I’ve always been pretty darn good at spotting people who were going to be big successes and those that were going to struggle. This skill helped me be a good interviewer and assisted me in being a better coach.
At first, I thought I had this skill because I noticed certain attributes linked to success or failure in people, like IQ, EQ, creativity, resourcefulness, perseverance, or confidence (or lack thereof). All of these things are, of course, vital for determining your path to achievement or atrophy.
But in doing research for my book Find the Fire and as I dug deeper and deeper into interviews with countless successful (and not so successful) leaders, I began to spot what would become a telltale trend. There was an astonishingly clear leading indicator of whether or not someone was a success (and would continue to be) or would plateau (at best).
It’s an epiphany that’s the number one determinant of your future trajectory too; be it positive or negative. And that epiphany, what determines your trajectory, can be summed up in five words:
The orbit of your assumptions.
Have you ever stopped to really consider how assumptions mold your behaviors and shape your life? Your assumptions can fuel dreams or derail them. They can stop progress in its tracks or keep you on track. They can self-impose limited thoughts or feed sky’s-the-limit thinking. They can elevate relationships or evaporate them. They are a force as felt as the driving rain.
Super successful people live in an orbit of positive, affirming assumptions. They place themselves in the center of a self-efficacy ellipse, with constant positive self-affirmations revolving around them. “Of course I’ll nail that presentation.” “I’ll crush this role to put me in good position for that promotion.” “I know I’m the best candidate for this award.”
Each positive assumption flows into the next, further strengthening self-confidence and self-belief. Opportunity continually meets preparation, and both ascend through attitude.
The most successful people don’t merely wonder if they’ll succeed, but neither do they merely wander into it. Success is a given, as long as they give it their all.
And so they rise. The gravity of their orbit pulling ever upward.
Those who get stuck, mired in mediocrity, plateauing or worse, live in an orbit of negative, damning assumptions. They place themselves in the center of a self-eviscerating ellipse, within a galaxy of can’ts and won’ts and where a black hole snuffs out potential. “People like me don’t succeed.” “I probably won’t get selected, why apply?” “He’ll only say no, why ask?”
It’s the orbit of your assumptions that determines your ultimate trajectory.
If you’re stuck in an orbit of acidic assumptions, you must realize such assumptions get taken as fact, then become beliefs, which form bad habits that malign and misguide you. Negative assumptions are the easy out, the path of least resistance. They keep you stuck in the past and let you shirk responsibility.
Worse still, they become your story.
If this is you, or if you know someone who is stuck in their own negative orbit, know that unhelpful assumptions can be assailed in four powerful ways.
1. Survey the stakeholders.
The assumptions you make effect more than just you. Think of all the people who have a stake in your success (and happiness); your friends, family, mentors, boss, etc. Recognize when you’re making limiting assumptions and before you accept those assumptions as fact and convert those facts into beliefs and actions, check in with your stakeholders. Would they agree with what you’re assuming?
2. Force fresh perspective.
Related to number one, this is about forcing yourself out of your myopic patterns, including seeking perspective from people outside your group of stakeholders.
Create some tension with your status quo way of making assumptions. For my most vexing business problems, I seek out people who have done what I’m trying to do. I find many negative assumptions quickly dissipate. It’s like the old adage: People who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by people doing it.
3. Watch your language.
Assumptions abound with absolutisms. Catch yourself (and stop) using words like “can’t”, “never”, “always”, “all of”, and “none of.” Take time to qualify your qualifiers.
4. Think like a science teacher.
Science is built on hypotheses that must be proved or disproved. Think of your assumptions as hypotheses that also must be proven or not. It forces you to ask yourself, “What makes me think this assumption is true? What proof do I have?”
One exception here: laws of science tend to be immutable. Assumptions, however, are often based on what’s happened in the past, and the past is not always an indication of the future.
The orbit of your assumptions can work for you to flourish, or against you to flounder. Mind your orbit with the gravity it deserves.