Dr. Siddall is a Psychologist with over 30 years of experience in clinical and forensic psychology as a clinician, educator and consultant.
As a psychologist, I am fascinated with helping my clients solve their problems and achieve personal success. Years of clinical experience has convinced me that teaching people how to succeed is one of the most important missions in my mental health profession.
I reasoned early that discovering key characteristics differentiating successful from unsuccessful problem solvers had great potential for improving human productivity and quality of life. Practicing psychology offered me the unique opportunity to learn what I consider to be three secrets of success directly from my clients. The three things that can help an individual achieve success are:
- Identifying how success is defined by the individual,
- identifying how success is learned by the individual and, most importantly,
- setting the individual up for achievement by giving them the tools to learn the right mindset.
1. Success Is Defined by the Individual
Beyond the vague "accomplishment of a personal goal", no single generic definition of success fits everyone's life circumstances. Therefore, success is not a singular concept and must be uniquely defined by each individual. For some, it may be fame, fortune, and career, but for others, it may be to live modestly, serve others, get an education, buy a home, or raise a family.
Here is a sample of the common goals often cited by my clients to define what would make them feel successful:
- Becoming healthy (e.g., physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually)
- Meeting one’s basic needs (e.g., psychological independence, financial security, social relatedness)
- Mastering life’s roles and responsibilities (e.g., work, education, family)
- Achieving personal goals (e.g., career, education, a new skill or hobby, service to others, and the community).
Defining success is an important first step, but just because a person can define success for themselves does not necessarily mean they will achieve it. Why is it that some people find success while others fail?
2. How Can One Learn to Succeed? (Early Development and Future Habits)
In the most rudimentary form of learning or conditioning, we repeat behavior that results in pleasure and avoid behavior that results in pain. Over time, individuals become more active agents in the learning process by making behavioral choices that have been successful in the past. Eventually the calculus of decision making becomes increasingly sophisticated incorporating response options and risk-reward ratios. With repetition, most of our choices reflect what we have learned to expect in similar circumstances.
How Learned Behavior Effects Mindset
As an individual matures, experience shapes a perceptual style or mindset which becomes one’s default pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Mindset acts as an interpretative filter that allows us to define the meaning of external life experience. Our characteristic style of thinking dictates how we view ourselves, what we value, and, whether or not our life choices will be successful.
So Which Mindsets are Most and Least Effective?
In the work with my clients, I have discovered that their success or failure is closely linked to one of two types of mindsets they have learned.
- Successful clients consistently exhibit a Proactive Mindset characterized by confidence and tenacity in the face of a challenge.
- Unsuccessful clients demonstrate a Reactive Mindset associated with uncertainty and the tendency to retreat when they get frustrated.
In addition to these primary characteristics, both types of mindset can be further classified by secondary traits which include:
- prevailing mood (optimistic or pessimistic),
- thinking style (rational or irrational),
- and social connectedness (close or distant).
Characteristics of a Proactive Mindset
- Tenacious work ethic
- The belief that one has control over the direction of their life
- Perseverance in face of failure
- Views setbacks as a form of natural feedback vs personal failure
- Flexible problem-solving style
- Optimistic outlook
- Rational thinking
- Social connectedness
Clients with a Proactive Mindset possess a cluster of psychological and behavioral traits which are keys to success. Primary among these traits are self-confidence and the belief one has control over the direction of one's life, and the ability to persevere even in the face of failure. Individuals with a Proactive Mindset regard failure and frustration as normal corrective feedback as opposed to a sign of personal inadequacy. Their problem-solving style is very flexible and they follow the stoic motto “the obstacle is the way!” In short, they don’t give up until they have exhausted all the alternatives. They also often display secondary traits including optimism, rational thinking, and social connectedness.
This Proactive Mindset is typically learned in a disciplined, nurturing, family environment. These people's most important role models provide(d) a combination of emotional support and clear boundaries.
The Blue-Collar Jerry Example
A past client of mine, Jerry, was self-referred for career counseling. He was raised in a blue-collar home where his father worked long hours as a carpenter. His mother was loving and supportive. Both parents required Jerry to be well mannered, complete household chores, complete his studies, and maintain an after school job.
With his father’s guidance, Jerry decided he wanted to operate his own business as a building contractor. He was personable and tenacious in the pursuit of his goals, working a series of jobs in the construction trades and gradually saving enough money to open his own business. He praised his parents for shaping a strong work ethic and the social skills necessary to form healthy relationships. This case illustrates how the development of a Proactive Mindset leads to personal success.
