Published Articles

The Psychology of Success

SuperUser Account posted on April 01, 2015

What makes us successful in life? Why do some of us become great parents who raise wonderfully balanced children and others don’t? Why do some become CEOs of major corporations and others can’t seem to keep a job? What makes a big producer as opposed to a small one? Why do some financial advisors grow quickly while others barely get by? What is really behind success in life?

Most of us know people who fit these descriptions. And we know people who are very smart, yet achieve very little, while others who are less- than-brilliant and achieve great success.

The old saying, “Life is what you make it” come to mind. Some people make their lives wonderful and others seem to constantly live in misery.  You would think no one wants to live in misery, so why does it happen?

Depending on how you group them, success can be broken down into several weighted categories. With more than 35 years of dealing with people, career coaching and studying psychology, I have come to learn a lot about the human mind. Based on this, I use the following four categories as the drivers of success with these weightings: (1) ambition/drive, 40%; (2) psychological strength, 30%; (3) intelligence, 20%; and (4) knowledge, 10%.

These four attributes will determine an individual’s success or failure. And although there is room for debate in the details, I give the most importance to ambition and psychological strength, followed by intelligence and knowledge.

If a person is strong in all categories, they should be wildly successful. However, most people will have some combination of strengths or weaknesses in the four categories.

Success will be greater for those strongest in the top two, whereas knowledge and intelligence without ambition means very little.

• Ambition/drive:
 The earnest desire for achievement or distinction, nobody knows for sure what percentage of ambition is learned versus what can be ascribed to genetics. But most agree it is some combination of both. I believe it’s more a function of environment than genes.

If a parent gives an abundance of positive reinforcement to a child each time they have success, this child will typically go through life craving more success. This is because the reinforcement felt good and, like a drug, creates a sense of euphoria. It will be craved.

Therefore, parents can have a huge positive effect on a child’s drive. But the flip-side is also true: Drive can also stem from anger or fear. Based on an individual’s upbringing and how they react to it, fear or anger can be strong drivers.

If someone grows up very poor, they may do everything in their power to avoid squalor. Or the child who grows up with parents who constantly tell him, “You will never amount to anything,” may be driven to prove them wrong.

Some individuals just become obsessed with something (a sport, a particular career, a scientific or medical problem, for example) and want to become the best in that field or find the solution that has evaded others. Ambition can also be circumstantial and sporadic; it is difficult to teach, coach or correct.

• Psychological strength: This speaks to an individual’s ability to control their emotions, rather than their emotions controlling them. Often called emotional intelligence, it’s the ability to push through physical and emotional pain. It’s the strength to take risk even if it does not feel good.

We all have psychological issues from our past, but how much do we let them control our actions? A large percentage of the population is held back because they are unwilling to do the hard work to become psychologically stronger. Letting psychological demons control us is a big problem for most people. Most don’t even know it is happening. Lacking confidence is also a big contributor to having little success; even worse is doing nothing about it. The ability of an individual to make a logical rather than an emotional decision is vital to success. We all tend to gravitate toward the latter, and those who can use logic and keep their emotions at bay will have a big advantage.

• Intelligence: This describes the capacity for learning and understanding new ideas and concepts—aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts and meanings. Similar to knowledge, if it’s not used, it’s worthless.

Indeed, there have been many great inventions throughout history that didn’t come to market for many years after their invention. In many cases it was because the inventor didn’t have the drive to do so. No matter how smart an individual is, if they don’t use their intelligence toward some kind of success, it is worthless.

• Knowledge: Described as an acquaintance with facts, truth or principles, as from study or investigation, knowledge is power, as some people are fond of saying. However, knowledge without action is worthless.

There are many individuals who have an abundance of knowledge, but choose not to use it in any real application. This is the underpinning to the old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I don’t really agree with this, but the point is well taken. 

Knowledge does play into success, but only to a small degree. The more one knows, the better, but if that knowledge lives only inside someone’s head without action, it’s 

Everyone has the ability to change. Our brains are very sophisticated, yet so many of us go through life struggling when we don’t have to. A few changes can mean the difference between struggling and success.

Too many of us are complacent and do nothing to improve our lives or the lives of others.

We move through life on autopilot, living the same day over and over, like the movie “Groundhog Day.” Except in the movie, the main character finally learns his lesson and improves his life and becomes a better person.

The question is: Can you start your journey toward success today, or are you just going to keep living the same day over and over?

Rick Rummage is the owner of the Rummage Group, a consulting firm for advisors.