The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

The Paradox of Success. Successful Stagnation?

The Paradox of Success. Successful Stagnation?
The paradox of success without fulfilment presents professionals with a confusing reality. Despite the prestige, material success, and professional advancement, we often face stagnation and restlessness. Over the last thirty years, psychology has adopted and propagated two incomplete models of self, which has inadvertently led us to further stagnation. The first deals with what to change (strengths vs. weaknesses), while the second model addresses how to change (building habitual behaviours vs. whole-person change).  In this article, we propose a model of self-development that resolves the paradox of successful stagnation and guides us toward the elusive self-fulfilment that accompanies all true self-growth.

Expertise, wealth, and reputation don’t seem to protect us against a nagging sense of stagnation, ennui, and restlessness. Professionals who experience these uncomfortable states accurately interpret them to signal that a change is needed in their lives. This, for most, means setting new, more challenging goals. It moves already busy professionals to re-enter university programmes or apply for additional professional certifications. Yet even after reaching the new goals, fulfilment remains elusive. It turns out that the very models of ourselves we adopted to bring us fulfilment cause us to experience the opposite. How did we get here?

Over the last twenty-five years, positive psychology has permeated business and educational establishments with its ‘strength-based’ approach. Managers were encouraged to administer personality tests (a 2-billion-dollar industry) (Goldberg, 2023) to categorise employees into ‘types’ and slot them into appropriate jobs. If you were good at something, it meant you should double down and not spend too much time worrying about things you were not so good at. This model had additional assumptions – that personality is genetically determined (and therefore, it was pointless to try to ‘change your personality style’) and that if you had behaviours that were not good, you should change those behaviours by using willpower and maintaining them by habits. The idea was that this approach would lead to both success and fulfilment.

Managers were encouraged to administer personality testsAs it turns out, these assumptions about the self were incomplete, and those of us who still hold them pay the consequence of stagnation and lack of fulfilment. Studies show both personality (Coster and McCrae, 1994; Srivastava et al., 2003) and neural systems are plastic and change throughout our lifetimes (Fuch and Fle, 2014; Doidge, 2007). Furthermore, it appears that the experience of fulfilment comes from growth (of previously undeveloped aspects of self), rather than exercising strengths (Djikic, 2024). Finally, natural development doesn’t require willpower or habits to maintain. Instead, intrinsically motivated activities in which we follow our interests give us more, rather than less, willpower.

Change what?

Once we are no longer tied to the assumptions that our personality is fixed and that we must focus on our strengths rather than weaknesses, we can begin the difficult task of unearthing underdeveloped aspects of ourselves. The joy of fulfilment, so easy for children who spend their early years constantly growing, stops in adulthood because we make choices that stop development. If growth leads to fulfilment, then we will feel most developed if we unearth and grow our weaknesses and parts of the self we long left behind.

We may have become successful by systemically ignoring our body, or by refusing to allow our emotional lives to flourish. We may have boxed ourselves into an identity of a ‘provider’ and now feel we must continue providing for others even when they are capable (if unwilling) of doing so themselves. We may be harbouring fantasies of respect, security, or freedom we will gain when the new promotion or another hefty bonus arrives. We may believe that once X happens, then we will feel fulfilled. When we finally realise that no matter how much we achieve, the fulfilment will not arrive through the route of success, we can focus on the most underdeveloped parts of ourselves – ones that block and imprison us into assumptions of what we should be. Then, our work of self-change will finally begin, and with it, a real chance of fulfilment.

Change how?

Once we discover what underdeveloped aspect of the self we want to work on, we need to know how to change it. This is where we must challenge another assumption about willpower. We are often told that the most effective change is produced by using willpower to force our behaviours into acceptable ones, and then maintain them through habits. Yet, as many people find through repeated attempts, forcing our behaviour in the desired direction too often leads to only fleeting victories. When we run out of willpower (which inevitably happens, given it’s a limited resource), it’s easy to relapse into our ‘old selves’.

The hidden culprit in the difficulty of self-change is that most of the techniques meant to induce it focus only on one part of the self-behaviour. The self, however, consists of five parts: motivation, emotion, mind, body, as well as behaviour. Trying to change just behaviour is like moving one spoke of a wheel one way while the rest of the wheel is thundering in the opposite direction. It is likely to fragment or break us. Over the last twenty-five years, psychology and neuroscience research have given us clues as to what is necessary for a whole-person change. It suggests that meaningful and sustained change can only happen when all five parts of the self move in the same direction and at the same time.

PAYING ATTENTION TO INTERESTS RATHER THAN GOALS

Motivation energises the self to move toward its wants

Our wants are the thread that pulls us toward our potential. Goals, on the other hand, are mental constructs of what we imagine will give us fulfilment. Most of the time, we mistakenly worry about how to reach our goals rather than reflect on whether our goals are chosen with our interests and development in mind. Once we realign our goals with our developmental potential, we activate intrinsic, naturally moving development.

