Everyone's idea of success is unique. For some, it means owning a multimillion-dollar business and plenty of expensive things. Others have more modest measures of success. A steady income and strong relationships may be all you need to feel you've made it.
But while our lifestyles and goals may differ, human behavior is much more predictable. No matter what success may look like for you, there are a few common habits that may be standing in your way to getting what you want.
You've probably heard by now that risk aversion is a sure path to failure. The idea is that great risk is always the precursor to great reward. But one researcher thinks we've got this concept all wrong. Jerker Denrell, professor of behavioral science at Warwick Business School in the U.K., believes there's a problem with the way we traditionally study success.
According to Denrell, we typically focus on highly successful people and companies. If they took big risks and succeeded, we infer that risky behavior is a necessary component of success. However, this idea falls flat when you realize that we're not studying companies that failed miserably after taking similarly big risks—and there are many!—in part because there's simply less data on businesses that didn't hit it big or no longer exist. If your failed company is doomed to obscurity, so is the record of how.
It may be a mistake to assume that bold risk taking leads to success, even though we habitually act on that assumption. If this strategy hasn't been working for you, it may be time to chart a more steady course and stop taking so many unnecessary risks.
Patience and planning are things we learn to do as children, but it isn't always apparent when our skills in that department lapse as adults. Some research has shown that kids who are able to self-regulate their behavioral and emotional impulses have greater success in school. But like most habits, this one can be taught and practiced at any age. Commit to saving a certain amount of money each month instead of spending it. Choose salad over fries. Go for a jog even when you'd rather watch TV.
The point is to pick a less immediately pleasant behavior that's more beneficial in the long term over one that's satisfying right now. Self-regulation allows us to act in our own best interests, even when our impulses push us to do something else.
Nor is delaying gratification about self-denial. It's simply about staying focused on your biggest, longer-term goals. First you need to pin down what those are, and establish a timeline for achieving them. Along the way, you can celebrate the small "wins" that move you closer to those goals, as opposed to indulging in unrelated, near-term pleasures that might actually throw you off course.
Think email is just an inconvenient drain on your time and productivity? Think again. One study by researchers from the Wharton School and the University of Virginia’s McIntire School found that the highest performers spent more time on average collaborating and networking via email. However, the size of those digital networks wasn't the deciding factor; smaller ones were just as effective as long as they were connecting with real influencers.
That study, which was shared in a January 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review, examined the phenomenon of what the researchers called "collaborative overload," in which employees didn't know how to maximize their collaborative resources—informational, social, and personal—productively. "Informational and social resources can be shared—often in a single exchange—without depleting the collaborator’s supply," the study's authors wrote. "That is, when I offer you knowledge or network awareness, I also retain it for my own use. But an individual employee’s time and energy are finite, so each request to participate in or approve decisions for a project leaves less available for that person’s own work."
What does that mean? The nutshell version is that any network worth its salt needs to make efficient use of the collaborative resources that are shared within it. It isn't the number of connections you can make—it's all about their quality.
Do you let failure drag you down, destroying your confidence? Or do you use it as a learning experience for next time? Remember: It's not failure itself that threatens to halt you in your tracks. It's the way you respond to it. Instead of licking your wounds, ask yourself what went wrong: What could you have done differently? Should you have spent money more cautiously? Done more research?
Even if you feel certain you've hit a dead end, it's worth doing a postmortem. It's never easy trying to figure out the right time to cut your losses and move on. Give up too early and you might miss out on something that could've worked with another approach. Then again, stay in too long and you may create a bigger hole for yourself that's harder to climb out of.
That's where an outsider’s perspective can come in handy—especially since we often get too emotionally vested in our efforts to assess them squarely. Having a mentor you can confer with can help you know when you should still keep your head in the game.
Many people assume that success leads to happiness. But what if it's actually happiness that leads to success? A 2005 research analysis at the University of California, Riverside, suggested that chronically happy people tend to experience greater success than those who are less happy.
Researchers examined data on "the connections between desirable characteristics, life successes, and the well-being of over 275,000 people" from over 225 studies with cross-sectional, longitudinal, and experimental designs. They concluded that happy people not only tend to attract positivity from those around them, but that their positive emotions also make them more likely to actively pursue their goals. It's a virtuous circle.
Skeptics might see this as a correlation, not a causal connection. But there's little to lose by working off the premise that positivity can propel success rather than just result from it. Those who are more inclined to have a positive perception of themselves and others, the researchers found, also have more effective coping skills and rank higher on sociability—all characteristics that exist independently of the successes or failures those individuals may face in the real world.
So optimism may be the more strategic outlook after all. Many of us reflexively call our pessimism a realistic assessment of the odds, but that mental habit could be holding us back.
John Rampton is the founder of Palo Alto, California–based Due, a free online invoicing company specializing in helping businesses bill their clients easily online. Follow him on Twitter @johnrampton.