Five Misconceptions Even Smart People Have About Success

December 02, 2015

“Highly successful people put outcome ahead of method. If they can’t do it one way they do it another. – The Joy of Success by Susan Ford Collins

I love this reminder from Collins that you shouldn’t be wedded to a particular strategy or method but instead wholly committed to the end result or outcome. As a recruiter and career coach, I have the privilege of seeing thousands of career paths, and even smart people fall into the trap of assuming that what worked in the past will continue to work in the future. So they keep the same management style even though it won’t work for their now larger team and scope of responsibilities. Or they maintain the same communication style even though now their audience is more senior, more strategic, or is otherwise fundamentally changed.

Misconception #1 is assuming the same success strategy, action or style that worked in the past will continue to work in the future. Here are four more misconceptions even smart people have about success:

Misconception #2: Others have the same definition of success that you do.

“There is a growing success disconnect that has nothing to do with wealth. The highlight has been on the wealth gap between the 1% and the middle/lower class, but there is also another problem with the new workforce being pushed into an outmoded model of success. People need a certain monetary income to live comfortably, but individuals have unique success models that should be explored. One person in a specific role might value high income and power, while another in the same role might value meaning in their work and ability to mentor others in the organization. Moving to a more individualistic performance model will help lead to increased performance and happiness. “– The Success Disconnect: Why The Smartest People Choose Meaning Over Money by Bill Connolly

Smart people don’t necessarily know how to manage smartly. Connolly’s observation that different people define success differently is an important reminder for even the smartest manager to proactively and judiciously choose how s/he motivates a team. You might be motivated by the thrill of the assignment or by the prospect of a large bonus upon hitting the result or by the impact your work will have on the customer. But each member of your team may have wholly different definitions of success for that project. Remembering this and taking the time to find out what the specific motivations are will enable you to more effectively enroll and lead your team.

Misconception #3: Higher/bigger/more is better.

“Some of the things your clients want, like new technology, may be expensive to provide. So how do you do that and still maintain high profits? Perhaps you can’t. You may be surprised to hear this from us—we’re both enthusiastic capitalists—but to deliver value beyond a doubt, you must rethink the idea of profit. Achieving too high a margin is not healthy for your business.”– The Sustainable Edge by Ron Carson and Scott Ford

Going for the higher number isn’t necessarily a more successful outcome. You want to look at all elements in the situation. Going for more may damage a relationship or come with other costs. Even smart people can get consumed by the quest for more. I once coached a senior executive in an offer negotiation that was already going in his favor (the employer went up five-figures in the base salary to a number that was the very high end of their range). But my client had a competing offer for a higher base and wanted the employer to match. I had to remind him that the bonus structure of this employer was much more favorable than for the competitor, and if he kept pushing on the base he might get it but the employer would likely just take it out on the bonus side. It also might not be the best way to start what should be a long-term relationship. My client remembered that success is valued across many different metrics and relented on the base. (He is in a great position with the company several years later and has had multiple raises and promotions that made the earlier compromise on the base inconsequential.)

Misconception #4: Success means you never quit.

Sometimes quitting is the best first step to adjusting your direction toward the life you really want. That’s not quitting; that’s changing directions. That’s upgrading – Serial Winner: 5 Actions To Create Your Cycle of Success by Larry Weidel

Success does require perseverance. It requires that you experiment with different methods (as per Misconception #1). You may have to manage differently (Misconception #1). You may even have to defy traditional notions of success (Misconception #3). But it also means knowing when to quit, especially when your definition of success has changed. For people who change careers, this may mean walking away from a career that other people envy and that you have invested a lot of time and energy in building. Archith Seshadri went from management consulting to journalism and noted that his colleagues were supportive but shocked. Be ready to shock people. Don’t feel like you need to stick with a particular goal or decision if it no longer suits you.

Misconception #5: Success means your passion becomes your career.

To be a full-time author … sounds really exciting, but I have learned to appreciate my day job much more than I did before because it allows me to write what I want to write instead of worrying every time I write whether or not people are going to like this. … Appreciate the fact that you have that [day] job and appreciate [that] it allows you the ability to take some risks in other parts of your life. – Trevor Shane as quoted in Jump Ship: 10 Steps To Starting A New Career by Caroline Ceniza-Levine

This is one of the top myths I hear as a recruiter and as a coach – that if you can’t make your passion your career then it means you’re not successful. Shane is a three-time published author but kept his day job. There are good reasons for wanting to keep a hobby just a hobby. Not everything you do has to make money in order to be a success.


By Caroline Ceniza-Levine.