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Posts Tagged ‘success

Feeling the pressure

I taught a really really big class in New Zealand.  We had 800 to 900 students each year.

We took all comers.  We had people coming back into education after a long break.  We had A+ engineering students in their final year.  We had nervous 17 year olds in their first year at uni.  We always had 33 nationalities ~ though different ones every year.  And we failed 25% ~ as a matter of policy.

Students felt the pressure.  The course wasn’t hard. It wasn’t intended to be.  You can teach intelligent university students almost anything without making it hard.

But their marks yo-yo’d around.  A few more questions right or wrong in the quarterly quiz and their class rank could change by 100.

Dealing with disappointment

Some students worked like mad. They even worked hard when they were averaging 80+.  I explained that 80+ translated into A+ and 9 points on their GPA and there was no point in working harder.  But they felt a compulsion to work more even though there was no reward.

Others could see no reward for themselves.  They beavered away and got mediocre or even ‘failing’ grades.

They came to me in anger or distress.

“I work so hard”, they wailed.

My friendly but brief reply was “Don’t!  Be logical. If working hard doesn’t bring results, don’t. Go out and have a good time.  Be logical!”

Many did. Most did.  They could see no other way forward.

Playfulness often brings better results

They would visit me the next quarter with a big smile on their faces.  “It worked,” they’d beam.  “It worked!”  “I partied all term and my marks shot up!”

Of course, there could be many reasons why their marks shot up. No matter!  What they had learned was an invaluable life lesson.

  • We don’t control everything, particularly in a competitive system where our results depend as much on what we  do and on what other people do.
  • Rewards are not linearly dependent on effort.  Working harder does not necessarily bring a reward.
  • People don’t reward us because we want to be rewarded.  “The world does not owe us a living.”

Business does not reward you for working hard

So they learned the first lessons of business. And I hope they will be better managers for it.

  • Do the basics, do them professionally, do them at the right time, and STOP.
  • Do what the customers want, not what you want.
  • Go out and play. Other people will like you for it. You will like yourself for it. Business may even boom!

The simple lesson is that if hard work doesn’t work, try something else!

Smile.  Take a deep breath and just do something differently.  Mix it up!

And stop being such a control freak!

There!  Gave myself away.

Ah, well, if you must, then turn it into an AB experiment.

  • Record your results now.
  • Every day, write a short journal of how the day went.
    • Ask yourself what went wrong and how you could do better.  Then ask yourself why did you do so well.
    • Jot down the misunderstandings and confusions that you were able to explore to the benefit of you and the other person.
    • Ask yourself what questions you pursued with no guarantee of an answer.
    • Ask who you treated kindly, as if their lives were going to end at midnight.
  • After a month, ask how you life is going!  Will you carry this on for another month?

Or will you do an ABA experiment and go back to the way things were?

For the poets among us: this short poem gives the same message lyrically.


I was having an interested debate on Twitter yesterday.  Franklin had several failed businesses and several unsuccessful runs for political office before he “succeeded”.

What exactly is our definition of success?  Would Franklin have been successful if everything he tried had been applauded except his run for President?

Why is being President more important that learning to read or write?

What underlies our definitions of success – beating other people?  A pyramid?

Can’t success be taking part every day?  Growing our communities?  Dealing with the exigencies of life and making the best of fair weather?

The puzzle of politicians and other ambitious people

Many years ago, a student of mine, Phil, asked a simple question: why do people elbow their way onto committees and into public positions, and then not do what they have yelled, screamed, kicked, agitated, mobilized to do?

Isn’t it odd to put so much energy into something and then not do it?

A study of student politicians

Phil’s study was simple.

Students spend a lot of time in queues. He used his queues to find student leaders who had promised publicly to do something for their club or society the very next day.

He was looking for

  • elected leaders (who had volunteered for that job out of all the public posts available in a University)
  • volunteered to their task
  • offered and promised to do it in front of other people
  • expected to do it and complete the next day.

He found his leaders as he queued for lunch or the library or whatever and secured their agreement to be interviewed fully that evening in their study-bedroom and then again, the following evening, after the task was completed.

Two interviews : one before and one after an action that they had promised publicly to a valued group.


This is what he found:

Success rate

  • 100% of students were totally confident that they would start and complete the task the next day
  • 100% began the task
  • 50% succeeded completely (yep, only 50%)

Effects on confidence

  • 95% turned up for the post-event interview and two who were late courteously left notes rescheduling
  • The confidence of those who completed remained high.
  • The confidence of those who had not completed had plummeted (as we would expect).

Reasons for success and failure

  • When we analyzed what had gone wrong, in every instance, students had tripped over their own naivety. They tried to buy 100 T shirts of the same color without a prior order, for example. Or they hadn’t realized that long distance calls need to be pre-approved.
  • It seemed luck whether someone tripped over a practical detail or not; and therefore, luck whether they had succeeded in their task or not.

Response to failure

  • Though it was essentially luck whether they succeeded or not, if they had tripped up, their sense of self-worth (or self-efficacy) plummeted. The students had no way to see the pattern of events and no way of knowing that their success or failure was down to luck.


In the West, we are always being told to take responsibility for our lives. I am not sure I buy into this view. I think it is more important to understand cause-and-effect, and what can be influenced, and how.

In the case of these students, they had now way of seeing the overall pattern – after all that is why we were doing the research.  But, an experienced mentor or coach could help them interpret their own success or failure.

This is the advice that they would have got from an experienced mentor

  • If the day had gone well, good – enjoy the buzz of success and set a new challenge in the morning.
  • If the day had not gone well, sorry – you are feeling down, take note of what went wrong, Learn That You Cannot Anticipate Everything, and set a new challenge in the morning!

Without a mentor, life gets tough

How can we possibly distinguish between what is “down to us” and what is the normal ebb-and-flow of life without a good mentor?

Having good uncles, aunts, pastors, teachers, bosses, company-appointed mentors probably influences a youngster’s prospects in life more than anything else.

More than money, more than good looks, more than brains, more than personality. I didn’t put parents on the list because we might be too close to the action to advise young people well.

The big question that people might ask is where are the mentors today? Where do we find mentors as we go through life?

What is the process of mentoring in the UK today?  How do people following very different paths from their parents find mentors?

I’d be willing to argue that the strength of a modern society is our ability to mentor youngsters who come from very different backgrounds from ourselves.

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