The Slight Edge: Long-Term Success Philosophy

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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Are you frustrated with the results of your goals? Do you want to know what the secret is to achieving long-term success?

You might be surprised to learn that the secret is, in fact, quite simple. In The Slight Edge, Jeff Olson teaches that success is built over time by committing to simple, small, daily disciplines. 

In this article, we’ll explore Jeff Olson’s success philosophy and how you can incorporate it into your own life.

The Slight Edge: The Success Over Time

Why is it that different people with many of the same tools and opportunities available to them don’t have the same level of success? Is it luck? Talent? The knowledge gained from “how-to” books? 

According to motivational speaker Jeff Olson, success and failure are both a result of the Slight Edge (or the Success Over Time Philosophy, for clarity): the idea that success is built over time with small disciplines executed on a consistent basis. Olson’s success philosophy consists of three elements (principles, obstacles, and tools).

Principles

Principle #1: Show Up to Take the First Step: Olson explains that showing up means determining a goal to pursue and taking the first step to pursuing it. For example, if you want to become a psychologist, you have to apply for school and show up to class. Olson argues that showing up is the first step to achieving your goal, as no progress can occur without it. After all, you can’t go on a journey if you don’t show up to the train station.

Principle #2: Be Consistent and Stay Committed: Next, Olson suggests that you commit to showing up for your goals on a consistent basis. Taking the first step on its own isn’t enough—the more consistent you are with your efforts to achieve something, the more likely you are to achieve it. For instance, if you want strong arm muscles, you can’t just do one push-up. You have to do push-ups consistently

Principle #3: Maintain a Good Attitude: Olson argues that maintaining a good attitude is essential for success in the face of life’s ups and downs. For example, you might practice finding the humor in your failures or challenges. Olson believes that positive energy benefits your ability to perform. Furthermore, studies show that if you maintain an optimistic outlook, you’ll live longer, be more productive, and have increased resilience.

Principle #4: Lead With Success Over Time Integrity: Olson notes that having Success Over Time integrity means going the extra mile each day to solidify your success, even when no external force is motivating you and nobody is around to check up on you. For example, if you run your own business, no one is going to create a schedule for you, and no one is going to keep track of how much work you’re putting in. Further, no one is going to praise you for any of your efforts. To be successful in your ventures, you must be willing to work hard even when no one is watching. 

Principle #5: Stay Hungry and Keep the Faith: Next, Olson recommends that you be so hungry for your success that when you encounter obstacles, you see them as opportunities to get closer to your goal rather than insurmountable problems. This is important because if you see your obstacles negatively, you’ll feel less confident about overcoming them. Meanwhile, viewing problems as opportunities inspires you to find solutions. 

Olson suggests that to stay hungry, you must remind yourself on a regular basis why you are pursuing your goals and why they’re worth persevering for. For example, you might write about this in a journal or talk about it with others. This keeps you focused on what you’re working towards, instead of what might get in the way.

Principle #6: Be Willing to Pay the Price: Finally, Olson cautions that nothing comes for free: You will always have to sacrifice something to achieve your goals. For example, if you want to start a business, the price is working long hours, likely with no immediate monetary payoff. You may lose friends who don’t agree with your ideas or who are resentful at being prioritized less. 

Olson suggests figuring out what price you are (and are not) willing to pay. If your planned route to success requires you to pay a price you’re not comfortable with, consider revising your goals. 

Obstacles

#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. 

#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. 

#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.

#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. 

#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.

Tools

Tool #1: Build Momentum: Olson characterizes momentum as the forward-moving force that you build as you put consistent energy and motivation behind your goals. According to physics, a body in motion stays in motion, and a body at rest stays at rest. Therefore, if you want lasting success, it’s critical to keep building momentum to push towards your goals. If you lose momentum, you’ll lose your drive to succeed and you’ll stay stuck in your current state.

If you find yourself tempted to cease motion—in other words, pause progress towards your goal—Olson recommends reminding yourself what’s at stake. For example, if you’re seeking to achieve fitness goals, and you catch yourself wanting to take “just a couple days off working out,” remind yourself that continued commitment is critical to reaching your goals. If you’re truly exhausted, rather than allowing yourself to take the day entirely off, give yourself a modified exercise that day and return to your regular routine the following day. That way, you won’t lose momentum entirely. 

Tool #2: Create Habits of Success: Olson states that a habit is an action repeated over time until it becomes automatic. Good habits that create your desired results are crucial for success because when completed consistently, they automatically get you closer to achieving your goals over time. For example, if your goal is to save $30 in one month, a simple habit that supports this goal is to save one dollar a day. Most months are about 30 days long, so by saving a dollar a day for 30 days, you guarantee that you reach your goal. 

