This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Slight Edge" by Jeff Olson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What are the biggest obstacles to success? What are some of the universal things people do that prevent them from achieving their goals?
Everyone encounters challenges on the road to success. Of course, every situation is different, and whatever roadblocks you face in your quest for success are uniquely personal. However, there’re some hurdles that can trip up virtually anyone.
The following are some of the most common hindrances to success, according to Jeff Olson.
#1: Neglecting Small Disciplines Over Time
Olson states that the number one hindrance to success is neglecting to take the small actions that support them. This obstacle occurs because it’s very easy to procrastinate small, important, but less noticeable actions in favor of more prominent or exciting actions (for example, extending your gap year instead of starting college). We simply don’t feel as motivated without clear validation of our efforts, which small steps often don’t provide—instead, we want instant gratification.
However, Olson argues that the more we neglect small actions, the harder it is to reverse course and move back in the direction of our goals. For example, one cigarette will not kill you, but there’s a good chance a cigarette or two a day for twenty years eventually will, and by the time you realize they’re hurting you, it may be too late to reverse it.
|The Marshmallow Experiment and the Power of Delayed Gratification|
As Olson notes, at the root of this obstacle is our need for instant gratification: The wish to feel good and rewarded now sabotages our success by driving us to neglect simple actions that have no immediate reward. It follows, therefore, that learning to delay gratification—in other words, accept that we won’t feel good until later but we need to complete small actions now regardless—will stop this obstacle in its tracks and lead to success.
Research confirms that the ability to delay gratification is a powerful tool for success. For example, in the 1960 Marshmallow Experiment, researchers offered children the choice between eating one marshmallow immediately or waiting to eat the marshmallow and receiving a second marshmallow as a reward for their patience. Further researchers conducted follow-up studies on these children and found that the children who had the patience to wait (or to delay gratification) grew up to have less stress, better physical health, stronger ability to socialize, and higher test scores. The follow-ups continued for over 40 years, and consistently, the children who chose to delay gratification experienced greater success in their lives than the children who chose not to delay gratification.
#2: The Myth of Instant Success
In Olson’s view, another obstacle to success is the fact that our culture is so enamored with rags to riches stories that we too often buy into the illusion of instant success and fail to develop the discipline of applying real work to our goals. If you are looking for the instant gratification of a “ magic bullet” instead of looking to make steady progress, you will remain stuck in inaction, desperately hoping for your big break.
For example, consider the musician who seems to skyrocket to fame overnight. In reality, they practiced every day for most of their lives, performed in bars and nightclubs for years with no recognition, and had several failed albums before “hitting the big time.” The media doesn’t share every part of their story, and as a result, young musicians don’t understand the work that is necessary to achieve the success they want. Without being aware of the work necessary, aspiring “stars” either don’t put in the work, give up too soon, or both.
|The Neurological Consequences of Focusing on Instant Gratification|
Expecting the instant gratification of a magic bullet does more than just prevent you from doing the hard work necessary for achieving your goals. It also has a long-term negative effect on the way your brain works.
The brain is already set up to favor instant gratification over delayed gratification, releasing dopamine in a jolt of pleasure whenever we do something that instantly meets our needs. The more dopamine we get, the more we want it, and the more we seek out experiences that will give us that instant hit. This creates addictive, pleasure-seeking habits and makes it harder for you to control your impulses, leading you to seek even more instant gratification. This vicious cycle leads to chronic difficulties delaying gratification, making it harder and harder for you to develop the discipline to work towards your greatest potential for success.
#3: The Loss of Faith
Olson believes that a major obstacle to success is the fact that once we reach adulthood, we often don’t have the faith in ourselves that we did as children. Consequently, we stop being willing to take the risk of making mistakes, lose belief in the possibility of success, and lose tolerance for the experiences of failure that are often necessary to achieve success. You can tell you’ve reached this state if you regularly have thoughts like “I could never do that,” or, “this is too difficult for me.” Over time, these thoughts make you feel less motivated to take the risk to pursue your goals, and more likely to give up on them.
