Why Self-Delusion Can Help You Succeed

Dating back to my days as a staff writer for Fast Company, I’ve been a fan of the executive coach and author, Marshall Goldsmith (he has written for the magazine many times.) I’ve been meaning to share an essay Marshall wrote for a presentation to the Conference Board last year. It’s called “The Success Delusion:Why It Can be So Hard for Successful Leaders to Change.” (Read the whole thing on Marshall’s website here.)

See if you remember the advertisement that Goldsmith describes below:

UNUM, the insurance company, ran an ad some years ago showing a powerful grizzly in the middle of a roaring stream, with his neck extended to the limit, jaws wide open and teeth flaring. The bear was about to clamp on an unsuspecting salmon jumping up stream. The headline read: YOU PROBABLY FEEL LIKE THE BEAR, WE’D LIKE TO SUGGEST THAT YOU ARE THE SALMON.

While intended to sell insurance, the ad seeded the notion for Goldsmith’s theory about The Success Delusion, or “how we all delude ourselves about our achievements, our status and our contributions.”

According to Goldsmith, most of us:

• Overestimate our contribution to a project;
• Have an elevated opinion of our professional skills and standing among our peers;
• Exaggerate our project’s impact on profitability by discounting real and hidden costs.

Many of [these] delusions can come from our association with success, not failure. Since we get positive reinforcement from our past successes, we think that they are predictive of great things to come in our future.

But as founders we can turn this conundrum on its head, and to our advantage. As entrepreneurs — the salmon of the world — “success delusions” can actually help us become more successful. We believe we can be successful, and so we are more likely to be so.

Our grand delusion is typically built upon one of four basic beliefs:

Belief 1: I Have Succeeded

Successful people have one consistent idea coursing through their veins and brains – “I have succeeded. I have succeeded. I have succeeded.” This strong belief in our past success gives us faith to take the risks needed for our future success.

Belief 2: I Can Succeed (this is the Belief/Delusion that I think might most apply to founders)

Successful people believe that they have the capability to have a positive influence on the world – and to make desirable things happen. It’s not quite like a carnival magic act where the mentalist moves objects on a table with her mind. But it’s close. Successful people literally believe that through the sheer force of their personality, talent and brainpower, they can steer a situation in their direction.

It’s the reason why some people raise their hand and say, “Put me in coach” when the boss asks for volunteers – and others cower in the corner, praying that they won’t be noticed.

This is the classic definition of self-efficacy, and it may be the most central belief driving individual success. People who believe they can succeed see opportunities, where others see threats. They are not afraid of uncertainty or ambiguity, they embrace it. They take more risks and achieve greater returns. Given the choice, they bet on themselves.

Belief 3: I Will Succeed

Successful people are optimists. Anyone who has ever been in sales knows – if you believe you will succeed you might not – but if you don’t believe that you will succeed you won’t! Optimists tend to chronically over-commit. Why? We believe that we will do more than we actually can do.

Belief 4: I Choose to Succeed

Successful people believe that they are doing what they choose to do, because they choose to do it. They have a high need for self-determination. When we do what we choose to do, we are committed. When we do what we have to do, we are compliant.

Think about which of these success beliefs apply to you. The catch here is to leverage these beliefs/delusions into a willingness to take risks, and try new things — not, to rely on them to “resist change” or delude ourselves into thinking that we are the Grizzly, when we ought always to be vigilantly thining of ourselves as the Salmon.

Download the full text of Marshall’s essay here. Consider other of his writings, too — they’re available for free!