In an episode of his HBO show, The Shop, Lebron James shared that he often wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, tormented by the question “How did I end up here?” He wonders why he and three of his childhood friends were successful while four of their other friends are now all dead. The head nods of his guests all signaled that this question—why some of us make it while others do not—was one they had asked themselves, too.
A few years earlier, another NBA superstar offered his own answer. In his 2014 MVP acceptance speech, Kevin Durant spent almost 30 minutes recounting, person by person, those who had helped him along the way and more specifically, how they had helped. From the small gesture of a teammate who left an encouraging note in his locker to the protection and inspiration provided by his single mom, who he famously designated “the Real MVP.”
The question of what we attribute our success to not only affects our own ability to sleep at night, but has significant implications for our teams, organizations, communities, and society as a whole.
One of the fathers of attribution theory, Bernard Weiner, once told me that “accuracy of self perception is, in and of itself, a difficult issue.” By nature, most people attribute their success in life to their own internal character and actions (called “dispositional attribution”) while diminishing the role of external forces (called “situational attribution”). This is referred to as fundamental attribution error. This bias is reinforced by our own culture, with stories about the American Dream that emphasize individual accomplishment, success driven by one’s hard work, and rags to riches stories.
While this fundamental attribution error can sometimes fuel our own personal motivation, it can also lead us to be more judgmental and less compassionate for others who may not have achieved similar success. Fortunately, research shows that reflecting on our own life journey can lead to a more comprehensive idea of self-attribution and to a corresponding increase in gratitude.
David DeSteno, author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, recently wrote that “feeling grateful has positive effects on our behavior—making us more honest, increasing our self-control, enhancing our productivity at work and our relationships at home.” He referenced a study by Monica Bartlett that showed when we feel grateful for “one person who has done us a favor, it also makes us more likely to ‘pay forward’ favors to others we don’t know.” This, in turn, creates more opportunities for connections and increased social capital.
Despite all of its benefits, the current state of attribution in public life is not where it could be. Typically, we give people 30 seconds not 30 minutes to give thanks for an award, our magazine covers recognize the achievements of individuals over teams, and typical interview questions ask people “How did you do it?” instead of “Who helped you do it?”
It is no surprise that a national survey that our nonprofit organization, the Moving Up Media Lab, conducted on the American Dream showed that a majority of Americans believe success is something one largely achieves on their own.
To the extent that we do acknowledge the role of others, it is often limited to a handful of people who are most top of mind at that moment. The kind of comprehensive self-attribution that Kevin Durant displayed is the exception not the rule, perhaps explaining why it resonated so strongly.
To facilitate deeper reflection on who has contributed to our success, Moving Up Media Lab created an online questionnaire asking “Who is your dream team?” We then asked several successful individuals from different fields to describe how they felt after taking 10 minutes to reflect on who has contributed to where they are today. Here are the lessons they shared:
There might be more people helping you in ways you don’t realize
“When actually challenged to name as many people who have ‘helped me,’ the list is five to ten times the size that I would normally answer (which made me feel very warm/loved and I realize how much I both appreciate and owe so many people). As I think about how these people helped (both directly and sometimes even more importantly indirectly), it made me realize my ‘best’ traits are drawn from so many special people who constantly showed me how I wanted to approach my life. I believe this has contributed more to my success that any direct ‘door’ that was ever opened for me.”—Rich Antoniello, founder and CEO of Complex Media.
There are many different types of support and inspiration available to us
“It much harder for women to navigate the professional world than men. With the extra, time-consuming burdens—domestic duties, emotional labor—that default to women, they often navigate alone. What a fantastic reminder, for me and for every woman, that people who contribute to your success come from every walk of life, and that no matter the challenge, you don’t have to face it alone.”—Jeanette Duffy, chief program officer, Dress for Success Worldwide
It is instructive to show others how to make up for something that is missing
“Life has taught me a very simple truth: No one succeeds alone. I’ve had more mentors than anyone else I know. Without a father in my life, I grew up hungry for advice—which gave me a reason to make my relationships with mentors more personal and meaningful.”—Robert Reffkin, founder and CEO, Compass
It reminds us that we are all a work in progress
“It brought out deep feelings of gratitude and thankfulness and helped me realize that the connections and influences in my life helped shaped who I am today. Further, this also reminded me that we are all a work in progress and that those in my life today and those that will come in to my life later will further shape me.”—Eric Lent, Senior Vice President of Intercontinental Hotels
There is unfinished business that we could do for others
“It made me feel happy to think of all these people but a little sad, too, because many of the people are no longer here, and I wish I would have thanked them more and let them know without a doubt how special they have been to me. It reminds me of all the unfinished business I have in contacting people that have been important to me. Ultimately, it also makes me really think about how I hope that I can make a positive difference in the lives of the people I meet. It is so beneficial to do this. This way, we can see how much we can influence others.”—Holly Particelli, 8th grade teacher for almost 30 years
In the end, there may be no simple answer to who contributes to our success or why some people make it while others do not. But perhaps the real point isn’t to find an answer, but rather to realize the many benefits that can come when we take the time to reflect on the question.