Monday, March 22, 2010

How the Success Delusion Makes Us Superstitious

The four success beliefs of successful people:

Belief 1: I Have Succeeded
Belief 2: I Can Succeed
Belief 3: I Will Succeed
Belief 4: I Choose to Succeed

all filter through us and create in us something that we don't want to believe about ourselves. Our success delusion is actually a form of superstition . "Who, me?" you say. "I am an educated and logical person. I am not superstitious!"

That may be true for "childish" superstitions such as bad luck ensuing from walking under a ladder, or breaking a mirror, or letting a black cat cross our path. Most of us scorn superstitions as silly beliefs of the primitive and uneducated. Deep down inside, we assure ourselves that we're above these silly notions. No so fast. To a degree, we're all superstitious. In many cases, the higher we climb the organizational totem pole, the more superstitious we become.

Psychologically speaking, superstitious behavior comes from the belief that a specific activity that is followed by positive reinforcement is actually the cause of that positive reinforcement. The activity may be functional or not - that is, it may affect someone or something else, or it may be self-contained and pointless - but if something good happens after we do it, then we make a connection. My undergraduate background is in mathematics. Mathematically speaking, superstition is merely the confusion of two words - correlation and causality. B. F. Skinner showed how hungry pigeons would repeat meaningless twitches when the twitches, by pure chance, were followed by random small pellets of food.

In much the same way, successful leaders can repeat dysfunctional behavior when this behavior is followed by large pellets of money - even if the behavior has no connection with the results that led to the money. One of my greatest challenges is helping leaders see how their confusion of ‘because of' and ‘in spite of' behavior can lead to the "superstition trap."

Life is good.


My newest book, MOJO, is a New York Times (advice), Wall Street Journal (business), USAToday (money) and Publisher's Weekly (non-fiction) best seller. It is now available online and at major bookstores.


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