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Why We Fail: When ‘Promise’ Outweighs Capability

The self-deception trap.

28/06/2017 8:48 AM IST | Updated 28/06/2017 2:14 PM IST
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One of the principal causes of failure may be attributed to the considerable pressure so many face in trying to live up to the expectations of others. This pressure comes from family, from peers, friends and many others.

They are usually well-meaning and have our best interest at heart. But it our best interest as seen from their perspective. More often than not, as a consequence, we are unable to identify with their aspirations and constantly fall short. We begin to feel undermined and unhappy with ourselves. Sustainable happiness eludes us because the one critical ingredient that is essential is missing: passion.

[W]e refuse to acknowledge limits to our abilities. We begin to promise more than we are capable of delivering.

The expectation challenge is also one that we constantly impose on ourselves because we refuse to acknowledge limits to our abilities. We begin to promise more than we are capable of delivering.

This self-deception can be seriously self-defeating. Worse, it starts to undermine us in the eyes of others. They see through the promises and when we constantly fail to restrain our enthusiasm, we are perceived as being incompetent and even a liability.

This introspection is the major challenge that many confront and fail to resolve. What it requires is candidly analysing if we have the required skills and commitment, and acknowledging if we do not. This requires challenging the perceptions we have of ourselves.

In 1969, Lawrence Peter propounded the "Peter Principle" that offered a significant insight into the sort of errors HR was committing while hiring personnel. Hiring, he concluded, was driven by what the candidate had done in his/her previous job and the competence with which tasks were executed rather than whether he/she possessed the skills that were necessary in the new role.

A polite and competent telephone operator might not, for instance, make the best financial manager. Yet, if we were to judge the person on his/her excellent skills as a telephone operator and assume that similar competence would be displayed in the finance department, we might be in for a rude awakening. Peter argues that this is a commonplace blunder HR regularly makes where persons are promoted from their level of competence to a level of incompetence. As a consequence, the business enterprise suffers.

Failure results, therefore, not only because of the exaggerated notions we might have of ourselves but the misplaced faith others might have of our competence.

Failure results, therefore, not only because of the exaggerated notions we might have of ourselves but the misplaced faith others might have of our competence.

At the same time, there are many who recognise that human beings, by their very nature, are suckers for praise, even when it is blatantly false. What the sycophants do is to manipulate this weakness to suit their agenda. This is not as uncommon as it might sound. In the political field and also in the corporate world, the voices of sycophants are loud and seductive and tempt us to believe that we truly are as wonderful as we are being made out to be.

Sycophancy survives with great skill. They put a protective cordon around the target and propagate their lie. All dissenting voices that might expose this grand charade are dispensed with ruthlessly. Power arises from their ability to do so. Great disasters occur as a consequence.

At the root cause of failure lies our inability to acknowledge and accept who we truly are rather than who we are made out to be. The fact is that false kings can be made to believe that they are fully clothed while being fully naked. This is why philosophical literature constantly emphasises the importance of coming to terms with what we can do and what might be outside our reach. More importantly, in recognising that we are what we make ourselves to be.

There is, thus, only one path to success: Know your abilities and stay true to them. Relying on the voices of others will only lead you astray.

This does not mean that we cannot better ourselves. But it does mean that we should hone the skills we possess rather than be lured into chasing the ones that we do not have. Good warriors know the arrows they have in their quiver and learn to use them to maximum effect.

There is, thus, only one path to success: Know your abilities and stay true to them. Relying on the voices of others will only lead you astray. Follow your destiny rather than chase the destiny others impose on you.

Amit Dasgupta, a former diplomat, is working on his new book Why We Fail.

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