According to Olson, giving up becomes easier the more you accept the idea of it, so find ways to re-inspire yourself if you start to lose faith and don’t entertain thoughts of giving up.
|How to Keep Going When You Feel Like Giving Up|
While Olson states that to achieve success, we must resist the urge to give up and our inclination towards losing faith, he doesn’t explore how to do this. How can we re-inspire ourselves when we’re petrified of failure and risk-averse?
One way to stay motivated when you’re afraid of failure or stop feeling inspired is to keep your dopamine levels high. Dopamine is the reward chemical, and the more dopamine your brain releases, the stronger your ability to persevere through challenging periods.
You can increase your dopamine levels using the following strategies:
Every time you take an action towards your goals, visualize yourself getting a jolt of dopamine. For example, you might imagine yourself drinking a shot of liquid and becoming immediately happy. Research shows you can use visualization to train your brain to associate perseverance with pleasure.
Reframe your perspective on moments of struggle. See these moments as opportunities to build confidence. For example, every time you take action towards your goals when you don’t feel like it, praise yourself for how strong and capable you are. This teaches you to associate work with growth, and growth with joy.
Treat every positive action you take as something worth rewarding. For example, even the smallest actions, like getting out of bed on time or combing your hair, can be fuel for your dopamine tank. This trains your brain to release dopamine even when you’re not taking actions directly towards your goals.
#4: The Envy of Others
Olson cautions that you should be mindful of who you share your dreams with: Share them only with those who you know from past experience will encourage and uplift you. Sometimes, he argues, when you share your dreams with others, they try to drag you down out of envy. The reason for this is often that they have dreams of their own that they are not realizing—they experience discomfort because the gap between point A (where they are currently at) and point B (where they want to go) causes tension. Ultimately, the upset they feel as a result of their own unrealized success causes them to reject yours.
|A Closer Look at the Motivations of Naysayers|
According to research, envy may not be the only reason people try to bring you down when you’re thriving. In some cases, their motivations have more complicated roots. Next time someone in your life gets sour about your success, consider the following possibilities:
Your success makes them question their own capabilities. Psychologists believe that we judge our own capabilities by comparing our success to the success of others. When we compare our success to someone who has achieved more than us, we start to feel like we’re failing or worry that we aren’t good enough.
Your success threatens their idea of the status quo. We are conditioned to buy into the “rule” that hard work leads to success. When we feel like we’re working equally as hard as people who have more success than we do, it tests our trust in the “rules,” forcing us into the discomfort of questioning our choices and beliefs.
#5: The Pressure to Conform
The final obstacle Olson discusses is the fact that when you pursue your goals, you may be criticized for going against the grain. This will tempt you to people please for the sake of belonging, or to base your choices on the needs and feelings of others (in other words, to conform). To be successful, Olson states, be willing to go against the grain, ignore what the masses are doing, leave your comfort zone, and forge your own path, no matter how much criticism you might face from others.
An example of someone who found success without confirming is Albert Einstein. In his early life, people called Einstein “dopey.” Later in his life, people initially thought his ideas on relativity were absurd because they went against convention. Today, the world considers him a genius. You can bet that no one remembers the names of his critics.
|Three Benefits to Being an Outsider|
As Olson notes, from a young age, the world conditions us to conform to those around us. We aren’t encouraged to do anything outside of the norm (and if anything, we’re discouraged from doing so). That being said, there are a number of benefits to being the one who stands out in a crowd:
Outsiders are already comfortable with being different. This makes it easier to successfully pursue goals even without the support, understanding, or agreement of others.
Outsiders have access to unique perspectives. This means they are less likely to conform to the ideas of others and more likely to offer unique, innovative ideas that revolutionize the environments they’re in.
Outsiders have the opportunity to surprise those who underestimate them. Because outsiders don’t operate the way everyone else does, people often expect less of them, making it even more impactful when they come up with great ideas or perform in exceptional ways.
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- Why some people fail and some succeed despite having the same tools
- How small practices, executed consistently over time, will give you an edge
- How you're getting in the way of your own growth by neglecting simple things