Here’s how you can tell who will do well in College 

The best predictor of who will do well in college is not how smart the student is but their understanding of intelligence: Is it something the student puts on display or is it something that changes with learning?

Many first-year college students are settling into their dorms and getting ready for classes this week. I like to show my students a news story I wrote in graduate school covered in red marks. When that paper was returned to me, I could have said to myself, "I can't do this" or I could adjust, trying different strategies and working out what I needed to do to improve. The first attitude assumes either I can do it or I can't. If you can, you do it immediately. You show your intellegence. The second attitude assumes success is a matter of approach and persistence. You have to ask what might be perceived as dumb questions until you figure it out. When I wrote that paper covered in red marks (and there were many of them) I had no idea I was just a few years away from working at a national news network where writing would be a central part of my job. 

Stephen Goforth  

Know your Perfectionist

A study measured three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, or a desire to be perfect; socially prescribed, or a desire to live up to others’ expectations; and other-oriented, or holding others to unrealistic standards. A person living with an other-oriented perfectionist might feel criticized by the perfectionist spouse for not doing household chores exactly the “right” way. Socially prescribed perfectionism is “My self-esteem is contingent on what other people think.”

Perfectionists tend to devalue their accomplishments, so that every time a goal is achieved, the high lasts only a short time, like “a gas tank with a hole in it.” 

There are also different ways perfectionism manifests. Some perfectionists are the sleeping-bag-toting self-flagellants, always pushing themselves forward. But others actually fall behind on work, unable to complete assignments unless they’re, well, perfect. Or they might self-sabotage, handicapping their performance ahead of time. They’re the ones partying until 2 a.m. the night before the final, so that when the C rolls in, there’s a ready excuse. Anything to avoid facing your own imperfections.

Olga Khazan writing in The Atlantic

The Growth Mindset

When people believe that failure is not a barometer of innate characteristics but rather view it as a step to success (a growth mindset), they are far more likely to put in the kinds of effort that will eventually lead to that success. By contrast, those who believe that success or failure is due to innate ability (a fixed mindset) can find that this leads to a fear of failure and a lack of effort.

Carl Hendrick writing in Aeon

Career Success is Not Enough

Success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

David Brooks writing in The New York Times

Lies our Culture Tells Us

College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.    

(Among them:) Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.      

No wonder it’s so hard to be a young adult today. No wonder our society is fragmenting. We’ve taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we’ve made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live.

David Brooks writing in The New York Times

err in the direction of kindness

Accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.

Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

George Saunders Commencement Speech 2013

The next small victory

In training camps, we don’t focus on the ultimate goal - getting to the Super Bowl. We establish a clear set of goals that are within immediate reach.

When we start acting in ways that fulfill these goals, I make sure everybody knows it. I accentuate the positive at every possible opportunity, and at the same time I emphasize the next goal that we need to fulfill.

When you set small, visible goals, and people achieve them, they start to get it into their heads that they can succeed.

Former NFL coach Bill Parcells, Harvard Business Review


He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much;

who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;

who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;

who has left the world better than he found it whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul;who has never lacked appreciation of Earth's beauty or failed to express it;

who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had;whose life was an inspiration;

whose memory a benediction.

a Self-Made Man

Occasionally, I’ve seen a man stand up and say, “I’m a self-made man.” So far I’ve never seen the guy or gal who DIDN'T make it, stand up and say, “I’m a self-made failure.” You know what they do? They point the index finger and say, “I’m not successful or happy because of my parents.” Some say, “My wife or husband doesn’t understand me.” Some blame the teacher, the preacher or the boss. Some blame everything from skin color and religious beliefs to lack of education and physical deficiencies. Some say they’re too old or too young, too fat or too slim, too tall or too short, or that they live in the wrong place.

Zig Ziglar, See You at the Top

stop limping!

To utilize the ability you have you must start by getting rid of any loser’s limp you might have. A typical Loser’s Limp is, “I’m not a born salesman, or a born doctor, lawyer, artist, architect, engineer, etc.” In my travels, I have picked up newspapers from the rural villages of Australia, to the bulging metropolises of North American and Europe. I’ve read where women have given birth to boys and girls, but thus far I have never read where a woman has given birth to a salesman, or a doctor, lawyer, artist, engineer, etc. However, I do read where doctors, lawyers, salesman, etc., die. Since they are not “born.” But they do “die,” obviously, somewhere between birth and death, by choice and by training, they become what they wish to become. I’ve never seen where a woman has given birth to a success or to a failure. It’s always either a boy or a girl.

Zig Ziglar, See You at the Top

Thinking and Unthinking

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation. Its power is not confined to sport: actors and musicians know about it too, and are apt to say that their best work happens in a kind of trance. Thinking too much can kill not just physical performance but mental inspiration. Bob Dylan, wistfully recalling his youthful ability to write songs without even trying, described the making of “Like a Rolling Stone” as a “piece of vomit, 20 pages long”. It hasn’t stopped the song being voted the best of all time.

