I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Outliers: The Story of Success. Much of what Gladwell has to say about successful people is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, family, timing and luck play important roles as well.
From a coach’s perspective, the point about luck, timing and opportunity has a special relevance to the pursuit of flourishing lives for Chinese people.
Right place, Right time, Right people
This saying “success depends on being in the right place, the right time and with the right people” (??????) is deeply ingrained in our psyche. This belief, however, if taken too far, can block us from living a happy and flourishing life.
This mindset attributes success to luck and matters outside of one’s control. It suggests, no matter how hard one works, one still depends on being in the right place and right time with the right people to get ahead. Luck, fate and destiny determine our lives.
Gladwell may have intended his book for American audience where personalizing one’s success is more of a norm, to draw attention to often-times extraordinary environmental factors that help create success. In Chinese culture, this kind of belief system can contribute to fatalism, disempowerment, and helplessness. We tend to operate from an external locus of control and believe that the environment, some higher power, or other people control our decisions and life.
As a coach, my goal is to help my clients shift from a state of helplessness to empowerment. I focus on helping my clients create the right conditions for their own flourishing by:
1. Introduce the concept of locus of control
I do this by focusing on their beliefs about what they can and cannot change. Internals tend to attribute outcomes of events to their own control. Externals attribute outcomes of events to external circumstances. I invite my clients to explore areas of their lives where they will benefit from shifting to an internal orientation. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s Happiness Pie is a powerful image to remind them that no matter where our starting point is, there is much that is within our control through our intentional actions.
2. Create a vision by using the Best Possible Future Self activity.
This step is easier said than done because the client must first believe that striving for a better self is a worthwhile endeavor and that he/she is capable of changing or bringing about change.
We approach hope as a process through which individuals actively pursue their goals, not just as a passive emotional phenomenon sometimes emerging from dark moments. Snyder (2004) outlines three components for hopeful thinking: goals, agency thinking (positive assessment of one’s ability to attain a goal) and pathways thinking (planning to meet goals).
4. Cultivate character strengths of curiosity, gratitude, optimism, zest and the ability to love and be loved, to increase positivity
According to Barbara Fredrickson, when we experience a positive emotion, our vision literally expands, allowing us to make creative connections, see our oneness with others, and face our problems with clear eyes (a.k.a. the broaden effect). Second, as we make a habit of seeking out these pleasing states, we change and grow, becoming better versions of ourselves, developing the tools we need to make the most out of life (the build effect).
5. Find flow
People engage in flow producing activities just for the activity’s sake, not for external rewards like money or social acceptance. Just engaging in the activity is rewarding enough. Find your flow activities, and putting in your 10,000 hours become easier.
While it is true that opportunity, timing, family and luck play important roles in achieving success in life, I help my clients to create their own luck. By cultivating the right personal qualities and honing their unique strengths, they are able to seize opportunity when the time is right.
Be the right person first and you will create the right time and place.
Beermann, U., Park, N., Peterson, C., Ruch, W., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2007), Strengths of Character, Orientations to Happiness and Life Satisfaction, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), 149-156.
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (Masterminds Series). Basic Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Fredrickson, Barbara (2009). http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/positivity/200903/what-good-is-positivity
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown & Company.
Snyder, C. R. (1994). Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. NY: Free Press.
Lopez, S. J., Snyder, C. R., Magyar-Moe, J. L., Edwards, L., Pedrotti, J. T. Janowski, K., Turner, J. L., & Pressgrove, C. (2004). Strategies for accentuating hope. In Linley, P. A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice. pp. 388-404. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, R. A., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.
Sheldon, K. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology. Special Issue: Positive Emotions. 1(2), 73-82.
I love this article because it is all about empowerment and getting out of helplessness. The last line is one of those quotable quotes that people should use everywhere: “Be the right person first and you will create the right time and place.” Here’s to all of us moving in that empowered direction and staying in that space!
Thanks for a wonderful article and for highlighting the differences among people and cultures.
I have a different perspective on some of these issues, inclduing the Gladwell book.
Gladwell highlights truly great success–Bill Gates, Joe Flom, etc.
My life experience and observation in America is that, absent truly bad luck (e.g., disability) overall “success” can be achieved by anyone with hard work, determination, perseverance, grit and an open mind. Success is available to everyone and is within their own decisionmaking.
However, to achieve beyond that level of “ordinary success” –say, the top 5-10% — requires luck, fate, meeting the right people fortutitously, etc,
Ming, the highlight from your article for me is: “with the right people”! This is Chris Peterson’s “Other people matter.” For too many lawyers, the relationships in their firms are a source of conflict, stress, and unhappiness, rather than a source of meaning, strength, and well-being. Buckingham says, “The what trumps the who and the why.” But when one doesn’t connect with the who, and the why seems vague, can the what really be enough? Thanks for your article!
This may be inconceivable but definitely an enlightening thought to the legal profession that they are not the necessary evil but the necessary daymaker. I think you and more people are redefining the meaning for legal profession. Ultimately, the law is there to serve people, not things. It is people that matter. If we act with the intention of making people’s day, we are daymakers. Who knows, we might even be able to change the world through daymaking!
I hadn’t thought of “with the right people” from this perspective until you mentioned it. This also reminds me of Jim Collin’s “first who, then what” in his Good to Great book. Thanks for the enlightening thought.
Thanks for the encouraging comment. Will start using that phrase as the tag line to my coaching service from now on. 🙂
I started creating RippleCards many years ago to help build self empowerment, personal accountability and “hopeful thinking” for corporate executives dealing with change e.g. change of strategy, rapid expansion, merger, downsizing etc., all requiring them to step out of comfort zone to make things happen.
Personally, I had a breakthrough in my personal development when I came across the concept of Locus of control. Just yesterday, I bumped into a client whom I worked with 10 years ago and he told me he still remembers LOC after so many years!
You raised a good point re extraordinary successful people. There are two sayings in Chinese pointing to contradictory view on this topic. Is it the times that produce the heros, or the heros who usher in the times?
For ordinary success, it depends very much on our own effort. We can all get closer to our own idea of success through effort.
I have a story that connects your daymaker idea with “create your own luck” title. Whenever I come across a cab driver who is happy and makes me feel great sitting in his cab, I always take his (usually male drivers in Asia) namecard so I can use him later or introduce his service to my friends. The interesting thing is that they attract more business by being positive and zestful yet they attribute their success to luck “I’m so lucky that I always get good customers!”.