Book Review-Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity

Why is it that some people seem to reach their goals and do great things while others languish in obscurity, not sure what to focus their time on or whether they should watch TV or go to a movie? We all want success – though we may define it differently – and the path to success is, we believe, productivity. In Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity, Charles Duhigg seeks to illuminate the path.

Believing the Lie

Productivity starts with believing a lie. It starts by believing that we’re in control of our destiny. If we look deeply into anyone’s success, we will find that luck and circumstances played a huge role in their success. Yet for ourselves we must believe that our self-agency, our ability to control our destiny, is limitless.

Carol Dweck’s research proves that people do better in life if they believe in a growth mindset. (See Mindset for more.) The heart of the growth mindset is a belief in self-agency, or what is sometimes called an “internal locus of control.” To encourage a growth mindset, we praise the work and not the results. We help people understand that their effort drives their results, not their inherent skill.

Change or Die explains that if we were to truly look at our weaknesses, we’d never be able to function. A life-threatening asteroid may strike the planet tomorrow – but the odds are against it. Taleb might argue that The Black Swan event is always around the corner, but if we’re hypervigilant in this way on everything, we’ll get nothing done.

The Halo Effect reminds us that, though we love the world of certainty, we live in a probabilistic world. We need to accept that there is a certain amount of chance in our daily doings. While we have some important impact on our lives, our level of influence isn’t limitless. In Extreme Productivity, Robert Pozen spends most of the book explaining his techniques for productivity before admitting in the end that his life has not followed the path of a straight arrow. He’s followed the twists and turns of fate – or luck.

Success, it seems, isn’t dependent completely on luck or work. As Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared.” It’s possible that your number will come up on the roulette wheel when you have a small bet or a large bet. The payoffs are much larger when the bet is larger. Working hard – on the right things – allows you to make those larger bets.

A Thousand Steps

An old proverb says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Developing productivity is like this. The Rise of Superman talks about how extraordinary things are accomplished by mere mortals and how those feats are typically the results of a very small improvement followed by another and another. Like the compounding of interest, our capabilities grow slowly as we invest in them. If we continue to make small incremental improvements over time, we can do amazing things.

Sometimes people are discouraged when they realize the large gap between where they are today and where they want to go. They don’t know how to break large goals into smaller goals. One man who figured out how to get big things done through small steps was Walt Disney. As I mentioned in my review of Primal Leadership, despite his setbacks, Disney learned to try things in small scale before trying larger projects. He made short movies before feature-length movies. He built a path to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs though shorts and other tests to ensure that he could produce a full-length animated movie.

Connecting Steps to Journeys

The real magic of Disney may not be in the parks but in his ability to connect long-term objectives to the step-by-step progression of smaller tasks. One of the challenges is that many people become overwhelmed when faced with large goals. They feel lost because they don’t know how to get to the end goal. The trick isn’t to know how to reach the goal. The trick is in knowing how to get closer. As The Psychology of Hope points out, what we think of as willpower – the ability to keep moving forward – contains two components: what we’ve traditionally called “willpower” and a second component called “way power.” Way power is an awareness of how to move forward.

This is one of the great learnings of agile methodologies. You just move things forward a little and then reassess to see if you can figure out what the next small step should be. You don’t have to reach the end in one giant leap. You move forward, learn, adapt, and then move forward again. Eventually you learn how things work – for real – and you’re able to make larger and larger leaps.


Gary Klein recognizes that fire commanders had built models in their head about how fires were supposed to behave. (See Sources of Power.) They learned and fine-tuned these models in their experience. They had stumbled across the capacity to think in systems. (See Thinking in Systems for more.) It became possible for them to see everything as connected, and when this happened, they could simulate in their heads what was going to happen. When it happened, they knew they were on the right track; and when it didn’t, they knew they had to adjust their thinking and their response.

One of the funny things is that these fire commanders weren’t always the person with the most experience. They were sometimes just the people who could build the models faster and better than the others. It’s the ability to think in systems that made them good at what they did. Highly productive people, it turns out, generate lots and lots of theories and start to use their systems thinking to model them – and eventually to know which things to test.

Thinking in systems doesn’t come with a cursory interest. It takes commitment.

