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The Truth About Success

The Truth About Success

23 March 2021|Latest Posts, Psychology

The truth about success by Dr Cath Bishop
The truth about success by Dr Cath Bishop

By Dr Cath Bishop.   ‘Only winning counts!’ ‘You’ve got to be No. 1!’ ‘Aim for the top spot, don’t settle for anything less!’ These phrases, and many more that seem to tell us what success means resound throughout our lives from the classroom to the boardroom and beyond. We are often taught about success by authority figures, parents, teachers, coaches and bosses. But too often, they emphasise short-term, narrow and temporary measures of success: passing exams, doing what we’re told, coming first in a race, getting a promotion, making a profit. If that’s where definitions of success stop, then we are missing out on the huge opportunity to explore our potential beyond these arbitrary markers. Ultimately, nobody can really define success for you: you have to define it on your own terms. That involves embarking on a brilliant journey of self-discovery and collaborative adventure.

But first of all, we need to dispel some myths about what success looks like, before we can start to create our own broader success criteria for ourselves. Typically, we are presented with a picture of success that is:

– too narrow – a moment in time, crossing the line first, hitting a target, achieving a score;

– defined by others – exam marks, grades, promotion requirements, profit margins;

– short-term – the next race, the next test, the next quarterly target.

But these factors lead only to limiting, short-lived and shallow success. 

There are too many examples of sporting champions crossing the line first, but feeling empty, unfulfilled or even depressed, because that moment has become disconnected from anything with lasting meaning. Olympic Cycling Champion Victoria Pendleton spoke of the anti-climax when she finally won Olympic Gold and said she didn’t feel like celebrating at all. Boxer Tyson Fury spoke of the ‘void’ when he woke up the morning after knocking out reigning World Champion Wladimir Klitschko. Chris Evert said that the high of winning Wimbledon lasts about a week, and Andre Agassi admitted that ‘winning changes nothing’ when he finally won a Grand Slam. England Rugby World Cup winner and legend Jonny Wilkinson describes how he chased more caps, more titles, more trophies, hoping that the joy would follow – but in his own words, ‘it never did.’ This is not the glorious picture of sporting heroes that we are typically shown in the media. If winning isn’t working well for the winners, what about everyone else? And if winning can have a dark side in sport, you can be sure it has a dark side in business and other aspects of our lives.

I met a Harvard Business School alum working in investment and earning $1.2m a year. He told me he had achieved most of what he had defined as success back in business school, yet admitted he hated going into the office, saying ‘I feel like I’m wasting my life.’ In education, where school systems revolve around grades and marks, there is often an early sense of who the winners and losers are. But multiple studies have shown that A-grade students do not go on to become the best leaders or have the most successful careers. To take a few high profile examples, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, and neither Steve Jobs nor Richard Branson excelled at school. Many male and female entrepreneurs have not typically been ‘winners’ in education yet continue to show that they have some of the finest business minds in the world.

If we let go of some of these traditional images of success, we can start to create our own picture of success for ourselves. The 3Cs of ‘The Long Win’ provide a useful and ongoing framework for reimagining this based on Clarity, Constant learning and Connection. It’s not a tick box formula for success, but enables a more meaningful and collaborative exploration of our potential.

Firstly, Clarifying what really matters is the first step to defining success on our own terms. Some call this clarifying our sense of purpose, the way in which we make a difference and connect with our values. I like to start with the simple question, ‘what gets you out of bed in the mornings?’ It’s a useful way of considering the essence of what matters: what are the things that really motivate us, our drivers and strengths, those factors that help us feel our work is worth doing even when it’s incredibly challenging? If we can tap into that, then we start to access a deeper reserve of motivation and energy that helps us to thrive. Developing a clearer sense of purpose enables us to unlock our intrinsic motivation – rather than extrinsic motivation based on external rewards, bonuses or medals – which taps into deeper reserves of creativity and resilience.

Second, a Constant learning approach enables us to keep growing and developing ourselves through challenges and setbacks. Rather than focusing success on arbitrary metrics over which we have little control, we also recognise how we are moving forward in what we are gaining and learning. This keeps us innovating in good times and bad. We shouldn’t be waiting for failure to force us to rethink and experiment. Nor does it help to sit back when times are going well and take the foot off the pedal of learning. As elite athletes recognise, the way to maximise our potential is to become world-class at improving every day, exploring what’s possible incrementally and constantly. Olympians don’t just do this by training harder – that way leads only to injury and burnout – but by looking for ways to train smarter, to look for alternatives and to understand all the less visible factors that affect performance, such as mindset and relationships.

Thirdly, we cannot succeed alone, in sport, business, education or our personal lives. Connections sit at the heart of everything we do, and should therefore take priority in how we envisage success – who do we want to pursue it with, share it with and learn alongside? As my work in diplomacy taught me, progress is only possible if we are willing to build relationships despite all sorts of barriers. Not just connecting with those we already know well, but reaching out to those who may be seen as rivals, finding ways to connect with those we feel less comfortable with but who can add value to what we do. In a misplaced desire to compete increasingly as a way of succeeding, we have come to see so many of our peers as opponents to beat and even destroy. But we should consider the origins of the word ‘compete’, which is taken from the Latin ‘competere’ meaning striving together. Then the goal becomes not just trying to outdo and vanquish others, but finding ways to strive together to explore what’s possible.

When reviewing whether you’ve had a good day or good week, or when planning the month ahead, don’t simply focus on the obvious ‘to do’ list. Think about how you can take a small step closer to your purpose. Consider what have you learnt and what new things have you tried. And prioritise how you invest in relationships that can continue to help you to explore what’s possible, together. Have a look at how an obsession with winning can actually hold us back from reaching our potential, and take time to define what the ‘Long Win’ looks like for you.

About the Author

Dr Cath Bishop is an Olympian, former diplomat, business coach and consultant, and author of ‘The Long Win’. 

She competed in rowing at 3 Olympic Games, winning World Championships gold in 2003 and Olympic silver in Athens 2004. As a diplomat for the British Foreign Office for 12 years, Cath specialised in policy and negotiations on conflict issues, with postings to Bosnia and Iraq. Cath now works as a business consultant, leadership coach and author, and teaches on Executive Education programmes at the Judge Business School, Cambridge. 

Cath speaks at events globally on topics of leadership, high performing teams and cultural change. Her first book ‘The Long Win: the search for a better way to succeed’ was described by the Financial Times as ‘a deep and rewarding exploration of human motivation in sport, politics, business and our personal lives’ and listed in their Top 10 Business Books for 2020.

www.cathbishop.com @thecathbishop

Book available at:  http://amzn.to/2UChFku