In less dramatic ways the same principle applies to all of us. A fundamental paradox of human psychology is that thinking can be bad for us. When we follow our own thoughts too closely, we can lose our bearings, as our inner chatter drowns out common sense. A study of shopping behaviour found that the less information people were given about a brand of jam, the better the choice they made. When offered details of ingredients, they got befuddled by their options and ended up choosing a jam they didn’t like.

If a rat is faced with a puzzle in which food is placed on its left 60% of the time and on the right 40% of the time, it will quickly deduce that the left side is more rewarding, and head there every time, thus achieving a 60% success rate. Young children adopt the same strategy. When Yale undergraduates play the game, they try to figure out some underlying pattern, and end up doing worse than the rat or the child. We really can be too clever for our own good.

Ian Leslie, writing in The Economist

the power of touch

A study of NBA players found the best teams touch each other a lot--while the losing teams seldom touched each other. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley looked at what happened between teammates during the 2009 season and found the most touch-prone were the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, two of the league’s top teams at the time. The mediocre Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats were at the bottom of touch list. The same held true for individual players. The study took into account the possibility of teams high-fiving just because they were winning and adjusted accordingly. Even when the high expectations surrounding the more talented teams were taken into account, the correlation persisted.

A warm touch reduces stress by releasing hormones that promote a sensation of trust. This can free up the part of the brain that regulates emotion to engage in problem solving.

The investigators also tested couples, finding with more touching came greater satisfaction in the relationship. Previous research has suggested students receiving a teacher's supportive touch on the arm or back or arm were much more likely to volunteer in class and a sympathetic touch from a doctor gives patients feeling that a visit lasted twice as long as it actually did.

Stephen Goforth

Sabotaging Yourself

From time to time a project will come along that seems so big and challenging you start to question your ability to succeed. It could be as epic as writing a book or directing major motion picture or it could be something more pedestrian like passing a final exam or delivering an important speech to your corporate boss. Naturally, some doubts will float through your mind when ever failures possible.

Sometimes, when the fear of failure is strong, you use a technique psychologist call self-handicapping to change the course of your future emotional state. Self-handicapping behaviors are investments in a future reality in which you can blame your failure on something other than your ability.

You might wear inappropriate clothes to a job interview, or… or stay up all night drinking before work – you are very resourceful when it comes to setting yourself up to fail. If you succeed, you can say you did so despite terrible odds. If you fall short, you can blame the events leading up to the failure instead of your own incompetence or inadequacy.

When you see your performance in the outside world as an integral part of your personality, you are more likely to self-handicap. Psychologist Phillip Zombardo told the New York Times in 1984, “Some people stake their whole identity on their acts. They take the attitude that ‘if you criticize anything I do, you criticize me.’ Their egocentricity means they can’t risk a failure because it’s a devastating blow to their ego.”

David McRaney, You are Not so Smart

Are you Average?

The last thirty years of research shows just about all of us think we are more competent than our coworkers, more ethical than our friends, friendlier than the general public, more intelligent than our peer, more attractive than the average person, less prejudiced than people in our region, younger-looking than people the same age, better drivers than most people we know, better children than our siblings, and that we will live longer than the average lifespan.

(As you just read that list, maybe you said to yourself, “No, I don’t think I’m better than everyone.” So you think you’re more honest with yourself than the average person? You are not so smart.)

No one, it seems, believes he or she is part of the population contributing to the statistics generating averages. You don’t believe you are an average person, but you do believe everyone else is. This tendency, which springs from self-serving bias, is called the illusory superiority effect.

In 1999, Justin Kruger at the New York University Stern School of Business showed illusory superiority was more likely to manifest in the minds of subject when they were told ahead of time a certain task was easy. When they rated their abilities after being primed to think the task was considered simple, people said they performed better than average. When he then told people where were about to perform a task that was difficult they rated their performance as being below average even when it wasn’t . No matter the actual difficulty, just telling people ahead of time how hard the undertaking would be changed how they saw themselves in comparison to an imagined average. To defeat feelings of inadequacy, you first have to imagine a task as being simple and easy. If you can manage to do that, illusory superiority takes over.

David McRaney, You are Not so Smart

Envisioning Success.. or Failure

There's evidence our brains mix together real imagery with mental and emotional baggage that effect performance. Slugger Mickey Mantle is reported to have once said after hitting a long home run, "I just saw the ball as big as a grapefruit." In contrast, poor hitters may see the baseball as small. It’s not just out of reach for them physically but emotionally as well.

A Purdue University study tested the kicking ability of more than 20 athletes who do not play football. They were asked to estimate the size of the goal posts before and after each of 10 attempts to kick a field goal. The more successful the athlete, the more likely they were to overestimate the size of the posts and underestimate the distance.

