Psychologists have established a solid link between happiness and success. Happier people earn more money, perform better, and are more helpful to their coworkers. Most people assume that this link exists because people feel happy when they are successful. But actually, the scientific evidence suggests that happiness often precedes success, and that fostering happiness and other positive emotions can lead to better performance.
Happiness obviously isn't the only, or even the most important, factor when it comes to achieving greatness. Though Tiger Woods might golf better because he's a happy person (I have no idea) no one would say he rose to greatness on the back of happiness.
Instead, most people would point, emphatically, to Woods' incredible talent. But researchers across a wide array of fields have produced remarkably consistent findings: innate ability has relatively little to do with why people go from being good at something to being truly great.
People who rise to greatness tend to have five things in common:
- They practice hard, in a really specific way. Nobody makes the list of true greats effortlessly. Accomplished people devote hours upon hours to what researchers define as "deliberate practice." This isn't just poking around on the piano because it is fun; it is consistently practicing to reach specific objectives say, to be able to play a new piece that is just beyond your reach.
- They practice consistently. K. Anders Ericsson, author of a landmark study on this topic, says that "elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends." Knocking out a bucket of balls on the weekend isn't going to make you a great golfer but doing it every day might.
- They gain experience over the long haul; researchers call it the 10-year-rule. Most successful people average ten years of practice and experience before becoming truly accomplished. Even child-prodigies generally work at it for a decade or more. Bobby Fischer became a chess grandmaster at 16 years old, but he'd been studying since he was 7. Tiger Woods had been working on his golf game for 15 years when he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship.
- Most greats have had significant failures–it goes with the territory. J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers. Michael Jordan was cut from his high-school varsity basketball team. The great receiver Jerry Rice was judged as slow, and was passed up by 15 teams. But all three of these people became known for their perseverance and hard work. (Rowling delivered an incredibly moving commencement speech about embracing failure at Harvard; watch it here if you haven't seen it already!)
- Great performers have been shown to believe that their persistent effort will lead to success; researchers call this self-efficacy. Parents and teachers can build self-efficacy in kids by giving them effective encouragement (vs. empty praise), by helping them find effective strategies for mastering an activity, and by helping kids model their practices on the behavior of others who have succeeded.
Will stunning success bring your kids true happiness? Probably not. But knowing that it is practice that makes a person successful rather than innate talent can help kids take the risks they need to in order to rise to the top of their field. More than that, though, research shows that seeing effort as the key to success helps kids enjoy their activities a whole lot more than they do when they are worried about proving their special talent to the world.
© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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JKR's Commencement speech at Harvard