The Secret Ingredient for Success: The Brutal Discipline Necessary for Self-Assessment

Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, authors of The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well, came out with an op-ed in the New York Times.

The interesting argument, one that is echoed by Charles Darwin, is that the to success is a brutal self-assessment.

“Discipline is the attitude that helps us discern right from wrong … Discipline is what makes us responsible toward ourselves [and] toward the society in which we live.”

— Massimo Vignelli

What happens to organizations and people when they find obstacles in their paths?

Professor Argyris called the most common response single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.

LESS common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we — like Mr. Chang — question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions. This more psychologically nuanced self-examination requires that we honestly challenge our beliefs and summon the courage to act on that information, which may lead to fresh ways of thinking about our lives and our goals.

In interviews we did with high achievers… we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavoured to achieve them.

In part, an accurate self-assessment allows for the feedback necessary to grow. It’s the evidence you need to move forward. It doesn’t matter if it comes from nobodies or somebodies, a coach or anyone else, which is precisely the point of being open to what others have to say if you are really interested in improving your own skills.

The discipline of self-assessment is only the start. It produces knowledge that allows us to understand the edge of our competency, which is the key to learning. What you do with that knowledge matters and there is a difference between the good and the great.

Average performers believe their errors are caused by things they don’t controla fixed mindset if there ever was one. Top performers, however, as Geoff Colvin writes in is book, Talent is Overrated, “believe they are responsible for their errors.”

Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have though through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired. (more)

It’s precisely the combination of a brutal self-assessment and a growth mindset that tilts that increases the odds we become better. And these skills come down to discipline.

As Anna Deavere Smith wrote in Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind,

Discipline — both mental and physical — is crucial.