It’s All About Commitment

In Freemont, California, they’ve witnessed a change. A plant that made cars so poorly that GM had to close it down became a shining star in a partnership with Toyota. The plant is the stuff of legend. Many books have been written about it and reference it. It’s heralded as the quintessential reason why Japanese cars are so much better than American cars – even when the cars are made by largely the same workers.

In the GM command and control model, you didn’t dare stop the production line, because you had been told repeatedly how much that costs the company. In the Toyota model, if you needed to stop the line to do something right, you did. It’s simple, but the transfer of accountability and responsibility is enough to do something magical: create commitment.

When you’re committed to your goal, job, career, or company, you’ll volunteer to work harder. You want to do more than the minimum, because the minimum isn’t great. When you want to take a leap forward, sometimes it means slowing things down to get it right and learn more.

Random Connections

The most innovative people you meet aren’t the people in the science lab learning to stop all vibration of an atom. The most innovative people are the people who take discoveries like that one and combine it with other ideas to create something great. The truly innovative research that has been done, the greatest ideas that have been created, are a result of merging diverse fields. Whether it’s The Medici Effect that set off the Renaissance period by bringing together different artists and inventors or it’s Edison’s lab that brought metallurgy and gas lighting experts together to create the incandescent light, breakthrough innovations are more about combining the thoughts of others than doing your own detailed, tiny, but ground-breaking research.

For me, these random connections are Discovered Truths. Like the periodic table of elements, when you can see the order in the chaos, you can tame it and ride it to the end – rather than trying to grind it out. In the end, Smarter Faster Better is the way we all want to be.

Book Review-An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization

A friend, mentor, and manager of mine once relayed a conversation that he had with the HR manager at our company. The HR manager said that you couldn’t change the stripes on a tiger but – in a sense – this was exactly what my friend was trying to do. He wasn’t content with people where they were. He wanted people to grow and change and become the best possible versions of themselves, even if it was painful, as it often was. He was ahead of his time in trying to carve out his corner of the larger organization and make it deliberately developmental for every team member.

Nancy Dixon and I began a conversation years ago at a KMWorld event. Since then, there has been the passage of time and only a few powerful conversations. When she heard some of the work that I was doing in teaching people how to listen better and how to resolve conflict, she encouraged me to read An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. As I suspected, it was a good book. It helped to bring into focus some of the things that I had been working with clients to create in their organizations.

Too Many Ideas So Little Time

I’ve been making a concerted effort to be more judicious with what I cover in my book reviews. I recognize that reading a 7,000-word post is like reading a half a chapter of a book – so I’ve been breaking them down. This one got broken into a series of posts that have already made it to the blog. The triggering moment for five posts came from An Everyone Culture.

That isn’t to say that all the content in these posts came from An Everyone Culture. It sparked the thoughts and the need for me to capture and relate my experience in a way that others could capture as well.

Weakness Is Strength

There’s an interesting paradox in our weakness. It’s our weakness that gives us strength. It’s our weakness that demonstrates our perceived safety and our ability to grow.

When we were growing up in the proverbial school yard, exposing our weakness was sure to result in being called out for that weakness at some point. We were powerless to avoid harm when the words hurt us as much as the sticks and stones. We learned not to be weak for fear of being harmed.

However, there’s another framework from which we can expose our weaknesses. If we know that, no matter what happens, we’ll not be harmed, there’s no reason to hide our weakness. It’s not really hiding our weaknesses that is our goal. Instead, our goal is to avoid hurt. If you can’t get hurt by someone by them knowing your weakness, why hide it?

Consider for a moment the power of a 12-step group like Alcoholics Anonymous. The greatest addictive weakness is known to everyone in the group. The check-in practice all but requires it. Simply showing up is a relatively clear indication. Yet this greatest weakness is safe with the rest of the group, because they share the same weakness and therefore can’t harm you with the knowledge. (Though this is not technically true, it feels this way.) The reason that it’s an anonymous group is so that people can’t take the information to people outside the group who might harm you with it. (See Why and How 12-Step Programs Work for more on this powerful tool that addicts – and non-addicts – use to elevate their lives.)

To be able to expose your weaknesses with a broad audience makes you powerful, because it means that your weakness can’t be used to hurt you – or at least it’s hard to use them to hurt you and requires malicious intent, which fortunately most people don’t possess. To get to this point, you must feel safe with the knowledge of sharing.


