The Success Pyramid (Part II)

I hope you enjoyed and benefited from Part I of the Pyramid. If you have not read it yet, please do so before reading this part – Part II doesn’t make much sense without Part I.


Let’s get back to our pyramid. Top layer was the word “Success”, next layer we have “Behaviors” now on the 3rdlevel down, we see “Habits of Thought”. You can think about this as a collection of beliefs we have about how the world works, how you should or should not interact with others, the meaning of work, the meaning of family, and so on. Psychologists would use the fancy word “schema” here, but regardless, these are the things that guide our behaviors. Sometimes these messages we tell ourselves are helpful (like I shouldn’t step into the middle of speeding cars), other times they are limiting (I shouldn’t confront someone because they may not like me if I do). I often refer to this as “stories we tell ourselves”. As you know, some stories are fiction and some are not. To reach the success we’ve defined, write a new story.

These messages, taken as a whole, also help define another concept called, “locus of control” (or, LOC). LOC is either internal or external. With an external LOC there is a general sense that we (and our future) are mostly controlled by things that happen TO us. While those with an internal LOC feel that they control their destiny and achievements. Studies show that those with an internal LOC view the world differently and they tend to have stronger self-esteem, sense of self-efficacy, and other positive characteristics including less anxiety and depression.

Our collection of stories (schemas, habits of thought) shape our LOC and guide our decisions about how to react to the world. While we can always make any decision we want (freedom of choice), we lean in the direction of our LOC. For example, those with an external LOC are more likely to avoid risk, seek certainly, and avoid change. Present someone with an external LOC a choice and they are likely to choose status quo. You can see pretty quickly how this will then impact behaviors, which impact success. Sometimes you can recognize unhelpful stories because they have words like “should”, “ought”, “must” and “need to” in the story. For example, “I must be loved.” is a common story. A more helpful perspective is the story, “I would like to be loved, but I will be okay if I’m not.” Let’s see if we can come up with others (feel free to add your own):

“I shouldn’t call the customer because I don’t want to pester them.”

“I must keep the family stable, so I should not risk achieving my goals.”

“I have to visit Grand Ma this weekend because she asked me to.”

“I need to agree to what my spouse wants because peace is imperative.”

“I can’t take those classes because dad doesn’t agree with that line of study.”

“I’m bad at math.”

“I can’t do that thing because I don’t know how.”

“I’m overweight because it runs in my family.”

“I can’t be a doctor, it’s too complicated (or I’m too old, or … ).”

Okay, you get the idea. What does this all mean? Well, it means we often limit ourselves by agreeing with IRRATIONAL beliefs! And then we wonder why others can achieve what we say we want, but don’t ever reach. This brings me to my favorite quote from Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, either way you’re right!”

With that background, we come to the next level of reaching our success: identifying your own stories. Once identified, you need to figure out which serve you and which you need to rewrite. Here is a personal example, I have a hard time remembering names and this can be an important part of success. I’ve read all kinds of tips and ideas for improving this but found none really helped. Then I started thinking about the “story”. My story is this, “I can’t remember names.” And I reinforce this for myself every time I forget a name!

I have now re-written that irrational belief. And I mean I literally rewrote it. In a notebook I keep for personal journeys like this I wrote my new story, “I’m great at remembering names, I do it easily and accurately.” Did it work? Nah. Just kidding – it’s a work in progress but I have noticed definite improvement. Now I look forward to meeting new people so I can challenge myself to build my skills. And when I do remember a name, I smile and congratulate myself. There’s a bit more to it than that, but this gives you a starting place.

Ready for more? We have one more level on the triangle – the bottom level. This one is, “Repeated Messages”. This whole series of events leading to success starts at the bottom with repeated messages that we’ve heard over and over and have allowed ourselves to agree with. Let’s see this in action – assume that growing up you repeatedly heard your mother say, “You’ll never amount to anything”. Your mother is a trusted person so she must be right. As you grow up you start to add to that message events that confirm it. Perhaps it starts with playing with wooden blocks and your dad says, “That’s a silly looking house.” This serves to reinforce and confirm that you will never amount to anything. It’s a simple example but you can see how this can begin to snowball. Pretty soon you’ve built a whole story for your “Habit of Thought” level: “Why even try, I will never succeed.”

Does that thought shape your behaviors as an adult? Certainly! And if that’s the case, does it impact your level of success? Absolutely!

The crazy thing is, we tend to look for things that reinforce our beliefs and dismiss things that counter our beliefs. Here’s where LOC can be particularly unkind. If I have an external LOC I tend notice, pay attention to, and agree with things that reinforce my view that I really don’t have control and my future is at the hands of luck or fate (notice I didn’t say “faith”? That’s a different essay). Of course, the opposite is also true: if I have an internal LOC I also tend notice, pay attention to, and agree with things that reinforce my view – but in this case that’s a good thing!

Personal example: growing up I came to build the story that pleasing my dad and meeting his expectations was extremely important. Every failure tended to reinforce that I was not meeting his expectations. This continued even into middle adulthood when I was working on my graduate degree in psychology. I remember being a few weeks from graduation, talking on the phone to my dad, and being proud of the fact I was maintaining a straight “A” grade while raising a family and working full time. His response? “I guess that’s good, pretty soon you can get back to a real job.”

No parent is perfect and even if they were, we also pick up these irrational ideas and dysfunctional beliefs through peers, teachers, social media, TV, toys, and so on. It can’t be avoided. But, once we understand it we can begin to address it!

Once you have identified the stories that are blocking you behaving in a way that reaches success, you should spend some time considering what the underlying messages were that lead to those stories. As you come to this point it is easy to begin to rewrite the messages. Let go of all those “should” and “musts” and give yourself positive new affirmations that lead to higher levels of success. Visualize how those new messages are becoming the foundation of your new behaviors. The process of visualization is important and a powerful way to write new messages.

In addition to visualization, it is most effective if you actually write down your affirmations and re-read them to yourself each day. This was discussed way back in the 30’s in the book, Think and Grow Rich. Write them down like the one I gave you earlier: as if you’ve now replaced the old message with the new one. For example, instead of the irrational message, “I will never succeed, I just don’t have the discipline it takes”, try this: “I have the discipline to succeed and each day I apply that to reach my goals.” Write it down, visualize yourself exercising that discipline, and then choose new behaviors that will lead to your goals.

Remember, those old messages “feel like the truth” but that doesn’t make them the truth. The past is not as important as the future. Behaviors are choices, and regardless of the old messages, you can begin today to make new choices, even if they run against your prior “truths”.

Best of luck on your journey. It will not happen overnight, but understanding the “Success Pyramid” sets you on the right track!

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