Quote of the moment: How to succeed in business

Several years ago I found a quote attributed to business consulting guru Tom Peters, that ascribed success to hard work — if a lot of other things didn’t get in the way. I lost the quote, and the citation, and have sorely wanted to have it a hundred times since then when I found executives and administrators admonishing people for their failure to soar when the bosses themselves had anchored their employees to the ground.

Ah, the Glories of Google! I have found it again. Turns out it’s not Tom Peters after all; he quotes a passage from novelist Ann Beattie’s novel, Picturing Will.

It’s still worthy of noting; here is an excerpt from a Tom Peters column in 1990 featuring the passage:

Do everything right, all the time, and the child will prosper. It’s as simple as that, except for fate, luck, heredity, chance, the astrological sign under which the child was born, his order of birth, his first encounter with evil, the girl who jilts him in spite of his excellent qualities, the war that is being fought when he is a young man, the drugs he may try once or too many times, the friends he makes, how he scores on tests, how well he endures kidding about his shortcomings, how ambitious he becomes, how far he falls behind, circumstantial evidence, ironic perspective, danger when it is least expected, difficulty in triumphing over circumstance, people with hidden agendas, and animals with rabies.”

The quote is from Ann Beattie’s latest novel, Picturing Will. It speaks directly to an increasingly important corporate issue — the peril of overestimating our ability to influence outcomes. In short, the way we recruit, organize, plan and act very much depends on how much we feel that we are in control. The problem is ageless, though as the world becomes less predictable the consequences of personal or corporate hubris are increasingly severe.

Systematically review a stack of annual reports. Without fail, a good year is explained as “the fruits of the strategic planning process your management put in place five (three, seven) years ago.” A bad year, however, is invariably the result of “the unanticipated rise in interest rates (unexpected foreign competition, etc.) which upset our planning assumptions.” But our corporate chiefs are hardly alone. A sizable branch of psychology, called attribution theory, examines the way human beings explain events to themselves. In short, we attribute good outcomes to skill and hard work; bad ones to bad luck.

For centuries, Cartesian cause and effect thinking has dominated our science — and management — paradigms. The causeless, effectless, probabilistic world of quantum mechanics that informs today’s scientific thought has still not permeated our psyches — or our approach to making corporate strategy.

Beattie’s novel is listed as an academic selection now, by Random House.  Do you, or does anyone at your school, use this book?

3 Responses to Quote of the moment: How to succeed in business

  1. Dave Shearon says:

    Yes, Dr. Dweck’s work was originally inspired by Dr. Seligman’s early studies. Basically, she identifies a type of “me” belief in response to good things that is NOT productive. Very useful stuff for teachers and parents. See http://daveshearon.typepad.com/daveshearon/2006/09/theories_of_int.html and http://daveshearon.typepad.com/daveshearon/2006/07/mindset_by_caro.html


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Learned optimism sounds a heck of a lot more healthy than the learned helplessness described by Ellen Langer — and, as I Google it, I see that Martin Seligman is probably also behind the learned helplessness idea.

    Lots of room for discussion there, no? Take a look at this article in Stanford Magazine.


  3. Dave Shearon says:

    The quote, “A sizable branch of psychology, called attribution theory, examines the way human beings explain events to themselves” dating from 1990 is a bit dated in view of the work by Martin Seligman, et al., that’s been published since then. Frequently called explanatory style or optimism, his work focuses on how we explain good and bad events to ourselves. Even before I began formal studies in the area, I had run across his work and written a book note on Learned Optimism. http://www.shearonforschools.com/learned_optimism.htm. The Penn Resiliency Program (http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/prpsum.htm) has taken this work on to show how helping students develop more flexible, accurate thinking styles can prevent depression and improve the odds of success. Yes, there’s a lot of chance in the world. Perhaps we should strive for a sense of humility when we succeed but optimism when we are striving.


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