Safety is an illusion. We believe that flying in a plane isn’t safe. It’s scary. We believe that driving or riding in cars is safe. The problem is that we have these precisely backwards. Cars kill many more people than airplane accidents, but airplane accidents make the news, and car accidents rarely do. We rely on the What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI) and assess that planes are less safe than cars when the opposite is true. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on WYSIATI.)

Consider a move to a perfectly middle-class neighborhood. In this fictitious place of Normalville, everything is at the statistical mean – schools, crime, everything. Whether you consider this place a safe place to raise your family will be assessed against your current situation. Is your current neighborhood a high-safety place or a low-safety place? If you’re used to a gated community with a Barney Fife-type security guard driving around the neighborhood, you’ll find the transition to Normalville very unsafe. Conversely, if your last neighbors were a drug dealer and a pimp, both of whose clientele had a propensity for random and non-random shootings, your move would add amazing perceived safety.

Cultivating the perceived safety in our work environments comes from the development of trust. Trust that our coworkers have our best interests at heart. Trust that we can rely on them when we need help.


For me, when it comes down to how do you change and grow – whether as a child or as an adult – it all comes down to trust. Do you trust the folks who are trying to help you through the growth and change (even if this is just you)? If you do, there’s a chance for success, and if not, there may be better ways to spend your time. I’ve written extensively about trust, particularly in Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy.

Changing ourselves is possible. It’s possible to grow and change. Dweck’s work shows that a growth mindset is better than a fixed mindset (see Mindset). Knowing that we can change and trusting that the people around us are the ones to help us make that change aren’t the same thing. Organizations that want to be deliberately developmental must focus on trust as a critical ingredient for that growth, without it a great deal of energy will be spent without much in the way of results.


Burnout has been a lifelong companion of mine. Sometimes I’m able to push it away for a week, a month, or a year, but eventually burnout comes back to catch up and remind me it’s there. Burnout is not, however, what most people believe it is. Burnout isn’t overwork. Burnout isn’t trying too hard. Burnout is the result of not feeling like you’re changing anything. You don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. Burnout tells you that nothing ever changes. (Del Amitri has a song that I always hear when I write about burnout titled “Nothing Ever Happens”.)

Burnout can surface in our personal lives – we’re never going to find that perfect person or our children are never going to learn those important lessons. Burnout can happen in our career – endless job opportunities appear to other people but not to us. Burnout can happen in our personal development – we’re making the same poor choices and getting the same poor results in our diets, our exercise routine, and our ability to control our anger and communicate our feelings to others.

The first feelings of burnout show as we start to put forth less energy into the things that we are – or at least were – passionate about. This initial appearance of burnout tentatively tries to take hold of your future – to cause you to change your direction.

Getting out of burnout isn’t always easy, but there are simple exercises – like exercise – that can help make it better. Physical activity is one way to help, as the physiological response is sometimes enough to help us escape a rut. For those, like myself, for whom exercise isn’t a pleasurable experience, there are other approaches as well.

The things that you focus on get bigger. If you focus on where you’re blocked in your growth, those blocks will seem bigger. Conversely, if you’re able to focus some thought on how things may be getting better – even if only slightly – you can help yourself out of the pit of burnout. (See Hardwiring Happiness for some more tips here about instilling happiness which helps relieve burnout.)

If you want to transform your organization into an organization that rejects burnout, perhaps you need to read An Everyone Culture.


Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism

“Bless her heart.” The words seem to conjure up an image of a Southern belle speaking about a poor unfortunate soul that she pities. It’s a recognition of the suffering of another person without a connection, a desire to relieve their suffering, or a willingness to go out on a limb to help them.

Buddhism in particular calls us to be compassionate for our fellow man, but this thread runs through most major religions as well. Even evolutionary biologists admit that, as a species, we survived due to our willingness to help one another and alleviate others of our group’s pains and struggles. However, in the realities of every day life, how far should we go? Should we live the altruistic life so that we can be remembered as a hero, or should we play it safe and just pity the pour souls that cross our path?


Pity is such a toxic emotion. The person being pitied feels shame that they are the subject of someone else’s sympathy. (See Brené Brown’s Rising Strong for more on shame.) They feel disconnected and distant, because inside of pity is no connection. There’s only the unspoken message that you aren’t good enough. You didn’t make the cut.

