THE BLOG
05/22/2011 11:12 am ET | Updated Jul 22, 2011

Self-Enhancing Bias: Why So Many People Won't Acknowledge External Factors in Their Success

Have you ever noticed how prickly some people get when someone suggests that luck had anything to do with their success? Gwyneth Paltrow was recently quoted in an interview saying that her succes was due to the fact that she "worked [her] ass off." I have no doubt that Gwyneth busts her buns, and she also drew a few lucky cards.

Paltrow is not alone in her need to defend her hard work against those who accuse her of just being lucky. My husband once had an acquaintance who inherited a successful business from his father, yet he continually proclaimed to be a self-made man. Gwyneth at least sweated for her killer abs. That guy was just plain annoying. Yes, he did work hard. He was also in a situation where working hard could pay off. His reluctance to acknowledge the role that luck played, in this case luck of birth, was a pretty typical case of self-enhancing bias.

Self-enhancing bias is the tendency to take full credit for your success without acknowledging any external factors. It sounds like a bad thing, but at times it can actually be motivating and helpful. If you believe that you alone control your destiny, you're going to put in more effort than if you thought random events and accidents of birth were the only way to get ahead. The pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps and succeed-by-sheer-grit-and-determination model is part of the American mythology. It can inspire us to go the extra mile and push through challenging circumstances.

Where it gets us into trouble is when our ego takes over. Not acknowledging your own good fortune cuts off your empathy gene, and it keeps you from experiencing the joy of gratitude. People who don't take their own circumstances into account don't take other people's circumstances into account, either. They spend a lot of time judging others, and they're the first to tell you why they don't have it as easy as you might think.

When people refuse to admit that they're lucky, it's usually because they feel like they're not getting enough credit for their own hard work. But luck and hard work are not mutually exclusive. Admitting that God gave you one doesn't mean that you didn't supply the other. It's a both/and duality. When you believe that your hard work is what makes you successful, you do more of it. When you acknowledge how lucky you are, you're more grateful and happy.

So what constitutes lucky?

If you are born in a free country to parents who were able to feed and clothe you for the first 18 years of your life, you're lucky. Compared to a large portion of the rest of the world, you've had it pretty good. If you were born to parents who helped you get an education and bought you a blazer when you graduated from college, then you're really lucky. I'm sure you got from point B to point C by working harder than most of your peers. But it was luck that allowed you to start your life at point B in the first place. To pretend otherwise just makes you seem petty.

So say a prayer of thanks for all your good luck, and keep working your buns off. It's the only way to be successful and happy.

Business strategist Lisa Earle McLeod is a consultant and keynote speaker. She is the president of McLeod & More, Inc., a sales and leadership firm. Her latest book, "The Triangle of Truth," was named one of The Washington Post's top five business books for leaders. Learn more at TriangleofTruth.com.

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