The Psychology of Success: Focus on What Matters

Businessman focusing on what matters in business

Think back to a time in your life when you achieved success. How proud were you to have achieved it? What motivated you to pursue the endeavor? Were you rewarded for having achieved it beyond personal gratification?

As you reflect upon each question consider that, as Tony Robbins says, “Success leaves clues.” Another way of stating this is that success is, only on rare occasions, accidental. Achieving success requires giving your personal best in a specific pursuit stemming from the choices you made to pursue it. While this notion is not revelatory, it serves as a reminder that chance, randomness and/or luck is not a recipe for success; rather consistent energy, effort and high performance is.

What follows are three tips for success in and throughout your career. While this is not an exhaustive list, and you will likely need to revisit them from time-to-time during your career, each serves to provide a foundation from which to propel you forward. More specifically, each serves to ground you in mindsets that will allow you to achieve the career success you desire.

Tip for Success #1: Pursue Internal Validation Instead of Relying on External Validation

Throughout our youth, adolescence and young adulthood, we live in a world rife with external validation. When we are young children our parents and teachers give us praise and recognition for a job well done. This makes sense, as we receive feedback when we do things well in the attempt to encourage future desirable behavior through positive reinforcement. Even when this effort is misguided, such as participation trophies, we build our self-esteem and self-concept on the feedback from others.

As we move into adolescence, our focus shifts from the external validation from adults (e.g., parents, teachers, etc.) toward seeking validation from our friends or friendship groups. This is a perfectly natural component of human development and it is an important one—especially considering that we spend most of our lives living within and among groups. This type of external validation takes the form of compliments, being asked out on a date, being invited over to a friend’s house and/or “likes” or “comments” on social media.

As we continue into young adulthood, especially as we enter the work world, we realize that the rest of the world does not heap the same level of attention and adulation on us that we received when we were younger. Such a contrast is stark and can rock our core, which is to say that it challenges our self-esteem and self-concept. By this time in our respective lives, we are so used to seeking external validation that we don’t understand the potential downside.

Seeking external validation creates a power imbalance, which is to suggest that we give away our personal power to others rather than cultivating it within and for ourselves. It is only when we make the shift away from seeking external validation toward internal validation do we set ourselves up for sustainable career success.

There is little doubt that this is easier said than done, as validating oneself requires engaging in work with the motivation and intent of doing well for the sake of doing well. This idea runs counter to engaging in work in the hope of receiving recognition, a bonus and/or a promotion. While receiving these things are gratifying, performing at a high level for the sake of doing so allows for greater satisfaction in the work completed.

Said differently, if we are constantly looking for someone outside of ourselves to acknowledge quality work and give us something in return for it, we will get mired in a negative feedback loop of disappointment because people will fail to live up to our expectations.

But, when we live up to the expectations we have for ourselves simply for the satisfaction of knowing we did our best and produced quality work, we can let external achievements take care of themselves. Rewards, recognition, promotions or other forms of career success serves as a by-product, a consequence or a result of doing well for the sake of doing well.

Tip for Success #2: Control What You Can Control

One of the concepts, and clichés, in business (and in life) that is born out of validating oneself for performing at a high level for the sake of performing at a life level is: Control what you can control.

It goes without saying that we cannot control the perceptions or behavior of others. We cannot control whether a supervisor or co-worker acknowledges that we have submitted quality work or spent our weekend completing a project. What we can control, however, is our approach to our work knowing that, at some point, the energy, effort and commitment will pay off.

The obvious psychological challenge, however, is wondering when and how our work will be acknowledged or rewarded, as it is quite natural to slip back into a mindset of pursuing external validation. After all, we have been conditioned for it most of our lives.

Such conditioning does not fit within the context of controlling what we can control, as it places undue emphasis on externalities—those things over which we have zero control. Moreover, it creates the potential for us to blame our present circumstances on things outside of ourselves, which can potentially lead to a “victim mindset.” It is in this psychological mindset that we relinquish our control and power to the whims of others.

Regaining control over our mindset requires us to reframe our circumstances. Rather than blaming co-workers for their lack of contribution or feeling as though we are victims of our supervisor’s lack of recognition, control your mind by focusing on your work. More specifically, focus your mind on continuously improving the quality of your work. Take stock knowing that you did your best, realized your potential and performed exemplary work for its own sake.

Here is what you need to know: You will eventually be noticed! Managing yourself by controlling what you can control and thereby producing high-quality work will lead to recognition by either your current employer or another organization. Business and industry in the 21st century is extraordinarily competitive and the need for talent abounds. By emphasizing your unique contributions for the sake of performing them well will not only lead to enhanced short-term job satisfaction but also long-term career success.

Tip for Success #3: Redefine What It Means To “Win”

Each of the first two tips requires you to take personal responsibility by recasting your mindset. This final tip for success requires the same thing with respect to what winning means to you. Because we are conditioned to focus on the result of our efforts, such as praise and recognition, emphasizing the process gets lost.

The reality is that the process is an end unto itself, especially considering that we cannot achieve any result without first performing the process well. This idea suggests that winning at the process gives us the best chance to win on the “scoreboard.”

In order to better understand this concept, ask yourself the question: Why do I want to win or achieve career success? To answer this question, it is essential that we understand that what it takes to win consistently requires an unwavering commitment to the process.

Further, we must identify the success behaviors and engage in them, especially when we do not feel like we can win. Even if you do not feel motivated to do something, do it anyway, as your behavior will be self-reinforcing in the knowledge that you are doing all you can to win the process.

Yes, but what if I am managing the process well and do not receive any recognition? While this is a fair question, it is misguided in the sense that if you are emphasizing the process you would not ask that question. Let the result take care of itself. Let the consequence of your efforts be what it is.

There is no need to focus on anything outside of you controlling the process, which is to state that you control your mindset in the pursuit of validating yourself because you performed at a high level. This is where you choose to win the process and not let others dictate the terms. This is where freedom in your mindset exists.

In summary, our actions are always aligned with the conclusions we make, which tie to the meaning we give those conclusions. If you conclude that your career success is based on what other people think, you will reside in a feedback loop of struggle and disappointment. If, however, you take control of your mindset and pursue excellence for the sake of pursuing excellence, you will reap considerable benefit and have the ability to succeed.

Strongly consider deleting “yes, but…” from your vocabulary, as it is a built-in cop-out to whatever you claim your want in and for your career success. The phrase, “I got this!” is both simple and profound and will help you be successful in life and in your career path.

Do you want to embrace career success in your career goals? Consider earning a business and management degree from Grand Canyon University. GCU proudly offers programs such as Bachelor of Science in Entrepreneurial Studies, Master of Science in Leadership and Doctor of Business Administration in Management. To explore more degrees or learn more about GCU, click the Request Info button located at the top of your screen.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.