Unlike the other ways that you can approach someone that indicates your understanding of their situation and the desire to help, sympathy or pity isolates them and actually lowers the person that you’re pitying. You believe that they’re less than or lower than you – and they often pick up this impression


While sympathy and empathy differ only slightly in their word construction, the difference in meaning is profound. Empathy means “I understand this about you.” Inherent in empathy is a connection. The connection may not be strong, but it’s present. As humans, we need connections. It’s a part of the way that we survived, so it’s encoded deeply into our DNA.

Empathy recognizes the suffering of other people and how that suffering may be affecting them. However, empathy stops in the world of thoughts and feelings. Empathy says nothing about how a person will behave. As a result, empathy helps someone feel connected and thereby may lift their feelings a bit. However, empathy doesn’t lead to change.


Compassion expands on empathy and connection with people, but it does so inside of the context of a strong desire to alleviate suffering. In Emotional Awareness, the Dalai Lama argues convincingly that, unlike sympathy or empathy, compassion isn’t an emotion, because it must be cultivated, it is an enduring characteristic, it doesn’t distort our thinking (as feelings do), and it is restricted to the relief of suffering.

Compassion is an amazing place to be with our fellow humans. Professions, like nursing, are built on the foundation of compassion. Professionally, there are discussions about topics like compassion fatigue, where the nurse expends their capacity for compassion at work and has trouble expressing it in the rest of their life. There are techniques to cultivate greater compassion for others, but often the challenge isn’t the need to increase the capacity for compassion, but to manage the disconnect between the way that folks feel they should be seen and the actual compassion that they’ve cultivated.

Compassion, true compassion, is hard to fake. By attempting to project a false image, we expend energy and build resentment within ourselves. (See How to Be Yourself for more on projecting a false image.) In professions – again, like nursing – there are times when you must protect yourself from feeling others’ pain too intensely so you can complete your work. Unfortunately, in needing to blunt some degree of your awareness and empathy for others’ pain, you can unintentionally stunt your cultivation of compassion.


It’s one thing to be compelled to alleviate the pain of another human, and it’s quite another to feel that so powerfully that you’re willing to risk harm to yourself. The fireman – or good Samaritan – who charges into a burning building to save a child demonstrates this level of commitment. They’ve moved beyond compassion into altruism – it’s the place of heroes and myths.

Heroes are known for their selfless sacrifice and their willingness to put themselves in harm’s way to alleviate the suffering of others. In the legends, myths, and movies, the hero ends without any harm, despite the risks. In the idealized world, the sufferer is saved, and the hero is victorious. However, this is the stuff of stories.

In real life, people get hurt – sometimes critically – as they attempt to save others through their altruistic acts. This is an unfortunate reality that we must accept. It’s also why altruistic acts need to be carefully considered and executed.

For most situations, altruism goes too far. Altruism creates the risk that you will not be able to be there to have compassion for the next person.

Finding Our Place

Too often, compassion explicitly or implicitly bleeds into altruism. Sometimes the choice is conscious, as a decision is made that this cause or this person is simply too important to give up on. Other times, we exceed our current capacity for compassion, and we continue anyway. This causes what’s seen as compassion fatigue and can cause real damage to our capacity to recultivate our compassion.

For the most part, we must avoid the toxicity of sympathy, move towards empathy and connecting with others, and through to developing compassion for their suffering and the willingness to help them change it. At the same time, we must learn to stop short of altruism, except in the very rare conditions when the personal risk is well justified based on our personal convictions and our possibility of transforming a situation with our willingness to accept personal risk.

Cultivating compassion in every interaction while acting in a way that is consistent with our capacity should be everyone’s goal.

manual transmission stick shift

A New Way to Manage: Up, Down, and Around

Most of the organizations that I’ve been in have a culture that values the perception of perfection even in the face of evidence that we’re not perfect and no one else is either. Understanding this seems obvious – however, too many organizations unconsciously ignore this fundamental truth. Let’s take a quick look at what organizations look like – beyond the tall buildings, fancy offices, and expensive chairs. How do we as humans relate to each other? How is it that we truly connect with our peers, managers, and subordinates?

Managing Up

To be successful in a corporate environment, you must learn some key skills, not the least of which is the art of managing up. While in some minds, this is as simple as making sure that your boss likes you, it’s slightly more nuanced than that. Certainly, having a friendly relationship with your manager is important – after all, no one wants to have hostile relations with anyone, much less their boss. However, you must also make sure your manager believes that you can do the job that you’re currently in, whether that’s a manufacturing manager, a digital marketing specialist, or a fry cooker.