Reactive Mindset Characteristics
- Fragile self-image
- Weak work ethic
- The belief that one does not have control over life’s direction
- Gives up in face of failure
- Regards frustration as a personal failure
- Maintains a rigid problem-solving style
- Irrational thinking
- Socially disconnected
In contrast, less successful clients typically exhibited a Reactive Mindset characterized by fragile self-esteem and the belief that they have limited control over their lives and future. As a consequence, they often failed to exert the effort necessary to accomplish their goals, and when unsuccessful tended to assume the role of the victim. These clients were often raised in environments characterized by inconsistent discipline and nurturing.
The Juvenile Justice System Example
Darrin was referred to me for counseling by the juvenile justice system for skipping school and shoplifting. He was raised by a single mother who spent most of her time with her boyfriend or working odd hours as a waitress. Darrin never knew his father and avoided his mother’s boyfriend who was abusive. Darrin had poor self-management skills and was repeatedly fired from after school jobs in fast-food restaurants. Gradually he gravitated towards a negative peer group that was involved in petty theft and drug abuse. Counseling involved placing him with a mentor and boxing coach who taught him discipline, respect, and a dedicated work ethic. Partially because of his positive experience with boxing, Darrin went on to culinary school, worked as an assistant chef, and got married. He credited his turn around to his mentor who taught him the skills to lead a successful life. This case illustrates the transformation of a Reactive Mindset to a Proactive Mindset facilitated by the intervention of a dedicated mentor.
3. How Can You Take the Steps to Change Your Mindset?
Mindset is typically learned by modeling, imitation, shaping, and instruction within the family unit during the process of maturation. However, even when appropriate models are not available at home, substitute mentors can be found among teachers, coaches, friends, and relatives. Unfortunately, negative peer groups such as gangs can also fill this void. In addition, outside influences such as peer pressure, substance abuse, untreated mental illness, and catastrophic choices can sabotage a parent's best efforts to help children be successful.
Mindset Classification and Interpretation
Classifying clients by mindset involves a two-stage process:
- Determining the individual's primary mindset (Proactive/Reactive) and
- subtyping them based on the strength of their secondary traits: prevailing mood (optimistic or pessimistic), thinking style (rational or irrational), and social connectedness (close or distant).
When all of this information is assembled a detailed picture emerges describing an individual’s problem-solving style and characteristic thinking and behavior.
So, for example, an individual could be a moderately good match to the proactive mindset but exhibit a lower level of a secondary trait such as social connectedness. This subtype could be described as a Proactive Introvert, successful but likely in a solo career or operating in a limited social network.
The First Step Towards Mindset Change
By now you realize the good news is that a Reactive Mindset which locks one into a cycle of failure need not be a permanent condition. You can learn to transform the way you think and behave using a Proactive Mindset which will result in successfully accomplishing your goals.
Only you can write your life story unless you acquiesce to another's dogma, dictum, or authorship. Only you can define the meaning of your life and heed the call of your inner truth. Beware there are many temptations that promise pleasure as a substitute for authenticity. But once seduced by such a counterfeit, you will forever cling to all that is temporary, fog and mist.
Over the years I have asked my clients what succinct advice they would give others in their quest for success. Here are a few of their recommendations:
- Be honest with yourself and the people in your life
- Refuse to cop out by denying your problems and blaming others.
- Identify your pain and use it as a source of motivation
- Take responsibility for all of your choices and their consequences
- Apply yourself and make a job out of success
- Monitor your progress daily
- Find a counselor, mentor, and supportive social network to reinforce proactive changes.
Summary: You Can Transition From a Reactive to a Proactive Mindset
As an individual matures, experience shapes their perceptual style or mindset which in turn becomes their default pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Mindset acts as an internal filter that brings meaning to life experience and determines your self-concept, value system, and, whether or not life will be a success or a struggle.
While working with my clients, I have discovered that their success or failure is closely linked to one of two types of mindsets they have learned. Successful clients consistently exhibit a Proactive Mindset characterized by confidence and tenacity in the face of a challenge while unsuccessful clients demonstrate the aforementioned Reactive Mindset associated with uncertainty and the tendency to retreat when they get frustrated.
My clients bear witness to the fact that a Reactive Mindset can be changed by training, education, counseling, and experience. Clients who demonstrate this change to a Proactive Mindset consistently report a higher quality of life. They report being physically and psychologically healthier, accomplishing more of their personal goals, and making a greater contribution to their families and communities. Clients characterized by Reactive Mindsets often report that they continue to struggle, but only so long as they choose to remain in the Reactive state.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2020 James W Siddall
Liliane on July 19, 2020: