Ruined by Success? Leadership, Motivation and Pollyanna Positive Thinking

By Barry Maher

To me, the strategy Never Settle for Success means that your ultimate goal has no number attached to it. Your ultimate goal and your short, medium and long term goals all become essentially the same—to simply see how well you can perform if you perform as well as you possibly can; to utilize every ounce of talent you can muster in every applicable situation, each day, each week, each month. And after each significant interaction, you evaluate yourself to fine-tune your course.

So you don’t slack off when you’re surpassing goals, so you don’t give up when you’re falling far behind.

“In college, I was a B and C student,” a successful senior manager says, “until one semester I got irritated by a couple of the professors and busted my butt to become an A and B student. From that point on—once I realized what I could do—I was an A student. Likewise as a manager, I was always just a bit above average. Then I got passed over for a promotion I should have received. They gave it to a guy I could out-manage from a coma. So I busted my butt to give them numbers they couldn’t ignore. I became one of the top managers in the region. But after that—after I realized I could do it—I became the top manager.”

He adds, “I work more intensely now. But surprisingly enough after the initial learning curve, it doesn’t take that much more time to be the best than it took to be average.”

We all know we can do more. We all know we can do better. But too frequently we settle for less. “There is more in us than we know,” Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, said. “If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.”

Never Settling for Success is about being unwilling to settle for less.

Great leadership is about showing your people that there is more in them than they know—so they’ll be unwilling to settle for less.

Great leadership is also about helping your people to overcome the fear of failure, the fear of giving their best and proving to themselves, to you their boss, and to those around them that they do not have the potential they all want to believe they have.

Of course, you can’t help your people overcome their fear of failure unless you first overcome your own. If you’re afraid of failure your people will be afraid.

Pollyanna positive thinkers will tell you that you can do whatever you think you can, that you have no limits. And that can work, until you run head first into one of those limits and crash and burn.

You have limits. I have limits. We are human beings, we are limited, we are fallible. That’s reality. Never mind the pat little bromides that try to convince us otherwise.

Here’s my pat little bromide. You can do far more than you think you can. You have limits but they’re expanding limits, and running up against those limits can be the best practice for expanding them in the future. In all likelihood you’ve never pushed those limits anywhere near as far as they can be pushed. Most of the time, we’re stopped by the limits we impose on ourselves long before we’d ever be stopped by the limits imposed by reality.

I don’t know what your potential is. If you don’t know either, maybe it’s time you should try to find out. With the possible exception of daytime TV, potential is the most useless thing on the planet—if it remains only potential.

By any standard, one of the most successful people this country ever produced was Ben Franklin. Every night before sleeping—and not just on those rare nights when he was sleeping alone (because he was very successful at that, too)—Franklin would review his entire day. He’d evaluate everything he’d done and try to puzzle out how he could have done it better.

Philosopher, scientist, inventor, diplomat, revolutionary, publisher, cabinet member, Franklin’s bad days were probably more successful than most of our best ones. Because success was never good enough for Ben Franklin. “Success,” he said, “has ruined many a man.”

The truly successful, in any field, never settle for success.  

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