If you’re particularly skilled at managing up, you’ll create the impression not just of a relationship with your manager, but that you want to make your manager look good. While your relationship and your skills and capabilities matter, they don’t matter as much as the manager looking good to their manager.

Together, these expectations mean that you must hide your weaknesses from your manager so they don’t discover that you don’t really know how to do your job. (Here’s a secret: none of us really know how to do our jobs completely – or we’re in the wrong job.)

Managing Down

Much has been written about how to manage your subordinates. There are different strategies, but most of them involve the central tenet that you, as the manager, know more than the person doing the work, and as a result, they should listen and do what you stay. In this position, you must become the all-seeing oracle at Delphi. You’re supposed to have the answers to offer up that you don’t know, or encouraging exploration could be construed as weakness.

The result is that, in the typical organization, you’ve got to hide your weakness from your subordinates by claiming that the problem is difficult, and you want to review all of the information or reflecting the problem back on them, so they can “grow,” all the while silently realizing that you don’t have the answers either.

Managing Across

Managing peer relationships with no authority-power gradient is just as complex. The folks that you’re working for will be the very ones that you’ll be competing with for the next promotion. You certainly can’t expose your weaknesses to them, because they might take those weaknesses and use them against you at the last moment.

Without the power gradient, you can’t be sure that you can trust them. What if they decide to “air your dirty laundry” to the rest of the organization? You’d be ruined. So, the best strategy with peers is to keep things close to your chest and share your expertise with them, but never ask them for anything that might demonstrate your weakness.

The Legacy of Stack Rank

Some of this is a result of the thoughts of Fredrick Taylor, who brought out the stop watch to measure, evaluate, and stack rank employees based on their ability to drive solid metrics. Peter Drucker warned us that you’ll get what you measure. He saw how Taylor’s ideas warped the behavior of the front-line workers towards the metric to the exclusion of everything else. Kaplan and Norton tried to address the limitations by urging us to move towards balanced scorecards – where we looked for good performance on a series of metrics, not a single metric.

However, even in this world, employees were stack ranked at organizations like GE. The top performers got the best bonuses. The bottom performers were encouraged to find opportunities outside of the organization. This approach is often criticized in knowledge management and collaboration circles, because it places dramatic barriers in front of the kind of sharing to make these initiatives successful. (See Collaboration for more on how internal competition breaks collaboration.) It’s also been the bane of many managers with high-performing groups where everyone in the group is a solid performer – but one must be let go to address the structure of the stack rank system.

Managing Developmentally

That’s what it looks like in most organizations. Safety is elusive. You must hide at least part of your real self to stay relatively safe in an unsafe environment. (See How to Be Yourself for more on the stress of denying yourself.) However, what would it be like to experience an environment where you can be the whole you? If your weaknesses were not just acceptable but were expected? What if the model were flipped over, so that it was the managers that served the managed? (See Servant Leadership and Heroic Leadership for more on how managers might become servants for the managed.)

When we can confront the reality that none of us are perfect and we all need to grow, we create the opportunity to be more transparent about our weaknesses, both in order to grow personally and to allow the team to cover them so they don’t get the better of us.


Organizations for Humans

Organizations have missions and strategies. They differ but there’s one way that every organization is the same. Organizations are designed by humans for humans to work in. They are organized around the principles that the leaders believe will move the organization to its goals. However, more importantly, no organization can exist without humans. Despite this relatively straightforward observation, too many organizations don’t want humans to show up. They only want the happy pictures of tireless workers who never have their own issues that the organization should support them through.

Chemical Reactions

Some organizations view employees as a simple exchange. It’s money for services. It’s transactional, and the organization can and should be less involved in the lives of its employees. During the mergers and acquisitions of the 1990s, the illusion of employment for life was shattered. Though we never fully held this belief in the US, we deluded ourselves into believing that, if we were loyal to the company, the company would be loyal to us. However, this was shattered, as tens of thousands of employees were displaced during mergers. (See America’s Generations for how our views have changed over time.)

With this implicit promise irretrievably broken, employees began to be seen as raw materials, like energy. They were to be used up during the production of the organizational goals. On one side of the chemical reaction was two raw materials, and on the other side was the desired product and the used-up capacity of one of the raw materials – the employee. Certainly, not every organization holds the extreme view of employees as a commodity or as disposable, but the view is still held in some organizations.


