4 Totally Counterintuitive Lessons About Success

Sometimes the right course of action might be the exact opposite of what you’ve always believed.

4 Totally Counterintuitive Lessons About Success
[Photo: Flickr user Leo Hidalgo]

Remember when you were learning to drive? Or worse, the first time you lost control of your car and felt it skid out from under you? Whether you were in a real-life crisis or an instructor-controlled swerve in a parking lot, you likely did the exact wrong thing. In an instant, your intuition took control of your body and made you force the car back in the direction from whence it came. But like a little kid stuck in a Chinese finger trap, the way out would have been the exact opposite of your natural instinct.


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As our intuitions become more and more honed (Kate White likes to call it an “educated gut”), totally counterintuitive solutions become increasingly rare. As we progress through our careers, we must continue to question our intuitions, test, gather new data, and hopefully save ourselves from being surprised by life’s skids. To help speed up the process, I sifted through the Internet to find those rare gems of advice that will make you go “Huh? Ohh . . . ”

1. Money Can Buy Happiness

Not “money alone” can buy happiness, but money well spent can directly contribute to your overall happiness. Happiness is not just about increasing joy, but decreasing worry—financial security is absolutely a factor. During a five-year study on happiness, National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner found that cutting out an hour of your commute each way is the happiness equivalent of making up to an extra $40,000 a year. Therefore, having the means to move closer to your workplace and doing so will directly increase your overall happiness.

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There are plenty of other examples of this: Investing in a nicer bed or mattress can actually help you sleep better, which improves overall health and wellness. Spending money on a workout class you enjoy—although $30 a pop ain’t cheap—is also a direct tie to happiness. And other research has found that people who spend money on experiences with friends and family report higher levels of happiness than those who spend on goods.

2. Embracing Vulnerability Makes You Powerful

The most courageous people are not the ones who always appear to have it all together, who never share their struggles or pain. If you need to understand how fundamental vulnerability is to a life well lived, look no further than Brené Brown’s groundbreaking TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” In a years-long study on shame, Brown found essentially two groups of people—those who have a strong sense of love and belonging, and those who constantly struggle with it, who are always wondering if they are good enough. The major difference between the two? The first group fully embraces vulnerability. They understand that their imperfections make them beautiful, and live courageously, authentically, unafraid to be their true selves.


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“I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of fear, and shame, and our struggle for a sense of worthiness,” Brown says. “But it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” If you fear rejection or are highly uncomfortable with situations in which you don’t have all the answers (*raises hand*), watch this talk right now and start to change your life. Many of the world’s most successful people have actually sought out rejection early in their careers to desensitize themselves to it—they know that fearing vulnerability gets you nowhere.

3. Willpower Is A Finite Resource

We are often inclined to think of willpower as an attribute or inherent characteristic—something one either has in great measure or lacks. In fact, it is a resource that we either protect or drain. In 1996, psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted a groundbreaking study in which participants sat in a room with enticing, freshly baked cookies and other treats. Some were allowed to indulge in the cookies, while some were told to eat radishes instead. Next, the researchers gave the participants a supposedly unrelated puzzle—impossible to solve, but they didn’t know that. Those who were allowed to eat freely spent an average of 32 minutes trying to solve the puzzle, while those who had to resist and eat the radishes spent an average of eight. They were spent.

Willpower is, as it turns out, something that can be depleted. Ever heard of decision fatigue? With endless decisions put before us every day, from where to seek employment to which type of salsa you want on your burrito, is it any wonder that we run out of energy to deal with them all? Not to mention that overthinkers such as myself tend to elevate small decisions so that they take up more energy and willpower than they are worth. There is a reason that people like Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day—they are saving their willpower for things that matter.

4. What You’re Truly Great At Is Invisible To You

This one I learned from M.J. Ryan, executive coach and designer of Levo’s incredible Thinking Talents app. She explained that most often, we are completely blind to our unique strengths, because we think everyone must have them. “There are neural pathways in your brain you’ve been growing since you were born, and we tend to take them totally and completely for granted, because we just assume that’s the way everyone thinks,” she says. We assume that our particular brain processes are the ones that define “thinking.” We think, “This must be the way everyone thinks.”

Since her business is determining what sets people apart as job candidates, Ryan was flabbergasted when she discovered that not everyone’s brain is focusing on the personal details like she is. “For example, when I meet someone, I’ll know what colors she likes, what she likes to eat and drink, when her birthday is, etc., and I thought everybody’s brain was tracking that,” she says. “The point is that for many of us, what we’re actually great at is invisible to us. Or we don’t have a name for it, and we certainly don’t recognize that it’s unique.” This may seem crazy—who knows me better than myself?—but trust me on this one. Go do some digging.


This article originally appeared on Levo and is reprinted with permission.