"There is no reality; only perception." Shakespeare once wrote. If the sixteenth-century English bard was correct, then your perception creates your reality. The problem, then, when you are going through difficult times, is not that you are less successful, but that you perceive yourself as less successful. What if this were not the case? How would it affect the way you are experiencing your career and life?
Most of us tie our success to the results we bring in -- how many contracts we sign, changes in our income, the number of people who turn out to see us speak or teach, or return our calls, or buy our books or software or clothing designs. Over fifteen years of coaching thousands of Fortune 500 CEOs and senior executives has taught me that the relationship between a successful leader and the results he or she brings in is surprisingly counter-intuitive.
The most successful leaders are concerned with results the way a swimmer is concerned with the finish line. If she keeps thinking about how far she still has to go and whether she will beat the competition, she will become easily overwhelmed and will under-perform. If she instead spends about two percent of her time lifting her head to make sure she is heading in the right direction, and the other 98 percent focused on the core processes that make her an excellent swimmer -- how she moves her arms and legs, the techniques she has learned over a lifetime of training, the rhythm and energy she puts into every stride -- she will likely reach the finish line before she is even aware of it.
When you spend most of your time thinking about the stock tickers on your screen, or whether the next deal will come through, or any of the other results you desire, you become the powerless child in the back seat constantly whining "How much further do we have to go?" You head down a never-ending road where your self-worth hinges on what you yield rather than who you are. You become like a mouse being chased by the cat of your own continually rising expectations.
As soon as you get the contract you've been aiming for, do you stop and say, "OK, now I can relax and feel good about myself. I got it!"? Maybe for a few hours, or possibly even a few days. But then the cat bares its frothy teeth once again, and you become preoccupied with the next result, which must be even greater for you to continue to feel worthy. Once again, you feel only as good as your last performance. Were this not the case -- were a result to bring you lasting contentment -- then you would be content right now, because you've already overcome many obstacles and achieved many important results in your life.
The two greatest enemies of your progress are most likely what you call "success" and what you refer to as "failure." The first breeds complacency; the second, self-judgment. They also shroud the truth about success, which flouts conventional wisdom: Success doesn't come from aiming at success. Success comes from doing what you're passionate about to the best of your ability.
When you focus your attention on status, money, approval or a promotion, you surrender your power. Why? Because you allocate your mental space to the methods others use to award you for how you act toward them rather than how you act toward them. You concentrate your mind on what you receive from others rather than what you give to them. Even a single act of giving fully from your heart will enable you to realize this is the only true reward.
Besides (and more spiritual reasons aside) you have absolutely no control over what you receive from others. It's entirely in their hands, and depends on many factors outside of your control such as their preferences, moods and the shifting winds of popular sentiment. As Lincoln once said when asked to review a book: "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."
Yet while you have no control over what you receive, you have 100 percent control over what you give. Once you make this mental shift, you will finally operate within your locus of power: you can always give more, or, even better, apply your learning from the past to expand, improve and better target how you give. Further, no matter what is going on in the external world, when you concentrate on how you can better give to your customers, colleagues and loved ones there is always something important to do with your time.
Examples of companies accessing this power are all around us -- especially when their customers have fewer resources in an economic downturn and, hence, greater needs. Instead of sitting around and lamenting their decreased revenues (e.g. what they receive), they balance their passion for selling their products or services with compassion for the evolving needs of their customers (e.g. how they can better give to serve those needs). About four years ago, for example, Hyundai created a policy that allowed any customer who is laid off within one year of purchasing a new car to return it without penalty. Around the same time, Sears revived its Layaway program so its hard-pressed customers could purchase its products in installments.
Shifting your focus to how you give to others doesn't mean that wanting a good job, a beautiful house, approval from others or a position of influence is wrong. It's not wanting results that causes the problem -- it's attaching to the wanting and to the results. By all means set ambitious goals. Draw a vivid mental picture of what you want to bring into your life. See it, smell it, feel it.
Visualize yourself taking strong strides in its direction and reaching it. But then let go of your desired destination, put your head back in the water, and maintain a laser-like focus on continuously enhancing how you give to others to move toward it. Like the swimmer focusing on her technique and effort, you will be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you arrive.
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