What you believe about success

Throw out the rule book and rethink those bogus life lessons that you’ve been led to believe, writes Oliver Burkeman


What you believe about success

Myth 1: You can’t succeed without hard work

It’s an almost universal error to confuse the feeling of effort with actually having achieved something worthwhile. When you collapse onto the sofa, exhausted at the end of a long day, it’s natural to assume you must have spent your time getting useful things done. And worse, in a society that places so much moral value on effort, we don’t feel we’ve made our contribution unless it’s left us depleted. But the truth is that pointless busy work can be much more tiring than a few well-deployed hours – while super-achievers, such as virtuoso musicians studied by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, actually work less than their more mediocre colleagues.

So how can you work smarter in less time? Parkinson’s law is the famous observation that work expands to fill the time available – but the reverse often proves true, too. Limit the time you are willing to devote to a project and, frequently, it will ‘shrink to fit’. For boring chores, set a kitchen timer for 10 or 20 minutes, and race against the clock. For more taxing brain-work, take breaks every 90 minutes. Consider napping, if you can: research suggests that a short midday nap can improve work performance as much as a night’s sleep.

‘It’s not how long you work that determines the value you produce,’ is how energy management coach Tony Schwartz puts it, ‘but rather the energy you bring to whatever hours you work.’

Myth 2: Compatibility makes partnerships last

Most of us tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to romance: it’s either ‘opposites attract’ or ‘birds of a feather flock together’. So which clichéd proverb is correct? The unexpected truth may be: neither.

According to Texas-based researcher Ted Huston, who runs The PAIR Project, a long-term study of what makes couples tick, romantic success just isn’t particularly closely correlated – positively or negatively – with shared likes and dislikes. ‘Compatibility’ is just a label we put on relationships that happen to work.

And it’s a dangerous one, argues psychologist Robert Epstein, because it encourages people to keep searching fruitlessly for the ‘right’ partner – when in reality, compatibility, if it means anything, is built from within a relationship. The only trait both people need to share is a willingness to make a go of it.

Myth 3: You must find your life purpose and follow your passion

The problem with this keystone of modern career wisdom is that it’s a recipe for confusion and anxiety: it implies that your reason for existence is out there somewhere, like buried treasure, waiting for you to discover it. As careers blogger Cal Newport explains, it amplifies everyday feelings of dissatisfaction into a full-blown existential crisis: ‘Is this really what I’m meant to be doing?’

A few of us, it’s true, do have a burning vocation – but those lucky souls already know what it is, so they need no advising. For the rest of us, Newport argues in his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion In The Quest For Work You Love (Business Plus), the overwhelming evidence suggests that the keys to job satisfaction are, first, some degree of autonomy and, second, the feeling that you are making a meaningful impact.

The good news is that these qualities can be found in many different roles, so you can stop hunting for that one perfect job. The bad news is that  you have to earn them through devoting yourself to a role. ‘Passion is not something you follow,’ writes Newport. ‘It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.’

Myth 4: It’s all a question of motivation…

Motivation can seem like the Holy Grail of self-improvement: all those diet, exercise and relationship tips would be so useful, you tell yourself, if only you could motivate yourself to put them into practice! And legions of motivational writers and speakers are only too happy to reinforce that belief, as it keeps them in business. But the idea of motivation contains a hidden trap: by telling yourself you need to ‘feel like’ doing something before you can do it, you’re adding an extra hurdle between where you are and where you want to be.

The real Holy Grail of self-improvement is realising that you don’t need to feel like doing something in order to do it; you can notice the unmotivated feeling, acknowledge it and act anyway. Practitioners of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) use the phrase ‘experiential avoidance’ to describe our efforts to get rid of unwanted feelings.

‘Because we don’t control our feelings or thoughts, it’s not our job to worry about them,’ writes ACT pioneer Steven Hayes. ‘They rise and fall of their own accord if we don’t struggle with them. Instead, we can focus on what is within our control.’ And what we can control are our actions.

Myth 5: Feeling angry? Get it out of your system

Why not punch a pillow next time you’re gripped with rage? It’s infinitely better than punching a person. But evidence from psychological experiments does suggest that this approach will prolong your anger, not get rid of it: the notion of ‘catharsis’ simply doesn’t seem to apply to emotions. In one study, participants wrote an essay, which was then graded as being terrible in order to make them angry. They were then given a choice of recreational activities,including the use of a punching bag. Afterwards, the bag-punchers behaved more aggressively, not less.

A far more effective approach is distraction: choose an activity that will deny you the brain-space to indulge your anger at the same time. It’s just not feasible to watch a favourite sitcom or tackle a complex Sudoku puzzle while simultaneously boiling with fury. The deeper problem here is that we think about emotions using a ‘hydraulic metaphor’ – we imagine they’re like gases, trapped in bottles, and that we need to let these gases out (rather than ‘bottle things up’). But humans, it turns out, are more complex than bottles.

Myth 6: Compromise is the key to a great relationship

Compromise certainly sounds like a noble quality to cultivate: nobody gets their own way all the time. The catch is that by compromising too often, neither partner is getting what they want. According to sex therapist David Schnarch, this is the explanation behind sexual boredom: each partner has things they don’t want to do, so what remains are the leftovers – the same old things, to which neither objects. The problem is not confined to the bedroom, either.

Say you’re choosing a restaurant, and you fancy Chinese, while your partner wants a burger and fries, so you settle on Italian in the end – a middle-of-the-road option that neither person really wanted. One solution is to alternate between choices: you get to choose this time, your partner next time, and so on. Another is the 5-3-1 trick: one partner picks five options, the other narrows that down to three, then the first person picks one of the three.

Whatever your approach, the goal is for both of you to get your first choice of food – or film, or holiday – at least some of the time. Compromise, however, tends to mean second or third choices all the time.

Myth 7: If you’re a pessimist, you’ll never be happy

It is perhaps the most pernicious of all modern happiness myths: if you’re not brimming with cheerful expectations for the future, you’d better change your personality or you can forget about ever feeling fulfilled.

However, as psychologist Julie Norem has demonstrated, around a third of us use what she calls ‘defensive pessimism’ as a healthy and constructive way to stay centred and calm. By focusing on the worst-case scenario, instead of the best, defensive pessimists sap the anxiety from what would otherwise be paralysing fears. In any case, the evidence suggests that trying to make yourself more cheerful rarely works. One Canadian study of self-help affirmations – involving the repetition of phrases such as ‘I am a loveable person!’ – actually found that they made those people with low self-esteem feel even worse.

The challenge, for natural pessimists, is to avoid catastrophising about the future: don’t try to force yourself to feel good about it, but do try to keep things in perspective. Will what’s troubling you matter one year from now? Or 10 years? In a hundred years, it almost certainly won’t. Instead of persuading yourself that everything will turn out fine, arm yourself with the confidence that you could cope if it didn’t. Paradoxically, once you stop demanding a future of unbroken happiness, you’ll be happier.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

More inspiration:

Sign up for our Life Labs Practical Wisdom online course Achieve Your Goals here

Photograph: iStock