Happiness at Work is Linked to Success

Lasting positive change is apparently simple, just repeat the following habits for 21 days;

  • 3 Gratitudes
  • Journaling
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Random Acts of Kindness

(Go to 11.05 on the video, Shawn Achor cites the research supporting this).

The last item on the list inspired a bunch of students to share biscuits with classmates stuck studying in the McGregor (no relation) Reading Room at the University of Virginia. If you’re looking for ideas for Random Acts of Kindness, there’s a whole website on the subject.

The idea of happiness as a work outcome is an easy target for the cynics, but the research is there, and it’s not a new idea; Alexander Kjerulf wrote a book “Happy Hour is 9 to 5”  first published in 2007 which talks about the connection between happiness, motivation and success.  It’s perhaps not surprising that he comes from Denmark recently assessed as the world’s happiest country in a UN report.

A fact that the national brewer was quick to adopt for an advertisement in Copenhagen’s airport. Fair enough, I did find their product an agent to feeling happy when I was there last week.

Predicting Success

Looking back at the members of my class at business school it’s not those who were most successful at university who are now most successful in business. Which raises a question; “what was the point of going to business school?”

If business schools are supposed to be fitting us for the business world does that mean they’ve failed? Or did we the products of the school somehow fail.  The skills rewarded by an academic system are not always the skills rewarded in real world business. It’s something also highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where he discusses research into the effect of intelligence on success. He finds that there’s a level of “intelligent enough” above which more IQ points don’t have a correlated effect on success. This is what got me thinking.

I recall that some of the students who turn out to be very successful in business weren’t worrying about being “best” at school, although they’re very competitive now that they’re in business.

Students may have a different focus

They had a clear purpose, to learn “enough” for the real business world, more than that wasn’t a priority – and to be fair some of them were already running businesses on the side. Or perhaps I should say they were running businesses and studying on the side.

The students who did well in the academic system, have tended to move into larger companies, where the environment is more stable (questionable just at the moment!) where there is an established system in which they can work, where following the “rules” is rewarded.

The whole class was intelligent enough, and knew enough about business to be very successful. Both groups are creative, both are a mixture of introvert and extrovert, both contain groups who are good at maths, and not so good at maths. Both groups want to succeed and both work hard. So what was the differentiator?

An article by Kevin Cashman posted at Change This suggests it’s agility; the ability to accept and respond to change easily that is a predictor of success, certainly a better predictor than intelligence. They describe it as an

“integrative ability” to weave together and make sense of apparently disjointed pieces, crafting novel and innovative solutions. At the same time, we need the self-confidence to make decisions on the spot, even in the absence of compelling, complete data.

Looking back this also makes sense, the more successful students did seem to have a higher ability to handle complex and contradictory information – essential in running your own business. They also had the confidence to decide and didn’t look for some external rule. Or as my former boss used to remind me “it’s easier to apologise occasionally than to ask permission constantly”.



CM200902_outliersMalcolm Gladwell’s latest book Outliers: The Story of Success investigates the real reasons some people become successful and others remain average.

His first conclusion is that sometimes success is an accident of birth – mostly because it means you reach the right age at the right time to take advantage of opportunity. He cites a range of evidence from hockey recruiters to the great industrialists in the US.

He also shows that success is a matter of hard work; he quotes Daniel Levitin‘s work “The emerging picture … is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything”. Which means I’ll never be a concert pianist, or an Olympian, or a world-class programmer.

It’d be tough to look at success without also looking at failure, and he looks at some aircraft accidents and finds that the cause is sometimes cultural – related to how conversations work with figures of authority. Culture plays a part in failure, and success, particularly related to work ethic.

It turns out to be exactly as your mother told you – some people are born lucky, some people are born talented, but the really really successful people work incredibly hard.