Behaviour is most visible, but other parts of the self run the show

Behaviour is the most visible part of the self, the part that dominates our attention. This makes sense given that we fulfil our wants through behaviour, and the social world is built on interacting with others through behaviour. People’s behaviours have direct and immediate effects on us, no matter what they feel, think, or want. Finally, behaviour is measurable and can be directly forced through willpower, which makes it an easy target for change. The problem, however, is that behaviour is controlled by all the other parts of the self. For example, if we start executing the behaviour of getting ourselves a piece of chocolate at three in the afternoon, that may have been caused by our hunger (motivation), anxiety (emotion), reflecting about how tasty chocolate is (mind), or our history of afternoon chocolate consumption that is encoded in our nervous system (body). Instead of spending our willpower on behaviour, it would be more efficient to apply it to the mind, emotions, body, and motivation.

Emotions: signal how to reorient toward our goals

Emotions are a signaling system that evolved to protect us and guide us toward our wants. In the domains of our lives that are not going well, emotions are likely to be negative, prolonged, and intrusive. They may dishearten us, make us anxious or frustrated, and even when interspersed with periods of hope and energy, may make our daily experience something we want to get through, rather than live in. These negative emotions are routinely avoided or suppressed. Yet the very thing we don’t want to experience, which often leaves us exhausted and miserable, holds the key to restarting our development. To understand how we need to understand what emotions are and what they want from us. We need to know how to process emotions, not just express them, and allow them to fulfil their original function – to orient and guide us toward fulfilling our deep wants.

Mind builds models of the world

Mind is at the centre of the problem we experience when a part of our life persistently fails to live up to our expectations. It is in the mind we get to shape and share our past, understand our desires and beliefs, name our emotions, and describe our behaviours. The mind filters all experiences about the self, others, and the world. And it is the mind that intervenes when we decide it’s time to change the direction of our lives. So, when the mind is in a distorted haze – under the influence of inflexible beliefs we have acquired during difficult events, it causes trouble. If the lens through which the emotional system processes the incoming information is distorted, our thoughts and emotions (and consequently behaviours) will be outdated and misguided.

Body carries our learnings from the past

To say the word ‘body’ is to bring up a set of associations: height, weight, skin elasticity, cholesterol, and blood pressure. We think of measurements of various kinds, or how we feel when we look in the mirror, or what happens when some part of the body refuses to comply with the daily demands life puts upon it. What we forget is what the body is for. From an evolutionary perspective, the body is there to move us around as we fulfil our needs and, more importantly, to carry learnings from our past. We can think of bodies as vessels made of the past, acting in the present, while looking to the future. The problem is that the natural learning process can sometimes, in highly stressful situations, lead to ‘overlearning’. When we overlearn, we create ‘closed’ mental constructs that are rigid, inflexible, and impermeable to new information. They cause reactive and unhelpful responses. At the centre of ‘stuck’ aspects of our lives are rigid learnings from the past that shape our beliefs (‘I cannot trust anyone’), which in turn cause persistent emotions (grief, anger), and self-destructive behaviours (not letting others get close). We can learn how to bring them to light, and make them permeable and flexible so that we can restart our natural development.

The Wheel in Motion

How does restarting the wheel of self help us with the paradox of success without fulfilment? Success brings us the safety and the satisfaction of knowing that we have reached our goals. Yet we can be successful without ever activating our natural developmental process. In that case, we are safe but stagnating. Development, on the other hand, is only interested in growing us toward our potential. It doesn’t promise success or prestige or money. But it does what it has evolved to do – it keeps bringing us closer to our potential and accompanying fulfilment. By finding underdeveloped aspects of ourselves (where our development got ‘stuck’), and then producing a whole-self change, we activate the process that grows and fulfils us, not at some unknown point in the future, but in the now.


References

Emma Goldberg, “The $2 Billion Question of Who You are at Work,” The New York Times, March 05, 2023, https://www.nytimes. com/2023/03/05/business/remote-work-personality-tests.html.

Costa, P.T., Jr. and R.R. McCrae (1994). Set like plaster? Evidence for the stability of adult personality. In T.F. Heatherton & J. L. Weinberger (Eds.), Can personality change? (pp.21-40). American Psychological Association. Https://doi.org/10.1037/10143-002

Srivastava, S., O.P. John, S.D. Gosling, J. Potter (2003). Development of Personality in Early and Middle Adulthood: Set like plaster or persistent change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (5), 1041-1053.

Fuchs, E. and G. Fle (2014). Adult Neuroplasticity: More than 40 years of research. Neural Plasticity, vol 2014, Article ID 541870, 10 pages https://doi.org/10.1155/2014/541870

Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Penguin Books.

Djikic, M. (2024). The Possible Self: A leader’s guide to self-development. Berrett-Koehler Inc.

The Paradox of Success. Successful Stagnation?

Maja Djikic is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management and Executive Director of the Self-Development Lab at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. In addition to her work with students in the Rotman School’s degree programmes, she teaches in several executive education programmes at the Rotman School including serving as Academic Director of the Rotman Executive Coaching Certificate programme.

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