The Science of Success

Check out an excerpt from the transcript for The Social Capitalist interview featuring Heidi Grant Halvorson. Read Tahl’s Raz’s blog post on the interview here. Click here for the full transcript: Social Capitalist Transcript – Heidi Grant Halvorson. Please access the audio recording here. Enjoy!

Tahl Raz:    So the application of all of these new – and when I say “new”, the last 30 years of social science’s focus on, as you say, the science of success or achievement – you said something incredibly provocative, I thought, that you make suggestions in your book and that you have implied that you have the answer.  But what are the best goals to pursue – as in, what goals kind of create the most well-being, the most fulfillment, the most – I think you said authenticity – what are those best goals?

Heidi G. Halvorson:    Well, again, they have to do with – I mean, it’s a broad class of goals.  So it’s not that there are three very specific things you need to do.  But it all comes down to why you’re pursuing the goals that you are pursuing.  So if you are trying to, for example, get ahead at work, which many of us are – you know, kind of climb the ladder – are you doing it because you find it personally challenging and rewarding, or are you doing it in order to, for example, seek the approval of other people?  So often it’s not about necessarily what the goal is on the surface, but really the why that matters.  And when we choose goals in our lives that satisfy our basic human needs – people have been arguing for thousands of years about what human beings really need in life.  And really the consensus in psychology has kind of focused on three in particular.  We talk about the need – for anything to be universal cross-culturally – the need for belonging.  So people have this basic need to relate to other people and to be part of meaningful groups, to contribute to their communities.  Another need is the need for what psychologists call competence.  And that has to do with sort of growing our abilities, working on new skills, acquiring knowledge, being able to sort of impact your environment in meaningful ways.  And then the third basic human need has to do with the sense that psychologists call autonomy, the idea that we do things because we are intrinsically motivated to do them, because they reflect something about our values, who we are as unique individuals.  So really it’s the why that matters.  Why are you deciding to go to medical school?  Why are you doing what you’re doing at work?  Why are you in a particular relationship?  And if it’s to satisfy these basic needs, then if you are successful, that’s going to bring you that kind of authentic lasting happiness that many of us associate with being truly successful.  It’s when our actions and our goals are motivated by things outside ourselves, by the approval of others, by seeking things like power and fame for their own sake, rather than to use them to do something positive, those kinds of goals can make us happy – I mean, certainly when you have reached a goal you’re going to feel some happiness.  The question is whether or not that happiness is fleeting. And it your goals really satisfy these basic human needs that we all seem to have, relatedness, competence, and autonomy, then that happiness is going to be a more lasting deeper happiness than you would have otherwise.  I mean, achieving goals is always a good thing.  But when we pursue things that really satisfy us as human beings, then you’re going to have another kind, another level of happiness than you would otherwise have.

Tahl Raz:    So the correlation between happiness and achievement is one of the things we’re talking about here.  I want to also talk about – you know, what fascinates me is, you have these 30 or 40 years of research that you’ve been immersed in  (well, not for all 30 years!) and that you have also personally conducted, which distinguishes you from so many others who have written about goals and so on.  I want to know, sort of from some altitude, whether in aggregate all of this new social science research, do we have a different view of human potential?  Has it changed?

Heidi G. Halvorson:    Oh, yes.

Tahl Raz:    And is there a consensus now on our ability to change and tap into that?  Tell me about that.

Heidi G. Halvorson:    Absolutely.  I think personally it’s changed me very much, in learning about this science as a graduate student and as a researcher and a professor.  I came into – very much like many Americans, certainly – I came into graduate school thinking that I was smart because I was born that way, and that there were many things I wasn’t good at because I was born that way, and that whether or not you are successful in different domains of your life has everything to do with essentially your DNA, that abilities are more or less innate qualities.  And I discovered that that was wrong.  And there really is, I think now, a great deal of consensus about the malleability of human abilities.  So in other words, even things that we tend to think of as very much innate, like intelligence, willpower, creativity, conscientiousness, that we kind of think people are born this way, it turns out to not be the case at all.  Now having said that, it’s of course true that your DNA matters, to the extent that you may have certain predispositions. You may be born with a temperament that lends itself to the study of certain kinds of things, or to excelling in certain domains.  But nobody ever really gets to be very good at anything without tremendous effort and persistence and practice.  And that’s something that was very eye-opening for me.  It was also eye-opening for me to realize that the story I had been telling myself my whole life up until that point, about why I was good at some things and not at others, was wrong.  So it showed me really two very important things:  one, that human abilities of all kinds, whether you are talking about intelligence, social skill, or leadership abilities, these things are all very malleable, so we can absolutely with persistence, patience, and the right expertise and the right help, get better, at really just about anything that we set our mind to.  And there is really a tremendous amount of evidence for that now, particularly in domains like intelligence that we used to think of as really quite genetically determined.  The second thing that I think is really important – and I know this, again, from first-hand experience – is that we’re often surprisingly wrong in the stories we tell ourselves about our successes and our failures.  And this is one of the reasons why I think you have to be a little bit careful when you pick up the biography or autobiography of some tremendously successful famous person, and they’re telling you about the secrets of their success.  Well, they might be right, but they might be wrong.  They might actually be attributing their success to things that weren’t actually the things that made them successful.  It’s really amazing how we can sometimes latch on to stories about ourselves that seem perfectly plausible, that in fact are wrong.  And in America I think there is a tremendous – in this culture, a tremendous emphasis on ability.  We love stories about prodigies and child geniuses, and we’re fascinated by them.  And when we look at successful people, we tend to look at them and say, “Wow, that person is so smart.  That person is different than me in some way because they were born with something that I don’t: have.”  When we look at our own difficulties, we tend to blame it on a lack of some ability that we don’t think that we can get our hands on.  And that really isn’t the way success works.  It’s not the way achievement works.  And it’s actually really, I think, doing ourselves quite a disservice.

