Success is not a matter of luck—it’s an algorithm

Algorithm chart
Source: Francesco Marconi

This article originally appeared on Medium.

How does someone like Jack Dorsey go from a 14-year-old computer science nerd to serial entrepreneur, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter and Square? How does 3M consistently innovate, developing simple but iconic products like post-it notes? It's not a matter of luck. It's an algorithm.

I was 21 when I first moved to the U.S. from Europe. I spoke only broken English, and had no idea what I wanted to do or even where I would live. My coping strategy was to focus on fitting in to this new culture. I observed how people shook hands, how they dressed, how they made small talk. And I took notes. Literal notes. What started as a social survival mechanism had turned into a real interest: I was researching communications, psychology and strategic planning. I was looking for a pattern.

You might call what I found an "algorithm", a formula that people use to achieve sustainable success. This algorithm can be replicated. It can be personalized. I call it ENGAGE — one, because that's how the acronym worked out, but also because the point of this "secret formula" is engaging your potential, your purpose, and the people around you. It's about spending more time on the things that really matter to you so that you get what you want out of both your personal and professional life.

So what exactly is ENGAGE?

ENGAGE is a six-step process for discovering what drives you and using it to succeed in your career. Many people's careers stall because they see strategic, high-level thinking, like knowing what their purpose is or what values drive them, as a "soft skill." They don't prioritize it. But that kind of thinking is exactly what enables entrepreneurs to launch successful startups, executives to get promoted and politicians to be elected. You can progress in your career without following this model, sure. But you'll eventually plateau.

If you want to be not just good, but the best, ENGAGE is for you.

E: Explore your meaning

Whether you think you can, or you think you can't — you're right. — Henry Ford

A few years ago, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer and a team of researchers put subjects in two flight simulators, one realistic, one broken. Participants in the first group were told to imagine themselves as pilots, and they were even given army fatigues to help them play the part. In the process, each group received an eye exam disguised as part of the simulation.

Langer's team found that subjects who "flew" in the realistic simulator showed a marked improvement in their vision. Langer concluded that pretending to be someone with good vision, like a pilot, had made their vision palpably better. This study, and others conducted by Langer, suggests that the power of our minds is, well, actually mind-bending. What if we choose to think of ourselves as creative? As confident?

In my case, I decided to think of myself as someone who "decides with absolute certainty." So, I wrote that phrase on a sticky note and keep copies on my desk at work and my fridge at home. Seeing that credo every day has enabled me to unconsciously make faster decisions.

Think about what matters to you. What gives meaning to your life? We occasionally lose sight of our values — the things that define and drive us — and with them, our confidence in the future. If you aren't aligned with your values, it's easy to let limiting beliefs control you: I'm not smart enough, I don't have the resources, I'm not in a creative environment. But the reality is you are the X factor in this formula. If you change your mindset, you change yourself.

What's the first step explore your meaning? Identify your top three core values, then define steps you can do each week to embody that value. You value creativity? Set 15 minutes aside to doodle. You love adventure? Visit one new place every week.

N: Narrow your goals

Life is short, fragile and does not wait for anyone. There will NEVER be a perfect time to pursue your goals. — Unknown

If changing your mindset can have seemingly magical effects, so can setting goals. In 1961, when John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, many people thought it was impossible. But without Kennedy's ambitious goal, it's hard to know if Neil Armstrong would have set foot on the moon's surface eight years later.

Growing up in Europe, I always imagined myself living and working in New York City, so much so that when I was 18, I went to IKEA and bought a giant black and white photo of the Manhattan skyline and hung it above my bed. That was my way of creating a visual goal that I could engage with every night before going to sleep.

Multiple studies show that setting goals is itself a mini-algorithm for success. In 2010, researchers from McGill University investigated whether a written goal-setting program could have positive effects for struggling students. After a four-month period in which the students set specific goals and defined detailed strategies for achieving those goals, the ones who successfully completed the program showed a 30 percent increase, on average, in academic performance compared to the control group.

So now that you know what you value, it's time to set goals. Set clear targets. Say them out loud. Write them down. Are your goals SMART — simple, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound?

What's the first step to narrow your goals? Even more important than identifying your smart goals and writing them down is knowing the things that you will NOT do. Learn to say no. One key to achieving your goals is being selective with your time so that the bulk of your energy goes to what counts.

G: Generate a plan

A goal without a plan is just a wish. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Standing between you and achieving your goals is usually just one person — a boss, an HR manager, a professor, or maybe an investor. Usually that person is in your network. What you need is a plan for engaging with that person in a way that will benefit you. But how do you do that?

It's simple.

According to Kellogg School of Management professor Lauren Rivera, managers tend to hire candidates they believe could become their friend. The hiring process is not only about finding the person with the skills for the job, but also about the person who fits in with company culture. In other words, people trust people they perceive as similar to themselves.

I started running in the first place because my boss competes in marathons. Not only do I get the benefits of exercising, but it also gives me a great discussion topic for when I step into his office. By having something in common, we have developed an even stronger working relationship.