Success biased the kickers’ perception of the difficulty of their task. Professor Jessica Witt says, “Before you kicked, you really didn’t know what your abilities were going to be.’’ In past experiments, she found the same effect with softball players and golfers. University of Virginia psychologist Dennis Proffitt has put together tests that show the effect holds true when it comes to dangerous situations.

Which are you imagining in your life--success or failure?

Stephen Goforth

Living on Past Victories

Never take it for granted that your past successes will continue into the future. Actually, your past successes are your biggest obstacle: every battle, every war, is different and you cannot assume what worked before will work today. You must cut yourself loose from the past and open your eyes to the present. Your tendency to fight the last war may lead to your final war.

Robert Green, The 33 Strategies of War

don't forget the blue goat

The most popular episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show (and my favorite) was titled Chuckles Bites the Dust. The main character (Mary Richards played by Mary Tyler Moore) worked as a news producer for a TV station where one of the shows featured Chuckles the Clown.

Here's what happened: Chuckles was serving as grand marshal of a city parade when he was attacked and killed by an rogue elephant. A ridiculous way to die, wouldn't you say?

Throughout the episode, Mary complained about her colleagues making jokes at the poor man’s expense. She took his death seriously. Until the start of the Chuckle's funeral. Suddenly, everyone’s role reserved. The others became solemn and sober. But Mary couldn’t suppress her urge to giggle at the clown’s comedic demise. The scene is considered one of the most memorable in TV sitcom history. It was ranked #1 on TV Guide's 1997 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. She kept laughing because she wasn't supposed to do so.

Ever tried NOT to laugh at church? The more you fight it, the stronger the urge becomes. Ever had a crazy thought pop in your head about disrupting a meeting? Ever wondered what would happen if you stood up in a restaurant and started yelling? Or started a food fight?  Have you had a crazy thought pop into your head about what it would be like if you jumped out of a window in front of you and fell ten stories?

Suppress that contrarian thought and it can become an outright urge. Suddenly, you are wondering if you can prevent yourself from doing something completely outrageous and inappropriate. The more you try to avoid the idea, the stronger the desire becomes to do it. Anyone who’s tried to quit smoking or stop drinking knows the feeling.

A paper in the Journal Science tries to explain the phenomenon. Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner says if you keep ruminating on the idea of something bad happening, it can actually make it more likely to occur.

Our brains are busy suppressing impulses all the time. We use a great deal of energy keep inclinations in check. The effort usually takes place without conscience thought. But when we focus intensely on avoiding errors and taboos, the impulse can be strengthened because the brain is conscience and locked into the event.

Just try not thinking of a blue goat.

In sports, a player may be told not to swing his bat or golf club a certain way. Soon, he can barely avoid doing it and feels obsessed and distracted. Especially under pressure.

Are you not thinking of a blue goat?

Once the idea has been consciously suggested to us, it’s hard to shake it until something new shoves it out of the way. Therein lies the key for moving away from unwanted thoughts. Instead of trying to keep them down, use your energy to put something else in its place.

Basketball players are more successful when they visualize the ball going through the hoop and the process that works to get it there. Rather than focusing on "not missing" they see greater success when they have a clear vision of  accomplishment. Even thoughts of suicide can be squeezed out by changing our focus from our own situation toward helping someone else.

Just don’t forget about the blue goat.

Stephen Goforth

Gaining new Perspective by unfocusing

Truly successful people don’t come up with great ideas through focus alone. They are successful because they make time to not concentrate and to engage in a broad array of activities like playing golf. As a consequence, they think inventively and are profoundly creative: they develop innovative solutions to problems and connect dots in brilliant ways.

In a time and age when everyone is over-scheduled and over-focused, creativity is more and more prized— it’s the key to your effectiveness and success, in life and in business.

Experts suggest that the key to being idle or to unfocusing is to diversify our activities rather than being constantly focused on a single task. To get a new perspective on something, we actually need to disengage from it. We can diversify in two ways: through mindless tasks or through a broader set of experiences.

Stanford psychologist Emma Seppälä writing in the Washington Post

Winners are more likely to Cheat

"When people succeed in competition against others, it seems to compromise their ethics. It makes them more likely to cheat afterwards," (said Amos Schurr, a professor of psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel).

The problem, he says, seems to be a very specific type of success: the kind that involves social comparison, the sort that means doing better than others, instead of just doing well. And he believes it all boils down to a sense of entitlement that beating others in sports, business, politics, or any other form of head-to-head competition seems to foster in victors.

"Dishonesty is a pretty complex phenomenon — there are all sorts of mechanisms behind it," said Schurr. "But people who win competitions feel more entitled, and that feeling of entitlement is what predicts dishonesty."

In other words, when people win against others, they tend to think they're better, or more deserving. And that thinking helps them justify cheating, since, after all, they're the rightful heir to whatever throne is next — "If I'm better than you, I might as well make sure I win, because I deserve to anyway."

Roberto A. Ferdman writing in the Washington Post