The results of your habits give you insight into whether they are good or bad. You know you have good habits when you get the results you want, and you know you have bad habits when you don’t get the results you want.

For example, let’s say your goal is to save a certain amount of money, and one of your habits is to save $35 each week from your paycheck, but another habit is to spend $5 on coffee each day. After a few weeks, you notice that you’re not losing money, but your savings are not increasing either. This tells you that your habit of spending $5 on coffee every day is canceling out your habit of saving $35 each week, which means these habits are bad for your goals. In this case, you could change your savings habit by saving more each week so you can keep the daily coffee habit, or you could stop buying coffee. 

Tool #3: Prioritize Completion: Olson’s next tool stresses the importance of leaving nothing incomplete in your life. Unfinished to-do lists and unmet commitments keep you stuck in the past and further away from meeting your goals. One way to approach completion is to make a list of everything relating to your goals that is undone and complete it all, one step at a time. That way, no tasks will slip your mind, no commitments will get left behind, and you’ll achieve completion.

The Completion Principle

Olson doesn’t explore the scientific explanation for why leaving things incomplete in our lives distracts us from future progress or success. According to the completion principle, we seek completion (whether consciously or unconsciously) because of our need for certainty and control. When something is incomplete, we feel uncertain and like we are not in control, keeping us in a state of anxiety about how to find a solution or ruminating about the consequences of not finding a solution. This anxiety keeps us focused on what hasn’t been completed and leaves little room for us to move towards future goals. 

In contrast, completing things in the way described above makes us feel certain and in control, leaving us with the mental energy to take on new tasks and goals. 

Tool #4: Celebrate When Things Go Right: Another tool Olson emphasizes is the importance of celebrating your successes, both big and small. For example, at the end of each day, acknowledge your progress and express gratitude to yourself for your efforts. This strategy keeps you motivated to continue achieving your goals. When you take note of your progress along the way, you feel more confident in yourself and are more likely to stay committed to your goals in the long term. 

Celebration vs. Reward

Studies confirm that celebrating your successes leads to more success in the future, but it’s important to distinguish between celebration and reward. Rewarding yourself involves the use of extrinsic motivation (focusing on an outcome and motivating yourself with an external reward when you reach that outcome, like buying an Xbox or taking a trip). Extrinsic motivation can be limiting because it takes your focus away from the process and encourages you to rely on things outside of you for inspiration. 

Meanwhile, celebration is the use of intrinsic motivation (focusing on the process of reaching an outcome, rather than just the outcome itself, and motivating yourself with internal rewards like joy and gratitude). Intrinsic motivation is a more reliable, consistent form of motivation that better supports long-term success.

Here are three ways to celebrate the process rather than rewarding the outcome on your path to success:
Spend time with your community. Celebrate those in your life who support you. Nurturing your relationships with the people who encourage your success ensures that those relationships will remain strong in the future when you pursue new goals. 

Take time for self-care. Regularly doing things to nourish yourself keeps you healthy and motivated so you can stay committed to your goals and enjoy the process.

Reflect on your growth. Celebrate how far you’ve come and who you’re becoming. This builds confidence, self-insight, and gratitude and teaches you to appreciate every step of the process rather than just the outcome of pursuing your goals.

Tool #5: Reflect on Your Past: A final tool Olson recommends is reflection. Use reflection to analyze your past, observe what has gone well and what has gone poorly, and make note of choices you’d like to repeat (as well as choices you’d like to leave in the past). 

Olson notes that these thought processes allow you to make peace with what has not worked and become aware of what has worked so that you can do this again in the future. You can also identify when what you’re doing isn’t working and quickly course correct. 

Is There a Wrong Way to Reflect?

While Olson presents reflection as wholly beneficial, the true picture may be more nuanced than this. According to organizational psychologists, some research shows that self-reflection makes people feel more unhappy, more anxious, and less in control of their lives. The more time spent reflecting, the worse these people feel. 

How can that be? One explanation is that insight does not automatically accompany introspection. It’s possible for people to reflect in ways that lead not to deeper self-awareness or perspective, which is what truly creates growth and happiness, but to negative thought loops or selective perception (seeing only what you want to see).

How can you reflect in ways that lead to self-awareness? Research says it may be as simple as switching your reflective verbiage from the use of the question “why” to the use of the question “what.” Asking yourself “what” questions rather than “why” questions prevents you from fixating on and overanalyzing what isn’t working and why and instead keeps you focused on building forward momentum towards real growth. 

For example, instead of asking “why did I fail to reach my goal?” ask “what can I do better next time?” This immediately gets you prepared to take new actions rather than getting you stuck in your head analyzing what went wrong.
The Slight Edge: Long-Term Success Philosophy

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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

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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