Here's the good news: if the person who can help make your goals reality is someone you already know — and it's likely they are — then do your research. What traits, behaviors and interests do you share? What habits can you learn and adopt from them? Successful people know how to assimilate the environment they aspire to be in.

What's the first step to generate a plan? Business executives spend 90 percent of their time in meetings and answering emails. Set aside time to center your efforts on the people who matter. Find the one person who can help you accomplish a goal and create a plan on how to reach out to them.

A: Anticipate roadblocks

Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth. — Mike Tyson

You've identified where you want to go and how to get there. You're ready to start. But no matter how much you plan, you will inevitably run into roadblocks.

At the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin developed a personal plan aimed at achieving "moral perfection." It included meditation, eating and drinking in moderation and even avoiding sex. In his autobiography, Franklin explains that such a roadmap eventually contributed to his success as a politician, diplomat and statesman. However, he also realized he needed a plan with enough flexibility to allow him to ably navigate any unexpected roadblocks.

These adversities can be people, circumstances, or our own limiting beliefs. They can also be the tasks you have to complete to achieve a goal. To learn how to anticipate and navigate these roadblocks, however, you need to tackle the most difficult person or task first.

Engaging a difficult task or other roadblock might not look like what you expect. For example, you might start by thinking positive. According to Mayo Clinic, positive thinking helps you cope with stressful situations, diminishing stress's harmful returns on the body's health. So when you're up against a roadblock, the best thing you can do might just be a good stretch and some deep breathing.

I developed a simple mechanism to get back on track when I feel stressed. I drink two glasses of water and think about something pleasant. There are no "special ingredients" in the water, but by creating that routine, I've built neural pathways that associate hydration with the feeling of well-being.

How do you start anticipating roadblocks? Break down your goals into steps. Want a promotion? Then you need to 1) complete an important project and 2) bring in new clients. Go over what can go wrong in the process: missed deadlines, only finding one new client, etc. Now remember that even if that happens, it's not the end of the world.

G: Gain persistence

If you want something you've never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done. — Thomas Jefferson

The first music album Virgin Records exported to the U.S. only found success because of one lucky break. Or at least it seemed that way. When an Atlantic Records executive started listening to the album, he happened to be in the room with William Friedkin, a film director looking for a new soundtrack for his latest project, The Exorcist. Luck? Yes, but Virgin's founder Richard Branson had also spent dozens of hours convincing Atlantic that they should give the record a play. According to Branson, people who play it safe seldom get lucky. On the other hand, people who see themselves as lucky are also usually the ones who are prepared to take the greatest risks.

Chasing your dreams is hard work. So how do you avoid getting burned out? Psychologists who study cognitive flexibility argue that the answer has to do with being open to the unexpected — even if that's just trying a new restaurant, meeting new people, or discovering a new hobby.

Whenever I feel like giving up I do something unexpected, such as talking to a stranger or even doing push-ups at my desk. The break momentarily takes my mind off what's in front of me, but then gives me an extra boost to keep going.

In other words, look beyond your daily habits. Take risks, step outside the box, give yourself new inputs — otherwise, the outcome will be the same. As psychologist Ben Fletcher explains, "People's lives can be absolutely transformed by being nudged along a slightly altered route."

How do you gain persistence? When you feel like giving up, switch things up instead. Do something totally out of your wheelhouse — it doesn't even have to align with your goal. Are you struggling to get recognized at work? Learn how to cook a new recipe, change the route you take on your commute, try a new sport, or simply spend your lunch break with someone you haven't met before.

E: Elevate yourself

To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart. — Eleanor Roosevelt

Iconic psychologist Abraham Maslow found that two of the most fundamental needs we have as human beings are the need to belong, and the need to be appreciated. If you apply the ENGAGE algorithm, you will soon find yourself in a leadership position with the opportunity to meet these needs in other people.

This may seem daunting, but becoming a leader who inspires people does not require grand gestures. Rather, it means paying attention, saying thank you, and recognizing the work others have done. A thoughtful compliment can go a long way towards inspiring others.

It's no accident that Bill Clinton frequently acknowledges his high school band director for not only helping him grow as a saxophone player, but as a leader. Or that Ronald Reagan chose to write his touching open letter to the American people in 1994 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Or that President Obama, after reading Yann Martel's book Life of Pi, sent Martel a thank you note praising his storytelling and powerful message.

I've found that helping students is a great way to elevate myself and those around me. Whenever someone in college contacts me, I always try to answer a question or make an introduction. Over the years, these students have become leaders in their own fields, now allowing me the opportunity to learn from them.

How do you start elevating yourself? Start by acknowledging one person who helped you get where you are or who positively shaped your life. Showing respect inspires others and builds influence.

E.N.G.A.G.E. will help you design experiences that promote "successful thinking". However, the formula doesn't work unless you do. Your potential is there waiting to be discovered!

Commentary by Francesco Marconi, strategy manager for The Associated Press and fellow at Columbia Journalism School.

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