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What Makes You Successful?

It is difficult – research shows nearly impossible – for any of us to accurately answer the question of “What makes us successful?”

At the intersection of cognitive biases (especially attribution bias) and the Dunning-Kruger effect lies this (to my knowledge unnamed) phenomenon that keeps all of us from understanding how our contributions might have resulted in a successful outcome.  Cognitive biases cause us to take far too much credit for successes, and incorrectly attribute the reasons for our success.   The Dunning-Kruger effect causes us overrate our abilities to achieve similar success in the future.   All of these work against us in trying to determine what allowed us to be successful.

Incorrectly attributing the causes for our success can be a huge problem.  Imagine that you decide that the reason your company achieved a particular successful outcome is because of your sales ability as a senior executive.  You might be inclined to believe, based on your personal analysis that your sales ability and sales execution will result in similar future successes.  There are two potential problems here.  The first is that we  incorrectly attributed the reason for success when the real reason was due to, for instance, the efficacy of our product.  The second is that we overrated our contribution and abilities when the real credit should go somewhere else.   Clearly both can lead to future disasters down the road.

You may be thinking that many people are successful time and time again by taking similar actions and by employing similar behaviors.  That is absolutely true.  The issue is not whether we can repeat our past successes – it’s that we can’t accurately identify (for ourselves) which actions or behaviors led to those successes.

Research suggests that we are much more likely, if we apply disciplined process, to learn from failures as compared to successes.  Even greater learning can be gleaned from comparing our successes and failures.   Furthermore, involving others helps us triangulate and either validate or invalidate our beliefs as to the causes of both successes and failures.  The key here is disciplined process coupled with introspection and outsider perspective to guard against cognitive bias and eliminate the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In summary:

1)      We are ill equipped to identify the causes of success without outside help.

2)      We are better equipped to identify the causes of failure.

3)      We are best equipped to compare successes and failures and draw conclusions.

4)      It is always best to involve multiple people in the identification of either success or failure.

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  • Lidia V. David

    in January 25th, 2013 @ 13:20

    The second explanation for how the better-than-average effect works is egocentrism. This is the idea that an individual places greater importance and significance on their own abilities, characteristics and behaviors than those of others. Egocentrism is therefore a less overtly self-serving bias. According to egocentrism, individuals will overestimate themselves in relation to others because they believe that they have an advantage that others do not have, as an individual considering their own performance and another’s performance will consider their performance to be better, even when they are in fact equal. Kruger (1999) found support for the egocentrism explanation in his research involving participant ratings of their ability on easy and difficult tasks. It was found that individuals were consistent in their ratings of themselves as above the median in the tasks classified as “easy” and below the median in the tasks classified as “difficult”, regardless of their actual ability. In this experiment the better-than-average effect was observed when it was suggested to participants that they would be successful, but also a worse-than-average effect was found when it was suggested that participants would be unsuccessful.


    • Wabb

      in January 26th, 2013 @ 11:52

      Thanks for adding to the post Lidia. I believe the 1999 paper to which you refer is the start of what ultimately became known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (aka “Lake Wobegon Effect” and “Illusory Superiority”) for which the authors won the Nobel Prize in psychology. As you point out, egocentrism (citations for which go back as early as ’67 and perhaps even earlier) helps explain why people won’t seek out the opinions of others for their own failures – they consider those with opinions differing from their own to be false or nonexistent. Thanks for the post!


  • Kedric

    in February 25th, 2013 @ 11:49

    I think it is interesting that you’ve stated that no one can accurately define success. I feel the exact same way about this topic as well. I feel like no one can tell anyone else whether they’re successful or not, it’s everyone’s own personal opinions.


  • Jasmine Williams

    in March 19th, 2013 @ 15:02

    I agrre. I feel as if I focus on failures more than success. I look at what I did wrong but not exactly what I did right.


    • Michelle

      in March 27th, 2013 @ 09:10

      I am guilty of doing the same thing, I’m always reminding myself of all my failures and that is not good.


  • Katie

    in March 19th, 2013 @ 19:41

    This topic about success I feel like, just like you, is hard to define as one thing and it only being one persons success. Even if something turns out very successful, I think it is hard to pinpoint who and what made it successful. Different people and situations all play a role in something becoming successful. The last point, number four, says “It is always best to involve multiple people in the identification of either success or failure.” That perfectly sums up the idea of having many people being the part of a product or idea succeeding.


  • Emily Long

    in March 19th, 2013 @ 21:59

    I think that is is true that you cannot really define success. Success is defined differently depending on the individuals. A lot of the time we look at the causes of our failures, and not at what good can come from the failures we have in life.


