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July 21, 2008

The Success Mind

Some top athletes make the Olympics. Others, equally skilled, do not. The difference is subtle, but critical: Between athletes of equal skill, victory goes to those who can best imagine succeeding.

Of course, every athlete insists that they very definitely imagined winning. It turns out that anticipating success is not quite as simple as it might sound.

Everyone who has used a computer is familiar with the term WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get. However, its application extends far beyond Microsoft Word. The most successful individuals and teams tend to have a very clear picture of what their success will look like. As Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura notes, nothing succeeds quite like the expectation of success. The converse is true as well.


Monitoring Expectations

So if anticipating success is key for an athlete to be successful, does the same concept apply in other areas? The answer is a resounding yes. Whether designing a chip, writing software, selling insurance, writing a book, or arguing a legal case, being able to imagine success creates a powerful, optimistic mindset. It really does matter whether the glass is half full or half empty: as psychologist Martin Seligman observed, seeing the glass as half full leads to greater energy, persistence, and creativity on the task at hand. Seeing it as half empty, on the other hand, does just the opposite.

Unfortunately, many people are taught to anticipate failure. The reasons why something will not work are presented as logical and sensible, while the optimistic side of the equation is seen as Pollyannaish. Face it, whether one is striving for a blackbelt in a martial art, a major promotion at work, or to build the latest and greatest social networking site, it’s all too easy to imagine the many things that can go wrong. It’s harder to imagine what can go right; harder still to transform a list of things that can go wrong into the prerequisites to causing things to go right.

So how does one develop a Success Mind? There are several key skills involved:

Imagine success. Enjoy the sensation. Fill in details, either in your mind or in writing.

Work backwards from that image to where you are now: create a roadmap. Identify the goals required at each stage and write them down.

Anticipated problems are opportunities in disguise: they are alerting you to a need for information, skills, or resources. Identify what you need and incorporate obtaining it into your roadmap.

Do not be derailed by negativity. Everyone has moments where they feel they cannot possibly succeed. Bruce Lee liked to imagine writing down negative thoughts on a piece of paper, crumpling it up, and throwing it away.

Manage stress. Allowing stress to get out of hand limits creativity, imagination, persistence, and energy. It doesn’t matter whether you meditate, exercise, listen to music, cook, or engage in some other relaxing activity: give yourself a break and a chance to think about something other than the problem at hand.

Get enough sleep. This may seem obvious, but I have found that the biggest “duhs” come from the people struggling to stay awake. Lack of sleep will very quickly interfere with creativity, judgment, and motivation.

Celebrate successes. Periodically review your progress and see how far you’ve come. We are motivated more by seeing how much we’ve accomplished than by how much we haven’t. Seeing progress increases optimism and motivation. Dwelling only on how far we’ve fallen short does just the opposite.

The Success Mind is not the province of a few top people. It can be developed by anyone who puts in the time and effort. To someone who has truly developed a Success Mind, even major failure is merely a temporary setback. 


Stephen Balzac is the president of 7 Steps Ahead LLC ( in Stow. He can be reached at 978-298-5189 or

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