It’s a totally different perspective to see used-up employees as byproducts of the process, one which realizes that the organization’s goal is the furtherment of humans. Organizations may serve one, few, or many humans, but they’re always serving someone. In this service, they can expand the capacity of humans on the planet or transfer the wealth of one group of people to another group of people.

Consider predatory lending for example. It preys on those least able to pay and transfers their financial resources to someone who can lend the money. The other side of high-risk lending is that, without high-risk lenders, many poorly-resourced people would never get the financial help they need to get out of the holes that they’re in. Notice that, in one view, there is a need for high-risk lending that supports poorly resourced people getting a leg up. The other view – which is sadly just as likely – is that the loans are predatory and keep the poorly-resourced people down.

When organizations change their view from being all about money and shift it to understanding that being financially successful is integrated with the need to help move the human race forward, we’re left with an organization that sees every customer and employee as fully human. Sadly, this is all too rare.


The gravest tragedies in the history of our world have been instigated by dehumanization. Whenever there is genocide and torture, you will find that dehumanization led the way. (See Moral Disengagement for why dehumanization leads.) Before the concentration camps, the Nazis made the Jews less human. Before the abuses in prisons – both war prisons and domestic corrections – there is the necessary dehumanization of the inmates. (See The Lucifer Effect for more on dehumanization in prisons.) The less human someone is, the less necessary it becomes to treat them with “basic human decency.” If they’re not human – if they’re the enemy or an inferior group of beings who are no longer human – then there’s no need to treat them decently.

Dehumanization of anyone makes us less as well. By dehumanizing others, we steal from our own humanity and from the broader group of souls who coinhabit this world. (See The Anatomy of Peace.) The more we can dehumanize others, the greater we understand that we, too, can be dehumanized. Our personal safety erodes as we seek to build ourselves up relative to others.

Cardboard Cut-Out Employees

If you ask most executives what they want from employees, you’ll hear things like productivity, innovation, dedication, work ethic, etc. Rarely do you hear an executive say what they want most is that employees bring themselves fully to the organizations. Sure, they want collaboration as long as it’s quick and painless. Collaboration serves the master of productivity, so it’s a good fit – if it isn’t too hard.

Real humans and true teams are messy things. They don’t fit into boxes, and their issues don’t always align well to corporate priorities. Real people have weaknesses and faults. It’s easier to think of people as cogs in the machinery of the organization than it is to realize that everyone is broken but also valuable.

It’s easier to only see the Hollywood smile of an employee on a cardboard cutout of themselves. It’s easier to not have to worry about the faults and foibles that lay beneath the surface of every employee.

Crazy Creative

In the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we live in, we need employees to bring their whole selves. We need people who aren’t afraid that their weaknesses will be the reason why they’re in the unemployment line next week. Their creativity depends upon their sense of safety. (See Drive and Creative Confidence for the impact of stress and fear on our ability to be creative.)

If your organization wants to be successful as an organization today, it needs to accept change and encourage the messiness of innovation and creativity through the recognition that employees are whole humans, and as such they need to be developed into their best possible selves, not just harvested for their capacities today.

What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful

Book Review-What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful

When multiple arrows point to the same place, you’ve got to go there. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There is one of those places. The book Who: The A Method for Hiring and The Power of the Other both refer to Marshall Goldsmith’s work. It’s a powerful reminder that you need to continue to grow and improve no matter how successful we are – that is, if we want to continue the upward spiral of success.

Four Success Beliefs

Goldsmith believes in the strong character of successful people. While not every successful person could be described as having an “unerring sense of direction,” most successful people know where they’re going – at least most of the time. They have a set of beliefs that carry them forward. The four beliefs are summarized as:

  1. I have succeeded
  2. I can succeed
  3. I will succeed
  4. I choose to succeed

At some level, these beliefs are true, but they are also delusions. For all of us there have been failures as well as successes. Some challenges are more than they’re capable of – at the moment. (See Peak and The Rise of Superman for self-improvement.) Some situations are unwinnable. Finally, willpower has its limits. (See Willpower, Grit and The Happiness Hypothesis for limits of willpower.)

Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. (See Helping Children Succeed for more.) The Halo Effect reminds us that we live in a probabilistic world, not one of certainty. We can’t say that we will succeed. There is no certainty in the world we live in, particularly as we consider complex goals and objectives.

The “internal locus of control” that successful people believe in may be a fallacy, but it is helpful. (You don’t want to recommend that they read Mastering Logical Fallacies too deeply.) The belief system gives them the strength to keep on with the climb. (See Grit: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up and Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance for more on what it takes to keep going.)

Top 20

Beyond the limitations of the beliefs that successful people hold, there are things that they do to hold themselves back. These are the brakes being applied while they’re trying to stomp on the gas. As you get into greater leadership and management roles, your technical skills matter less, and the skills that you have as a leader and manager can either make people more effective – or you can minimize people. (See Multipliers for more on maximizing people’s output.) The top 20 of Goldsmith’s 21 appear below (quoted):

  1. Winning too much: The need to win at all costs and in all situations—when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally beside the point.
  2. Adding too much value: The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
  3. Passing judgment: The need to rate others and impose our standards on them.
  4. Making destructive comments: The needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty.
  5. Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”: The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly say to everyone, “I’m right. You’re wrong.”
  6. Telling the world how smart we are: The need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.
  7. Speaking when angry: Using emotional volatility as a management tool.
  8. Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work”: The need to share our negative thoughts, even when we weren’t asked.
  9. Withholding information: The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
  10. Failing to give proper recognition: The inability to praise and reward.
  11. Claiming credit that we don’t deserve: The most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success.
  12. Making excuses: The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
  13. Clinging to the past: The need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.
  14. Playing favorites: Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.
  15. Refusing to express regret: The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.
  16. Not listening: The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
  17. Failing to express gratitude: The most basic form of bad manners.
  18. Punishing the messenger: The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.
  19. Passing the buck: The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
  20. An excessive need to be “me”: Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.

Goal Obsession

The 21st brake on success isn’t always a bad thing. The problem is when it’s out of balance. A little bit of healthy goal obsession is necessary – like the mistaken beliefs about success – to be able to sustain the fight against the onslaught of storms. Goal obsession can cause people the problem of forgetting the ultimate vision for the sake of a minor point that doesn’t matter.

Goal obsession is getting the blinders on and forgetting that one small goal is nearly always a means to the end vision that you want. Sometimes making something work isn’t the right answer, because the cost is too high.

Sharing and Withholding

Looking back on Goldsmith’s list, he calls out that half of the items are based on managing the balance of sharing information and withholding information. Too far on one side and you share too much. You don’t allow space for other people to share. Too far on the other side and you withhold too much. You don’t support others in ways that you can. This is Goldsmith’s assessment, not mine.

I’ve certainly seen the effects of withholding in very personal ways. In Intimacy Anorexia, we found that withholding is the primary weapon of the intimacy anorexic. I’ve also been repulsed by people who suck all the oxygen out of the room with their incessant talking about me, me, me. However, I would say that his list is more about being comfortable with oneself than it is with something as simple as the degree to which you communicate. After all, the intimacy anorexic is withholding communication, because they don’t want people to know who they are.

Comfortable in Your Own Skin

Learning to be yourself should be easy. It should be natural. However, for many people, they’re not clear about who they want to be and how they will define themselves. As a result, it’s hard to be themselves. You can’t behave in a consistent way if you don’t know the ways that you want to behave any more than you can hit a target that you’re not aiming at.

Clarity on the kind of person that we want to be and making our wants and desires subservient to the goal of the person we want to be is difficult. It’s a challenge to stay focused on the end goal, on the character that we want to develop in ourselves, but it’s also the most rewarding.

Books like The Anatomy of Peace speak of the boxes that we get in where we are threatened or wounded, and how it causes us to behave in ways that are counter to the ways we want to behave. Folks like the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman have conversations about eastern and western philosophies about Emotional Awareness. Tools like the Enneagram are designed to reveal our tendencies while also exposing the awareness that we can be more or less functional within our natural tendencies. (See Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery for more on the Enneagram.)

Becoming the best you that you can be – being comfortable in your own skin – is a lifelong goal and its own reward. There’s a peace about knowing yourself and appreciating yourself for both the good and the bad.