  • Randy San

    in March 19th, 2013 @ 22:04

    Looking at number four on your summary, I feel that being involved with others in either success or failure is something I really lean upon. By that, I mean that since I can share my failure with others, we can pick each other back up. Sometimes when I fail with my friends, we laugh about it and it’s such a moment to remember. When I succeed in something with my friends, we bond closer as individuals. Overall, I think that identifying our failures gives us that respect of determination.


  • Jeffrey Dylan Lewis

    in March 20th, 2013 @ 00:19

    Are we really that ill equipped to identify causes of success? The reason I ask is because I can look back at something I’m proud of or know that I accomplished and easily see what went right, as well as seeing the causes of failure.


    • Wabb

      in March 21st, 2013 @ 10:12

      Hi Jeffrey,
      Yes – as I point out we are all subject to cognitive biases that make it difficult for us to accurately identify the cause of our success. Each of us feels we know why we were successful, but extensive research shows us that we are most often incorrect in our attribution.


  • Elijah

    in March 20th, 2013 @ 09:08

    Wow, interesting post. I agree with what you said, when we attribute success being because of our own actions we tend to generalize things and fail to notice what we could have done better and what what we need to improve. A successful formula one day could always be different the next, but you’ll never be successful and stay their if your not willing to learn from your mistakes.


  • Shawna Brown

    in March 20th, 2013 @ 22:19

    I find this interesting because I chose this topic as part of my individual project for my English Class….it is interesting to find out and see what people view as success and the road they feel is most effective for success


  • Wabb

    in March 21st, 2013 @ 10:29

    Great comments everyone, and thanks. I think it’s important to separate the notion of “what success is” from “what causes us, individually, to succeed”. The first has to do with what we wish to achieve (e.g. “Build a $100M revenue company, win a superbowl, etc”) – the latter deals with our personal ability to understand how our contributions helped achieve that goal.

    Further, the article doesn’t mean to imply that we cannot identify how we achieved the goal. With the help of others, we can identify the likely causes. The point is that we are individually ill equipped to correctly identify them on our own.

    Thanks again!


  • Kevin Tran

    in March 25th, 2013 @ 11:52

    I totally agree with you. People who mistake a skill they have as the reason for success can get very big headed. This will result into future failure rather than more success. I agree, we all can identify why we fail more than we can identify our success.


  • Thomas Carota

    in March 25th, 2013 @ 12:03

    I agree, and it is true that nobody can define success. Some say it’s being rich and well off, some say it’s reaching your goals, and others may even say having a family. The point is, nobody can accurately define the idea of success. There are so many opinions that contribute to this idea and nobody really knows what success really is.


  • Joseph Okeiga

    in March 26th, 2013 @ 00:34

    You really opened my eyes and made me see that success isn’t only about repeating out past successes but identifying which actions or behaviors led to those successes. I also found it interesting when you said “we are better equipped to identify the causes of failure instead of the causes of success” because as humans we spend a lot of time fixing problems and identifying what went wrong instead of what went right.


  • Kristen Armstrong

    in March 26th, 2013 @ 22:44

    I do think that it’s much easier to focus on failures than success. However, I think I view success differently than most people. For myself, I would consider myself successful if I woke up everyday in a career that made me happy. I know some people that claim to have their dream job and it’s amazing to see what just talking about it does to them. I believe that the joy that they have is the success factor that most people spend a long time striving for.


    • Wabb

      in March 27th, 2013 @ 13:27

      Kristen – this is so very true. Success doesn’t have to be about money or accomplishments – you can define it as overall happiness. It may be the case that we are better wired to understand the source of our happiness than other types of success – I haven’t read any research on that topic. Thanks for the response.


  • Jeremy Fitzgerald

    in March 27th, 2013 @ 09:43

    You’re blog has started to get me thinking about the whole idea of success. I agree with and can even think of times in my own life that the failures are the moments that you remember more and learn more from. I think that there is something in our mind that we don’t dwell on the good things, and instead focus on all the bad things. I also think that everyone has a different perspective on success, and what might be successful for one person might not be for other people.


  • Drew

    in April 3rd, 2013 @ 12:15

    I look at my failures and try to learn from them. I try harder the next time so I want fail agine. I think this follows along with your 4 points of summary.


  • Michael

    in April 10th, 2013 @ 11:12

    I think it is an intersting concept of success becuase it is different to everyone. Some people judge it by the amount of money they have, while others judge it by how happy they are. I like how you went through and broke down different element to success and talked about success and failure.