Five Things Unsuccessful People Have in Common

Throughout history, writers and philosophers have noted the way fate, or “the gods,” seem to curse certain individuals, who move from one failure and disaster to another. In reality, of course, people are unsuccessful because they share certain faults, many of them easily corrected.

Expecting to Fail

Think of the most unsuccessful people you know and you will probably find that they expect to fail. If you expect your partner to tire of you or your business to collapse, that is what will happen. Without being conscious of it, you will bring such things about. Therapists refer to this as “self-sabotage,” and it is more common than people imagine.

Though they deny it, many are comfortable with failure and misery, usually because they have known nothing else. Happiness and success, on the other hand, scare them. To be happy and successful is to be exposed and vulnerable. When life is horrible, what do you have to lose?

For example, imagine a lonely middle-aged woman. All her life she felt disconnected and isolated. Gradually, she became used to this, even comfortable with it. Then she meets a new partner. He is perfect: handsome, sensitive, and kind. For the first time she feels loved and wanted.

But it is too much. “What if he sees through me?,” she thinks, “and suddenly realises how pathetic I am? He would leave, and I couldn’t bear that.” So she distances herself. He assumes she is losing interest, and they quarrel. She takes these arguments to confirm her suspicions. “I knew it was too good to be true,” she thinks, and the relationship falls apart.

The key point is that unsuccessful people feel safe and comfortable with failure. Even Freud noticed this. He came to believe that all living things possess a death instinct. In other words, we want to escape order, smash things up, and return to the peace of death and nothingness.

You have probably heard someone shake their head in disbelief and say of a friend or loved one “it’s almost as if she wants to fail.” And the truth is she probably does.

Squandering Energy

To succeed in life you need to focus. And that is true of everything from career to marriage. But this demands energy. Unsuccessful people squander energy in silly, futile ways. For example, they waste mental energy on guilt, failure, and shame left over from the past: trying to make sense of things, trying to somehow put them right.

Successful people, however, live in the now. They marshall all their energy and direct it into the task at hand. Nietzsche’s famous “Ubermensch,” or Superman, figure is rather like this. For Nietzsche, such an individual is fully present and fully alive because he lacks self-awareness. He doesn’t hang on to what Nietzsche called “ressentiment,” doesn’t agonize over right or wrong, and isn’t distracted by past and future. All his energy, will, or life force goes into the here and now.

Even relationships can be affected. Countless marriages fall apart because someone is still dealing with issues from past relationships or is planning and worrying about the future. The best things in life demand work, and that means focussing your energy here and now.

Being Unlikeable

People go to great lengths to improve their physical appearance, academic qualifications, parenting skills, and so on, and yet when it comes to their personality, to how likeable they are, they shrug and say “I am what I am.” But being unlikeable is a massive disadvantage. The last thing you need in life is an enemy.

Consider the traits people most like and admire. Obviously this varies, but in general they admire honesty and authenticity. And they dislike “fakes,” meaning those who pretend to be something they are not. Never underestimate people; they can spot a fake a mile away. And people cannot bear those with no interest in, or sympathy for, others.

Successful people tend to be good communicators as well. And they are entertaining and witty. Of course, no one can turn you into Oscar Wilde, but you can work on your conversation skills. Make an effort to really listen. Listening is itself a skill and different to merely being quiet and waiting for the other person to finish.

Feeling Sorry for Yourself

Unsuccessful people believe the universe owes them something. They feel entitled to love, respect, and success. When these fail to materialize, they sulk and wallow in self-pity. Aside from the fact that sulking is unattractive, and merely provokes others to rub in your defeat, it eats up energy and leads to a passive, resigned state of mind. The self-pitying sit back and wait for someone or something to come to their aid. But that rarely happens.

Self-pity also includes paranoia and pessimism. Self-pitiers feel the universe is against them personally, ignoring the times when things go well or when fortune is on their side (not to mention the bad luck endured by others). This then becomes an excuse for taking no action at all. No doubt you have heard someone say “what’s the point? Everything always goes wrong for me – why bother?”

Much depends on how you see yourself. Do not to allow the past to define you. For example, someone fails at High School, both socially and academically. Their adolescent image of themselves as weird or stupid then becomes fixed. But it need not define their 25-year-old self.

The question should never be “who is to blame?” but “what can I do?” The successful are solution-focussed. And in part that is because they are realists. No realist ever feels sorry for herself. She knows that life is painful, fragile, and brief. Self-pity is not only foolish but irrational.

Imagine someone dreams of writing a novel. She quits her job and spends six months furiously working. But she makes little progress and, deep down, knows it is no good. Then comes the self-pity. “It isn’t fair,” she thinks, “why couldn’t I have been born with real talent? Some people have talent and don’t even seem to appreciate it! It would mean so much more to me.”

This kind of self-pity is ridiculous. If she continues in this way, she will slip into depression and develop writer’s block. Instead, she needs to focus on solutions: creative writing classes, for example, or maybe a change of genre, switching to non-fiction or even poetry.

Struggling With Change

Contrary to popular belief, Darwin did not believe that “only the strongest survive.” Survival depends on adapting to your surroundings, not being big and tough. If you grow stubborn and rigid, if you fail to adapt to changing circumstances, you will fail.

Around 99% of species have gone extinct. They failed to adapt to new predators, to a changing climate, whatever it may have been, and so Mother Nature swept them away. Many special forces units recognize this and drill the motto “adapt and overcome” into new recruits. Once behind enemy lines, or engaged in combat, your carefully laid plans are likely to fall apart.

Even football managers recognize this and try to be flexible and adaptive, to accept their tactics aren’t working and to come up with something new. Pop stars also adapt. If they sense their fans are growing bored or drifting away to someone new, they reinvent themselves. Madonna and David Bowie provide excellent examples. Madonna in particular is a genius at reinvention, sensing a change in fashion and adapting herself.

Of course, change is often out of our hands and occurs whether we welcome it or not. Even when they cannot stop change, the unsuccessful still resist it. Some literally sulk. Others refuse to accept what is happening. Truly successful people not only accept change, they see it as an opportunity. And that is because they are optimistic.

Nothing guarantees success. The wheel of fortune turns and luck plays its part. But if you live in the now, direct all your energy and focus onto the moment, will yourself to be happy, and avoid self-pity, you stack the odds in your favor.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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