THE BLOG
03/07/2014 11:55 am ET | Updated May 07, 2014

How to Spot Your Own Self-Delusion

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Marco is right: The biggest lies are the lies we tell ourselves.

S.E. Hinton wrote in The Outsiders, "I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me." Maybe she was onto something. We've trained ourselves to accept certain truths about where we find fulfillment, where we find joy, and where we find success. But should we challenge that conventional wisdom? Recent studies show that much of what we know about leading a rewarding life is wrong. Some of it is delusional, and some of those delusions are self-inflicted.

Here are 5 lies we tell ourselves that we should cleanse from our brains.

Lie #1: Idle Hands are the Devil's Workshop

A hard day's work is great. Mindless busy work is not. The greatest threat to success isn't an hour lunch break or a seven-hour day. Everyone's had a boss that believes working hard is the same as working smart.

Take this 2013 study from the New Zealand Productivity Commission (yes, that's a thing). In it, experts draw a sharp contrast between work and productivity. The two are not interchangeable. Productivity, notes the study, is the efficient use of both labor and capital. You shouldn't waste labor, just like you shouldn't waste money.

We're hardwired to equate quantity of work with quality of work. So we admire and promote the co-worker who puts in the longest hours, when we should be rewarding the co-worker who puts out the best work. We trick ourselves into emphasizing inputs instead of outputs.

Lie #2: "Winners never quit, and quitters never win."

Vince Lombardi immortalized that can-do spirit, and has the creds to back it up. Today, we accept his cliché blindly. But quitters can win, and win big. Einstein was a patent clerk in his first gig. Lombardi's wisdom would've had Einstein working to be the best darn patent clerk in Germany. He quit, and traded a fulfilling civil service career for the theory of relativity. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg quit Harvard, Steve Jobs quit Reed College - how significantly has our world changed thanks to their quitting spirit?

Winning strategies don't come from the senseless pursuit of bad ideas. To wit, that's precisely what this fascinating psychological report concludes. In an exhaustive study of 12,000 young people's progress over their lifetime, the University of Florida's Timothy Judge found a beguiling little demographic of successful individuals. Their success didn't come from their backgrounds, but from their ability to collective, analyze, and reject -quit, if you will--certain paths in front of them. Not only did they succeed, they succeeded at higher levels than peers who had greater advantages in pedigree and education.

Lie #3: "Money for Nothing"

There's no such thing as a free lunch. This data from The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), read: a bunch of rich countries, found that working hours have gone down since 1991 while wages have gone up. Along with that trend comes the perception that success comes easy and money comes quick.

We live in a world of miracle weight loss, fast cash and no-hassle loans. This is an era where people actually believe a Nigerian Prince is willing to pay them millions in exchange for a social security number.

The reality is that if you want to make it, you need to get gritty and you need to get dirty. There's no quick, clean fix, there's rarely an easy set path, and there are no free rides. Richard Branson had a little record shop before he started signing bands like The Sex Pistols and founding Virgin Airways (no, not that kind of dirty.) He said: "You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over."

Re: the grit and dirt part, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is a good place to find both. Two West Point professors, along with two of their colleagues, confirm the bad news: "grit" and determination towards achieving a goal is just as important as your individual talent.

Lie #4 "I will win at all costs. I can do it."

That philosophy worked so well for Lance Armstrong.... But losing isn't just an option; it's the breeding ground for resiliency. And we shouldn't fear it. Harvard's Rosabeth Moss notes "the difference between winners and losers is how they handle losing."

Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper gig for lacking "imagination" and "original ideas." Michael Jordan was cut from his High School basketball team. Oprah was demoted from her news gig because she "wasn't fit for television."

Losing, writes Kanter in her book, is the building block of confidence. As the self-esteem generation rises -with its noted intolerance for criticism and defeat--the biggest winners will be the best losers.

Lie #5: Note to self: " You are my best friend: You are special"

It sounded so good when Mr. Rogers said it. But we're not all special. Not until we do something to prove it. Psychologist Jean Twenge has studied what she calls the "Narcissism Epidemic" that courses through our society. It's a look at how an infatuation with ourselves is chipping away at the foundations of success and mental health.

This self-deception, says John Reynolds of Florida State University, has engendered inflated ambitions and expectations, which -surprise!--leads to depression and feelings of failure.

So what's the antidote for all the special snowflakes out there? In The Pyschology of Success, Carol Dweck speaks to the importance of having a "growth mindset" rather than a "fixed mindset."

Put plainly, you can be special and you can be talented. But it isn't divinely appointed. Act mediocre, lead a mediocre life, and you'll be as special as a glass of lukewarm milk. Per Dweck, you either grow personally and professionally to fulfill your aspirations, or your stubbornly expect your aspirations to come to you.

All of this, of course, is easier said than done. The logistician Ludwig Wittgenstein said "nothing's so difficult as not deceiving ourselves." Clear heads are hard to come by, common sense is rarely common, and perception isn't always reality. True honesty isn't limited to the way you talk to your neighbors. It can also come from the way your heart talks to your brain.