Tahl Raz:    Heidi, let me push you on that, because, you know, that is the sort of – there is so much literature out now.  And it’s such a sellable kind of idea, that achievement is not innate, and we are not our genetic destiny, and deliberate practice, 10,000 hours, and so on, is what it’s all about.  You know, then there was this kind of correlate in terms of our own obsession with prodigies, and so on.  But, you know, just taking the devil’s advocate position here, I would say that if we’re in the realm of achievement, that’s one area that these prodigies and these people who have achieved great successes, and we talk about their autobiographies, that is very easy to point to.  And they give their ten-point plan for doing so, and we kind of follow them, even though it seems kind of unachievable.  But then you come along, and other people, and say, “Look, there’s a science to success.  It’s not innate.”  And it brings this great hope that real transformation – that even unsuccessful adults can actually transform themselves into successes, and so on.

Heidi G. Halvorson:    Right.

Tahl Raz:    Except I would contend, where are those examples?  I mean, so much so – is it that the culture isn’t focusing on that, that we’re actually focusing on Oprah not being able to lose the weight, and the example of President Obama continuing to smoke cigarettes?  Where are those examples?  Have you run into them?  Have you seen that when you apply this knowledge that you’re talking about, that transformation can happen and sustain itself in real examples?

Heidi G. Halvorson:    Well, I think that’s a great question.  I think part of the reason we don’t – I think there are examples.  Certainly there are people who turn their lives around.  And often we know of them only later in life.  So you sort of only meet them once they’re quite successful.  But if you sort of probe into the past, you find that there was a time when they really didn’t have their act together.  It’s also true that sometimes you just don’t see – very successful people often do have some things they struggle with.  I have many examples in the book, where I give myself as an example, because when I learned about – you know, I was always very focused on school and was just that kind of kid.  And school really mattered to me, and I always did really well.  There have been many, many areas of my life where I didn’t do so well.  I can tell you, for example, that in the course of writing this book, I lost 50 pounds because – it’s really funny how you find medical doctors who smoke cigarettes even though they know they shouldn’t.  You often find psychologists, especially research psychologists, who work in areas and don’t actually apply the lessons of what they’re doing to their own lives.  And I was very much guilty of that.  It wasn’t really until I sat down to write the book and thought about, okay, how can I translate all of these decades of research into usable strategies that people can use in their everyday lives – because of course when academics and researchers write things up, we write in this terrible jargon that is so dense no one can read it – so I was like, okay, how can I write this in English, and say, Here’s the practical take-home message, here’s what you should do?  And as I was doing that, I thought really for the first time, Hey, you know, that’s something I should be doing.  And I had gained about 50 pounds from having two children, and it was just stubbornly not going anywhere.  But I have to say I was not actually approaching it in a way that was strategic, that was using the knowledge that I knew for motivation, from my research.  And I had been just sort of telling myself, Oh, I just don’t have the willpower to lose this weight.  And I thought, Wait a minute!  Here I am telling everybody else that’s not the way willpower works.  So I can start using it.  So I started using some of the techniques that I talk about in the book that you can really apply to any goal.  I started applying them to my weight loss goal, things like if-then planning, thinking about when my low willpower moments would be, and I set myself the goal of losing the weight but losing it in a slow way.  I was going to just do it through steady changes over time – as I talk about in the book, the sort of ‘get-better’ mindset rather than the ‘be-good’ mindset.  So, thinking about it in terms of making progress over time.  And it took, probably, from start to finish, about two or three years.  But the weight came off.  And so I think there are a lot of people who are very successful in some areas of their lives and less successful in other areas of their lives.  And they don’t necessarily realize that the reason that’s true is that they are doing the right things in one area and failing to do them in the other.  And I can tell you certainly that was true in my case.  When it came to my work, I was very good about planning.  I was very organized.  I used many of the strategies intuitively when it came to my work, that I used in order to lose weight.  But I had just never applied them to losing weight before.

Tahl Raz:    This is actually a terrific segue into the nitty-gritty section of the interview.  So, can you go into a little bit of detail about – you know, you talk about this, of course, in the book, and you just mentioned it as one of the keys to losing 50 pounds, which is, by the way, unbelievable.  Congratulations!

