The neuroscience of success

Reading the newspaper obituaries of John Paul Getty III, who died recently, I was forcibly struck by the thought that here was the living embodiment of the fact that money is no guarantee of happiness.

Such was the dysfunction in the family of this grandson of  J. Paul Getty (founder of the Getty oil empire and known to be  the richest man in the world), that when as a 16-year-old he was kidnapped for a $17m ransom neither his miserly father nor grandfather were willing to pay. The result of their miserliness was the kidnappers slicing off Getty junior’s ear and sending it to a Roman newspaper.

After five months in captivity the boy was released when $2.8m was agreed – the exact sum eligible for a tax write-off by his grandfather. The teenager was set free and found shivering at a petrol station near Naples on December 15th 1973 ( the date of his grandfather’s 81st birthday) but when his grandson phoned to thank him,  the old man refused to accept his call. Thereafter the boy descendent into a self-destructive spiral of drugs and alcohol. After a stroke in 1981 caused by a drug overdose, he spent the last 30 years of his life in a wheelchair, paralysed and partly blind, eventually dying last month at the age of 54.

What is resilience?

What makes someone pick themselves us when their life’s work comes to nothing or keeps another going after rejection by a lover? The ability of some people to bounce back after defeat is not some triumph of the human will or some inborn trait of human greatness. Rather, such people have developed a way of thinking that does not see defeat as permanent or affecting their core values. The really amazing finding is that this ability is not inbred – where we either have it or we don’t. In fact, optimism is a set of skills that can be learned.

A toolkit for success  

Foremost in your skills toolbox you will need a positive explanatory style. Pessimistic people think that misfortune is their own fault and that the cause of their misery is permanent – due to ugliness, stupidity or lack of talent on their part – and are therefore not bothered to change it. Although few of us are 100% pessimistic we will at some stage in the past have given in to pessimism in reaction to some past events. Some psychology textbooks even consider this to be ‘normal’. 

Pessimism is bad news!

However, we now know that adopting a different way of explaining setbacks to yourself – by using an explanatory style – will protect you from letting disappointment develop into depression. Even an average level of pessimism can bog you down and lower your levels of success in every area of your life, health, relationships and work.

If you think life is hard – try selling life insurance

Much of the research leading to these findings took place by a psychologist studying agents selling life insurance – regarded as the most difficult of all sales jobs. Management in the company was concerned that so many of its agents were quitting despite millions of dollars spent in training.

Success is about attitude not experience

Research suggests that rather than selecting on the basis of their CVs applicants should be hired for testing well on optimism and explanatory style. The results showed that agents performed twice as good as the others. They clearly had better ways to deal with the nine out of ten rejections that made the others give up.

Optimism and success – which comes first?

The conventional view is that success creates optimism but evidence now shows the reverse to be true. Time and time again optimism tends to deliver success. At the exact same point when a pessimist will wilt – an optimist will persevere and break through that barrier.

It’s good to ‘have a word with yourself’

Not getting through this barrier can sometimes be interpreted as laziness or lack of talent but what psychologists have found is that those people who stop trying or give up easily never dispute their own interpretation of failure or disparagement.  In contrast, those who regularly overcome their obstacles argue against their own limiting thoughts and do as Jim Royle in the BBC’s comedy show, The Royle Family would advise ’have a word with yourself’‘– and thereby quickly find positive reasons for the rejection.

When pessimism pays

Is there any situation where pessimism is appropriate? The answer is yes. Pessimists have an ability to see a situation accurately and are eminently suitable for such professions as financial control, accounting and safety engineering for example. In fact all firms could do with one or two pessimists.

The trick is to get the balance right

In fact, Bill Gates praised those Microsoft employees who would tell him what’s gone wrong and would do so quickly. Nevertheless, let us not forget that Gates was a ‘world class’ dreamer who imagined at a very young age that every single house in America would be using his windows software.

Go for that unbeatable combination – reality and possibility

This story illustrates the secret of success in both work and life – the ability to perceive reality accurately and yet visualise a compelling future. The problem is that many people are good at one and not the other.

So the message is simple –if you want to become an optimist – by all means keep the ability to perceive reality accurately but work on becoming a better dreamer – the combination is unbeatable.

Try it and see for yourself!