Have you ever wondered why some people seem to succeed at everything, while other capable and talented people just can’t get a break? Yes, being bigger, faster, stronger and smarter provides distinct advantages in life, but all things equal, what makes one person a perennial “winner” and another a perpetual “loser?”
We all have that friend who should be more successful, but isn’t. My buddy Mark is the smartest person I know and yet he has been underemployed his entire career. For years I encouraged him to go after more fitting opportunities, but things never worked out. So, he eventually just gave up and settled for a job well beneath his capabilities. To be clear, Mark is an extraordinary person. He is very intelligent, highly educated and well read. I often go to him for advice on any number of topics and trust his judgment. While I believe it’s not over until it’s over, I think it is a safe bet to assume Mark will never live up to us potential. But why?
We also have that friend who we believe is more successful than he should be. Another friend, Bill, is a great guy, but he is less talented than Mark. His education is not quite as impressive; he reads very little and I wouldn't consider him a creative or forward thinker. Yet, he experienced a meteoric rise in his career. Bill often comes to me for advice.
Could the explanation be emotional intelligence? No, both men are engaging. Could it be luck? No. Both men have had wonderful opportunities, but only Bill has seized them. Could it be qualifications? No (at least not in the beginning). Mark has a better education, but Bill has more impressive experience due to his successful advancement in the business world.
The answer is presence. Bill presents his “best self” under pressure, while Mark doesn’t rise to the occasion. That presence has enabled Bill to capitalize on opportunities, while Mark has lost out on them.
When I first began to research this topic, my hypothesis was confidence is the key to success. It’s common knowledge that when we are confident we are more effective at performing tasks. What I quickly learned was confidence does help us perform better, but our level of confidence is dependent on positive outcomes. In other words, winning makes us confident and confidence helps us win. So, confidence is both a cause and effect.
We can’t win all the time, so how do “winners” bounce back from losing?
You may assume that confidence is purely a psychological state, but body chemistry greatly affects our moods, emotions and cognitive processes. In fact, two hormones determine how well we perform under pressure and ultimately how successful we become: testosterone and cortisol. Testosterone is the dominance hormone; it drives aggressive behavior. High levels of testosterone produce risk tolerance and assertiveness. This is important in the pursuit of opportunities and goals. Cortisol is the “fight or flight” or stress hormone. High levels of cortisol are linked to anxiety and depression. Anxiety is detrimental to executive functions such as reasoning, attention and cognitive flexibility. On the other hand, low cortisol levels provide a sense of calm and control, which are the building blocks of self-discipline.
Research indicates that people in leadership positions have higher testosterone and lower cortisol compared to the general public. That combination of these important hormones provides the right balance for success: A calm, focused and controlled individual who is willing to take on risks. These people are able to access their best selves when it counts the most. Doesn’t that sound like a description of a confident person? Any other combination of these hormones generally produces negative outcomes: Assertive, but anxious; unassertive, but anxious; and unassertive and calm. Can you think of people in your life who exhibit these personality traits?
Ok, so we have learned that our biological makeup helps drive behavior that leads to success. The question is can we control these important hormones? And if so, how do we activate the right combination of testosterone and cortisol?
The answer to the first question is yes. In fact, studies show that when an athlete wins an event his testosterone level temporarily increases, while his cortisol level temporarily decreases. Defeat causes the opposite: the athlete’s testosterone decreases, while cortisol levels increase. The effect is the same with both sexes. That means our testosterone and cortisol hormone levels may be influenced by outside influences including our own behavior.
How do we activate the right combination of testosterone and cortisol? By feeling powerful.
It wasn’t a coincidence that leaders typically exhibited the right hormone combination because the participants in the study had position power. According Amy Cuddy, Harvard professor and author of the book Presence, power can affect our hormone levels and performance.
The approach-inhibition theory of power suggests that when we feel powerful, we are inspired to attack our “approach goals” in high-pressure situations; but, when we feel powerless, high-pressure situations activate “inhibition goals” which drive risk aversion and threat avoidance. This explains why some people perform better under pressure.
Feeling powerful enhances our cognitive functions, while powerlessness impairs them. Powerless people are prone to goal neglect, which is being unable to focus on a goal. Goal neglect is an obvious detriment to accomplishing anything in life.
Like the confidence dilemma, power seems to be another chicken and egg scenario. In order to leverage the benefits of power, you must first have it. So, let’s explore the concept of power.
We don’t all have position power, in the classic hierarchical sense, but we do have personal power. This is when we are in command of our best self, our authentic self.
Remember the athletes from the study mentioned above? They didn’t have powerful jobs or position power; however the winners felt powerful. Conversely, the losers felt powerless. That means we can leverage the benefits of power through personal experiences. It also means we must control our inner dialogue and avoid thoughts of failure.
There are two ways to access our personal power without the need of external symbols like an important sounding job title: body language and priming.
Our body language affects our physiology and provides a direct path to tapping into our personal power. It has so many other benefits that I’ll discuss body language in my next post.
Priming is a psychological technique used to link a memory (in a good or bad way) to a stimulus in order to influence our behavior. It is simply a cue to feel a certain way. In this case, we want to feel powerful, so think of an experience when you felt powerful. At the same time, do something that will act as a trigger to bring back that that feeling of power (leveraged from your memory). We’re linking a stimulus or behavior with an experience or a feeling. The stimulus could be a hand gesture, a lucky coin, or even a song.
I’m more than slightly embarrassed to admit that when I need to draw on my personal power, one of two songs play in my head: Perfect Strangers by Deep Purple and Thunderstruck by AC/DC. I have no doubt my music aficionado friends will have fun with that admission, but those songs illicit very intense moments of personal power from my youth. Leveraging these songs to access my personal power was purely accidental. I was primed before I was even introduced to the concept of priming. In fact, we are primed with good and bad associations all the time. I’m suggesting that we utilize this technique to help us unleash our best selves in high-pressure situations.
I can’t tell you how many tests I’ve taken, games I’ve played, or presentations I’ve given with one of those songs running through my head. Sound crazy? Who cares! No one will ever know what your cue is (unless you write about it in a blog). Use whatever works for you.
Priming is effective and it’s your key to unlocking the benefits of feeling powerful. You are in control, which is the foundation of personal empowerment.
Success isn’t about winning a specific game or landing a certain job, it’s about showing your best self when the stakes are high and the pressure is on. When you can do that on a consistent basis the results will take care of themselves. And, you will be a winner.
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