Heidi G. Halvorson:    It was good!

Tahl Raz:    So, if-then planning –

Heidi G. Halvorson:     If-then planning is so extraordinary as a tool.  I’ve often joked to  colleagues that if we could sort of take every life management book, every motivation book, every diet book on the market, and just slide a little pamphlet in the back about how to do if-then planning, and use it with respect to whatever the course is that’s recommended in the book, the people would be extraordinarily more successful.  The average – there have been, you know, at this point, at least about 200 published studies looking at if-then planning as a tool.  It’s a particular way to go about planning how you will achieve a goal.  And it’s so effective.  On average the success rates jump – they double or triple, on average.  So, for instance, in exercise we find that people who use this technique, who have a goal of introducing a regular exercise routine into their lives, go from success rates around 32 percent on average to 91 percent on average.  So that is a very typical result.  And the way if-then planning works is very simple.  What you do is, you decide in advance when you’re going to try achieve really any goal, where and when you’re going to take particular actions in order to reach the goal.  And when we think about planning, we normally just think about listing the steps we need to take in order to reach the goal.  So if I know that I want to – let’s just use weight loss as an example – we tend to make plans such as, Well, I’ll exercise more and I’ll eat less.  And that sort of sounds like a plan.  But it’s really not a very good plan.  And it’s not a good plan for several reasons.  First of all, we’re not getting nearly specific enough about the actions we need to take in order to reach the goal.  And this is a problem people have without realizing it all the time, that they’re not really getting to the level of very concrete actions that need to be taken.  And then the other thing that they’re not doing is thinking about where and when they will actually take these actions.  So, for example, exercising – it’s great to say, I want to exercise more.  But where and when are you actually going to exercise more?  And in what way are you going to exercise?  We find that when people say, for instance, Well, okay, when it’s Monday and Wednesday and Friday at 8:00 a.m. before I go to work, I’ll go to the gym for 45 minutes – and when you make that very simple plan, you’ve decided exactly what action you’re going to take, and where and when you’re going to take it, and your chances for success go up about 2 to 300 percent.  And the reason that it works – it works really for two reasons.  One is that we routinely don’t get to that really specific level.  So if-then plans force you to get specific about the actions you need to take, not just think, I’ll eat less, but what will you eat less of, and how much less.  So what are the specific things you’re going to do to reach your goal?  And then when and where are you going to do them?  Because the other thing we often do without realizing it is miss opportunities to act on our goals.  We had a moment that would have been a good moment to act on the goal.  It was 8:00 on Monday, and we weren’t really doing anything, and that would have been a good moment to seize to go to the gym.  But because you didn’t think about it in advance, you didn’t seize that moment.  So if-then plans really help us to identify the situations where we could be acting on our goals before they slip through our fingers, and then seize those opportunities and take the actions we need to take in order to reach the goal.  So that’s the basic idea.

Tahl Raz:    It sounds somewhat similar to the framework of smart goals.  How does it depart from that?  Why is the success of if-then planning so much higher than smart goals?  How is it different?

Heidi G. Halvorson:    I think that’s a great question.  With smart goals, the elements are all there.  But they’re not necessarily connected in a way that makes them really essentially easy for your brain to use.  So what’s nice about if-then plans is, by taking the if and the then and connecting them – so, the situation you’re going to act on and the specific action you’re going to take – it links those two concepts together in your mind.  And basically it forms what psychologists call a contingency – an ‘if z, then y.’ And the wonderful thing about contingencies is that basically they’re the language of the brain.  Your brain likes to process information and store information in terms of contingencies.  If ‘x’ happens, then I’ll do ‘y’.  So it’s putting the plan in your brain’s natural language.  And then what you’re able to do with if-then plans that doesn’t really happen with smart goals, is to kind of take advantage of your unconscious mind’s processing power.  You know, our brains are incredibly active and have enormous processing capacity.  But what we’re conscious of at any moment in time is really just the tiniest fraction of what’s going on.  And really, most of the goal pursuit that we engage in on a daily level is happening sort of on an unconscious level in your mind.  So your brain is kind of taking actions and doing things in order to reach goals, and you may not even be aware of it.  So the if-then plan is really acting, often, on an unconscious level in your mind, where you make this if-then plan.  If it’s 8:00 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, then I will go to the gym.  And then what happens is, your brain, without your realizing it, is standing in the environment for 8:00 on Monday to occur.  And it’s actively looking for it.  And then when that moment occurs, it says, ‘Bing, bing, bing!  You’re supposed to go to the gym right now!’  And that thought, Oh, I’m supposed to go to the gym, will pop into your mind . So you’re really kind of getting to take advantage of more of your processing power, more of your potential, by putting the information in this kind of language.  I think the smart goal system is great for identifying – you know, it’s identifying critical steps you need to take when you’re setting goals for yourself.  But this if-then plan is really about implementing goals.  It’s about going from committing to the goal to actually getting yourself to take the action you need to take.  And that’s where I think it has the advantage.  It brings something new to the picture.

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