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Monday, April 01, 2013

Acquiring positive traits like patience is not useful for work achievement

The essential characteristics required to achieve in work-life - perseverance, confidence, goal-setting, focus, passion, values - are listed by meeting achievers. That is why you will find every book listing down these positive traits as 'success habits'. But when we start chasing these success-habits to find our success, we are putting cart before the horse. Why?

Because the central Challenge of achieving in work-life is matching the character traits with cognitive abilities to produce the targeted results  

If you ask any successful man, if these traits are required to achieve in life, he will undoubtedly agree with you. For instance, if you ask Narayan Murthy who created second-biggest Indian software company, Infosys, in his one lifetime, you will find that he will surely agree that these 'positive traits' are useful and mandatory. But that does not mean that you should advise aspiring achievers to acquire those positive traits. This is like seeing full fledged apples, discovering their good characteristics and then trying to grow the same apples irrespective of the soil conditions in your field. Wise men will tell you that in Nagpur, where the climate is too hot, you cannot grow apple. Instead, you should be growing oranges, because the conditions suit them.

Similarly, the challenge for each one of us is different in achieving because we are producing different results in programming, medicine or sports. We commence our lives from a different starting points. We have different innate abilities - logical, verbal, visual - and different traits - self regulation, creativity and emotional stability. The nurturing conditions around us grow some of these innate abilities and traits, while it may block the growth of some of these . For instance, although rich financial status of your family provides you more options, it also lowers your motivation to use those options.On the contrary, poor financial status may reduce your options, but they enhance your motivation to use those limited options. Both these individuals require different 'traits' to utilise their distinct background. So no innate ability (or nurturing condition) is purely good or bad. Our family background may increase/decrease our options. For instance, even though Sachin Tendulkar's son is likely to achieve a lot , if he choses cricket-path, it may not suit him.

Therefore blindly acquiring positive traits alone is not useful in work-achievement

So why are we advised to acquire 'positive traits' like perseverance, confidence, focus, creativity and others. Obviously, many believe that, if we acquire positive traits, we will automatically succeed. But is this true? Let us understand.

Please read this part of story of Narayan Murthy. In 1973, Narayan Murthy had no goal, no desire to start a company. He wanted to become a communist and run an orphanage. His values were completely anti-capitalist. No one could have imagined that he would start his own software company later in 1981.But something happened in 1974. Read his speech to Graduates of New York University.  In 1974, in a border town between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, he went through an incident that completely changed his 'values'. In this speech to NYU, he says "I always thank the Bulgarian guards for transforming me from a confused leftist into a determined, compassionate capitalist!". His beliefs and character traits changed indirectly due to the events and experiences he went through. We can consciously alter our cognitive abilities, but our character traits and beliefs alter unpredictably through our experiences, and more specifically how we interpret those experiences. 


You will find similar instances in the lives of successful men if you dig deeper in their stories. For instance, read this story of  Manmohan Singh's ascendancy to highest post of Prime Minister, and  you will realise that  his 'positive traits' did not help him become Prime Minister. In other words, these so-called positive traits are not the causes, but are the reverse. They are caused by producing desired results. After these individuals produce big results, they assume that they achieved because they were 'focused, confident and had passion'. Psychologist call it "cognitive dissonance". Wanting to find a coherent explanation for their achievement, they find it easier to explain the 'dissonance' in a 'rational' language.


Morever, psychologists also know that 'positive traits' like confidence are emergent traits. They are not the traits 'hidden within ourselves'. They emerge from the way we interact with the external systems, from the way our work impacts our personal life and vice versa, from the way the resulting outputs support our values and vice versa, from the way our relationships impact our work and vice versa. Positive traits are not the habits that we can 'practice and create' in our minds. They are the 'resultant' of our interactions with work-life through which we produce results. They are not the 'cause', but the 'effects' of creating different results ( be it work or friendships) in life.

Therefore, contrary to what many of these self-help books tell us, we can never deliberately plan to acquire these positive  traits of perseverance, focus, passion or values, because they are the 'result' of our' interactions with external output systems of work, family and society'. Therefore we should never chase these positive traits because they do not cause achievement; instead they are caused by achievement.