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Enjoy Success Without Aiming For It

From eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource

Success is a lot like happiness. You don't get it by shooting for it directly. It's a byproduct of doing other, important things that take you beyond your everyday zone of comfort.

Don't just take my word for it. Renowned psychologist Victor Frankl once said, "Don't aim at success -- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself."

Though the connection may not be obvious at first, one way of increasing the likelihood of success in any endeavor is by volunteering. By donating time and effort for some purpose outside ourselves, we connect with other people. And in doing that we are likely to find the motivation and energy to meet our own personal goals.

Volunteering takes the focus of our attention off ourselves. And therein lies the answer to many problems.

By itself, volunteering takes you out of your comfort zone, explains Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast. The reason people don't go out of their comfort zone is that they worry about not doing the right thing, about being judged or evaluated. The upshot: you wind up staying in a narrowly defined group doing narrowly defined activities.

When you volunteer, those you serve are not really concerned with how skillful you are. They care more about your willingness. So you can do things with minimal evaluation and that allows you to try out new behavior.

Say you're an accountant and you volunteer as such in a social service agency in a part of town you usually don't frequent. Perhaps you are involved in a program that feeds the homeless or assists unwed mothers. Right away that puts you in contact with different people than you associate with in your daily professional life. You are applying your customary strengths in a slightly different environment.

In addition to operating in a new environment, volunteering gets you to deal with individuals different from yourself, and by seeing them again and again, you form a relationship. That alone is an expansion of your comfort zone.

At the same time, you are also expanding your own social network, as you are also exposed to others who, like yourself, are volunteering. Because you already share certain interests with the other volunteers, social contact is eased. The need for conversational trial-and-error that most people fear is minimized. Fellow volunteers can turn into companions. They can accompany you to movies and perhaps even become a source of dates. It's a way of getting out of routine.

"Ideas come from many different places," says Carducci. "The more people you're involved with, the more likely you have a diverse set of resources."

By putting you in contact with people who think differently than you do, volunteering contributes directly to creativity, as one of the core ingredients in creativity is divergent thinking. An expanded social universe increases the likelihood you will come into contact with ideas and advice that you can use to go forward in your own life.

Unfortunately, Carducci explains, most people get stuck in the past and can't let go of it. That's because they take the path of least resistance.

"It's so easy to do things that you've previously done -- what is called the dominant response," he says. "In times of emotional turmoil and distress, anxiety creates the dominant response, which is the old worn-in behavior."

But there are ways to change those dominant responses.

  • Perhaps most important, think about the past simply as one source of feedback. It need not be the determinant of the future. Ask yourself, does your past provide constructive feedback or not? Is it feedback that you can modify for new situations? Or is it feedback that you can ignore because it no longer fits? If it's constructive, then you use it to keep moving forward.
  • Focus on small aspects of change and practice them at times you are not under stress. For example, in new social situations, the dominant response for many people is to turn and run, or to clam up. The way to get around that is to practice a new response, you develop the ability to make small talk, which is a form of social glue. You use the encounters you have every day (when you buy your newspaper or your coffee) to practice little social exchanges. It's important rehearsal for making small talk at parties.

Carducci would have us remember a lesson first taught by the great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget: The development of thinking involves two basic principles -- assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation involves taking new experiences and incorporating them into old ones. Accommodation is to take old experiences and build them into new information. Both mechanisms are essential.

"But people typically try to take new experiences, the future, and shove them into old ways of thinking," says Carducci, "because that's the easiest thing to do. So they get stuck living in the past, rather than incorporating the notion of accommodation. It goes back to where we began: start hanging around with different people."

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