Integrated Self Image

Understanding that you are both good and bad is important. (For more on the good/bad dichotomy see The Lucifer Effect – Normal Evil.) More important than recognizing the good and the bad within yourself is the need to accept that this is one person, not two. You are both the good and the bad. In ancient Egypt, they used to believe that when you died, your heart would be weighed against a feather. Only those whose heart was as light as a feather would pass into the afterlife.

For the Egyptians, it wasn’t about the good or the bad that you did. It was how heavy your heart was that prevented the move into eternity. Unfortunately, too many people carry a heavy heart, which is burdened by the conflict between seeing themselves as either all good or all bad. (See Rising Strong for more on having an integrated self-image.)

Misplaced Blame

Have you ever been in a public place where smoking was prohibited, and yet someone was smoking nearby? Have you ever gently reminded the person that their smoking was a violation of the rules (or the law) – only to be rebuffed as if you were the one doing something wrong? That’s misplaced blame. You’re pointing out that someone is not behaving according to socially-acceptable norms, and suddenly their focus is on you.

We’ve all experienced some degree of this in our relationships. Psychologists call it “projection” or “misdirection.” (See Changes that Heal for some of the mechanisms that people use to protect themselves.) The problem with misplaced blame is that we’re not taking responsibility for ourselves – and that limits our ability to succeed. We can’t resolve our issues if we’re unable to accept or see them.


Feedback is perhaps the most effective way for us to see what our limitations and challenges are. Feedback can be positive – allowing us to extend further in a direction – or negative – encouraging us to change our course. Feedback isn’t something that we – generally – want to hear, and it’s not something that other people want to do either.

Providing feedback is risky. It’s natural for people to view someone giving negative feedback more negatively than they might without any feedback. Even good leaders struggle to not hold negative feedback against someone. That’s one of the reasons why so much effort is put into creating safe, 360 evaluations for leaders. The people providing feedback need to know that they’ll be protected through commitment of the organization or through anonymity to be able to provide honest and forthright feedback.


One of the things that too few people are good at is apologies. Goldsmith advises to get in and get out with apologies, as the more one talks when making an apology, the more the temptation is to justify, defend, or support the action that one is apologizing for.

I tend to separate one aspect that troubles most people. I can be sorry for the impact on someone without necessarily accepting that I could have easily or possibly foreseen the outcome. That is, I don’t necessarily accept responsibility with my apology. I simply connect with the other person and acknowledge their pain or loss.

On the other hand, there are times when an apology that means more than “I’m sorry” is necessary. Sometimes it’s necessary to specifically outline the steps that you are going to perform to prevent further recurrences of the situation. This is particularly necessary when you’re responsible but also when the same problem tends to happen repeatedly.

Singularly Special

Masters of relationships have another way of developing and maintaining their relationships. They have the gift of making the person that they’re speaking with feel singularly special. When you’re talking to them, their grocery lists, unresolved business issues, and distractions melt away, and their entire focus is on you. Bill Clinton is described as having this gift – that when you’re talking with him, it’s like nothing else matters. Whether you are, at that moment, singularly special and whether you like his politics or not is immaterial. There’s something special about being the complete focus of another human being.

Learning to Ask

Peter Drucker said, “The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.” His statement is supported by research – though he couldn’t have known that at the time he made the comment. The efficacy of techniques like Motivational Interviewing is based on the knowledge of knowing how to ask questions in a way that helps people become more open. Have you ever been asked a question, and the instant you heard it you realized that the question was insightful enough to propel the conversation forward to a better understanding? That’s the art of learning how to ask the right questions.

How to Handle Me

What if people came with instruction manuals? What if everyone had a set of care instructions attached to their ears instead of earrings? What would it be like to know where they’re likely to be sensitive? While I doubt that we’ll start wearing care instructions on our ears, masters of relationships have learned to help others understand how they can bring out the best in the master.

Masters are self-aware enough to know where they’re going to struggle, and that, by coaching their peers and their subordinates on how they can best handle them, they’ll be better off as a team. In my relationship with our office manager, I had to share that I struggle when I feel like we’re not making progress. As a result, she adapted to a communication style that helps me see where we’re making progress – and highlighting where we’re not and why.

The Lost Causes

Not everyone is someone that you can form a healthy and productive relationship with. Some people just can’t be in a relationship (personal or professional) with another person in a healthy way. (See Intimacy Anorexia for more.) However, even when dealing with people like this, you may benefit from What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.