How Focusing on Results Limits Success

“Early education makes us mindless” states social psychologist Ellen Langer.

In her book “Mindfulness” Langer argues that from a young age we are taught to focus on goals rather than the process by which they are achieved.

With such an intense focus on achieving goals and high results you may have become locked in a certain way of thinking. “Mindless” is how Langer describes this state.

Instead of asking “How do I do this?” or “How can I do this?” you find yourself anxiously thinking “Can I do this?” and “What if I fail?”. The joy of learning ceases to exist.

It can be tough being a student in a highly competitive, results oriented school system. As Author and Educator Allison Zmuda states –

“In their efforts to do well in school, students have largely become low level bureaucrats who complete the requisite paperwork but suffer from the monotony of the experience”.

Sadly, this was the case for me. In high school I was a rote learning parrot. Bored out of my brain but extremely driven.

Did I care about whether I had a deep understanding of my subjects? No, not at all. All I wanted were gold stars, high percentages and the letter A on my work.

Then almost overnight everything changed.

I got 1 out of 20 on my first test at Law school.

That’s right. 1 out of 20. And boy, did that hurt.

High school had trained me to become a masterful rote learner, capable of churning out hundreds of abstract, sterile facts. But this skill no longer served me well in a system that required you to have a deep understanding of complex ideas.

In my heartbreak of receiving such a lousy mark, I remember asking myself –

“What is the point of going through another 5 years of study if it’s only for a piece of paper? Is there any point if I don’t enjoy myself and grow as a person?”

At that point I let go of my obsession with results. I became fascinated by the process of learning (eg. How does one learn information at a deep level?). For the first time in my life I started to enjoy learning. I mean really enjoy learning. Some subjects gave me such joy and changed my entire outlook on life.

10 years later, I am now doing my PhD. My uncle would call me a “professional student” but I don’t see it that way. I love learning.

I spend my days exploring original ideas that fascinate me. It’s common for me to stumble across an idea that makes me want to scream out with joy. I only wish it hadn’t taken me so long to arrive at this point.

When you shift your focus from results to the process, not only do you experience greater happiness and fulfilment, but you stop comparing yourself to others. I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you compared yourself to another person and subsequently, felt jealous.

Langer argues that often when we feel jealous of another’s accomplishments it’s because we focus on the end result (not the process the person has gone through).

When I first started my PhD I would compare myself to a 70 year old accomplished professor. I found myself thinking “He is so smart”, “Look at these articles he has written…I can’t write like this” and “His ideas are so deep…I’m so simple”.

Here I was embarking on the beginning of my research career comparing myself to a professor who had been developing and thinking about ideas for over 50 years!

This is indeed a trap that many postgraduate students fall into. Langer states –

“They begin their dissertations with inordinate anxiety because they have seen other peoples completed and polished work and mistakenly compare it to their own first tentative steps.

With their noses deep in file cards and half-baked hypotheses, they look in awe at Dr So-and-Sos published book as if it had been born without effort or false starts, directly from brain to printed page.

By investigating how someone got somewhere, we are more likely to see the achievement as hard won and our own chances as more plausible”.

In my experience, learning can be a tremendous source of fulfilment and joy. But to experience this takes valuing the process over the end result and not comparing yourself to others.

The paradox is that when you immerse yourself in the process, you will most likely get a better result and experience far more rewards along the way.

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2 Responses to How Focusing on Results Limits Success

  1. Josie Cohen October 24, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Dear Jane,

    What an interesting learning journey you are on. My brother Charles was impressed by your thoughts and so am I. As an adult learner and educator I know something of what you are saying. delighted for you and for all those you have an influence on. All the best for the future.

    josie Genovese Cohen

  2. Joe August 7, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    I business, we focus on Results. Why is everyone so afraid of that word? Because it brings along the pressure of “accountability.” We all feel more comfortable achieving a list of goals, but if they don’t add up to producing the intended results, then what good is all that action, and who is accountable for that?

    Everyone can easily say, “Oh look at all the goals I accomplished!” But when it comes to point out what were the results of those goals, many people have a hard time being accountable for that. The would rather continually do things that achieve results.

    Teach accountability for results and you will drive proper goals for self-development. Results means achieving a measurable target and benefit. Goals mean achieving a series of actions that may or may not produce a result. If you clearly communicate what the result has to be, then achievement of the right goals will follow.

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