your goals. Planning means taking stock of the resources you have, the resources you need, and the steps you have to take to put those resources into action. The world is full of people with goals they have never accomplished because they didn’t have a plan — don’t you be one of them.
    4. You’re too certain. Too much certainty creates inflexibility. If you’re sure that your plan is correct, and refuse to accept the possibility of error, you may well find yourself stuck when an unexpected change comes about, or when your plan takes you in an unexpected direction. However strong your plan and however sure you are of your goals, make room for periodic reassessment.
    5. You’re not certain enough. At the same time, too little certainty will paralyze you. If you refuse to take a step because you aren’t positive it will move you towards success, you won’t make any better progress than if you had no goals at all. Keep your eyes open and be willing to change, but have faith in yourself, too.
    6. You don’t learn from your mistakes. A lot of people take their mistakes as signs of their unworthiness. They take setbacks as proof that they were never meant to achieve anything in the first place, and that they were stupid to even try. Mistakes are crucial to success — if we take the time to analyze them and learn from them. Even when they bar us irrevocably from attaining a goal, the lessons we learn from our mistakes help us to make new and better goals.
    7. You reject outside influences. A lot of people see the influence of others as a weakness, or worse, a restriction or even “pollution” of their innate creativity. This is, in a word, hogwash. We are first and foremost social beings, none of whom has ever accomplished anything without the help of others. Welcome and accept other perspectives on your strengths and weaknesses, your successes and failures. Accept help graciously when it’s offered. This doesn’t mean you should take every piece of advice offered you, but you should listen seriously and openly and weigh carefully the input of others. And learn from their mistakes, when you can.
    8. You worry about being copied. Often we close ourselves off from other people not because we’re afraid that they will influence us but that we will influence them, that our brilliant ideas will be taken up by someone else and no longer be solely ours. So we avoid sharing our passions, and spend our energy jealously guarding our “secret” rather than simply moving forward. In the end, we turn our passions into burdens that become difficult to carry instead of a joy.
    9. You use up your reserves. When I’ve found myself at my lowest points, it’s always been for lack of a reserve — whether of money, of time, or most crucially of energy. In part this was the fault of inadequate planning and over-certainty — I should have reassessed my situation more realistically before exhausting my resources — but whatever the cause, it’s a dangerous place to be. A mistake that could be easily recovered from under normal circumstances becomes overwhelming when you’re too broke or too exhausted to respond adequately. Keep track of where you are financially, materially, and emotionally before you find yourself too worn down to continue.
    10. You fear success. Forget fear of failure, it’s fear of success that kicks us the hardest. It’s the darnedest thing, too — the kind of thing that you don’t imagine possible, until one day you realize that you really don’t know what to do with yourself if you ever accomplish your goals. On the other side of success is the unknown, and believe it or not, the unknown is often scarier than the known world of struggle and unfulfillment this side of success. When I realized this, one night as I drifted unhappily to sleep, it jerked me straight up in my bed!

    My father, an avid collector of seemingly random quotes, is fond of saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. (I’ve never had the heart to ask him why he keeps saying this….) At some point, you have to stop doing whatever you’re doing and figure out why you’re doing it, especially if it doesn’t seem to be getting you where you want to be. When you do, I think you’ll find that at least one of the above applies to you. Whatever your reasons, though, the important thing is to realize that it’s in your nature neither to be a failure, nor to be a success, that success is something we make rather than something that happens to us — and when you realize that, you can start to make the changes that move you from “insanity” to success.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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