As a psychologist, I was fairly sure I knew what characteristics define successful people. Don’t we all? I mean, successful people are confident, ambitious, risk-takers who persevere in the midst of setbacks and challenges. But, just to be sure, I decided to do some research into the characteristics of successful people. What I gleaned from my efforts is this: 1) many successful people write lists of characteristics of successful people, 2) nobody’s list looks anything like anybody else’s list and 3) therefore, each list of characteristics of successful people is probably nothing more than a flattering self-portrait of the writers themselves.

To wit, Philip Humbert, a corporate entrepreneur, created a Letterman-esque top 10 list of 10 characteristics of successful people. His list included hard work, creativity, eagerness to learn, etc. Glenn Ebersole, a financial expert, composed his own list of 10 “common” characteristics of successful people, including recognition and acceptance of the value of business and themselves; balance in work and life; and having a support system of people with similar mindsets. But the granddaddy of all lists of the characteristics of successful people probably belongs to James Stephenson, who has compiled no less than 25 characteristics, including be aggressive; sell benefits; get involved; grab attention; and become a shameless self-promoter, in the midst of many, many other characteristics.

So what are we to conclude? Maybe, just maybe, successful people can have any number of characteristics that promote their success and, with a little creativity, we can come up with not 10 or 25 but hundreds of characteristics of successful people.

So what about failure? Why do businesses and people so often fail? Sometimes an idea isn’t as appealing as it seemed when created on the drawing board. Sometimes, like the typewriter, the product has run its course. Sometimes it’s a product squashed by bad timing or a restaurant with bad parking. Other times it’s good competition or a rotten economy. Sometimes people just quit. But what about self-sabotage? You know, when people deliberately (or less-than-consciously) spoil their own chances of succeeding by creating their own demise. In the spirit of shameless self-promotion, it’s time to quote Cortman and Shinitzky (2009) on “The saboteur…a self-created mindset that protects the self from apparent damage.”

Let’s describe how the saboteur operates by re-telling an old joke: A factory worker excitedly opens his lunch bag, lifts the top half of his sandwich only to angrily slam the food down on the table and exclaim, “Peanut butter. I hate peanut butter!” After three consecutive days of watching this scenario unfold, the worker’s friend breaks down and asks, “Why don’t you tell your wife to make something else for lunch?” The first worker responds, “Hey buddy, leave my wife out of this. I make my own lunch.”

The joke, of course, is fiction but the saboteur is real. But why? If, as psychologists say, all behavior is purposeful and goal-oriented, why would people trip themselves up on the road to success? Why would we work so hard to succeed and then find a way to foil our efforts?

The answer lies in that four-letter F word that we all grapple with throughout life: FEAR. Fear has been described by some as False Evidence Appearing Real; more often, it is experienced as F…Everything And Run. What exactly do we fear? Two things mainly: failure and rejection. The fear of rejection is as pervasive as the fear of death and almost as powerful. It prevents people from asking others on dates; requesting promotions and raises; and even attending important functions. The potential of being excluded often reminds people of childhood experiences that made them feel worthless and inadequate. As such, they are to be avoided at all costs. Jen could have won the race for class president, but she will never know for sure. Her saboteur ensured that, at the very least, she wouldn’t lose it because she never entered in the first place.

Fear of failure works in much the same way: Kevin had a chance to be promoted to the top of his management company but, in order to do this, he would have to lead meetings in front of several dozen employees. But Kevin hated to be the center of attention ever since he was molested by a neighbor during his childhood. The idea of people looking at him made him feel uncomfortable and, in his mind, made him conclude he was bound to fail, so he surprised his bosses by rejecting their offer for a significant promotion.

So what do we do with the saboteur — that inner voice that talks us out of good opportunities to grow and succeed? Here are six steps from the book Your Mind: An Owner’s Manual for a Better Life (Cortman and Shinitzky 2009).

1) Embrace it. The saboteur is like a big brother who defends us on the playground from the lunch-stealing bully. It acts as our friend and protector, by removing any possibility that we will be rejected or defeated. Hence, there’s no need to eliminate him entirely. Instead, we embrace his self-protective tendencies.

2) Address and identify what the saboteur is fighting. What is your fear and what does this fear say about you?

3) Adapt. You may not be able to operate in the same way you always have. Once you address why and how your saboteur acts, you need to be realistic with yourself about what you must do differently. Be realistic, even if it hurts.

4) Plan. Create a plan based on the previous three steps in such a way that you both embrace and release your fear with a plan to succeed!

5) Act on your plan. A plan that gathers dust is no plan at all. Don’t ignore your saboteur. Instead, when you start trying new behaviors, ask your saboteur to reframe its role. Instead of talking you out of facing your fears, your saboteur should be there to pick you up and dust you off after you fall and encourage you that you can do it.

6) Thrive. The last step is resolving to move forward in a positive direction, even if things go awry. You may fail your math test but that doesn’t make you a failure. A positive but realistic outlook thwarts the saboteur. Remind yourself, “I can stand it if we lose the game.” “It is not the end of the world if our bid not accepted by the company.” Finally, remind yourself that I am lovable and deserving of love, regardless of whether the person I desire chooses to love me.

It’s really a simple choice: learn to master your saboteur or learn to enjoy your peanut butter sandwiches.

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