How Do Great Achievers Think?

When we're in a position of authority or expertise as coaches, teachers, parents, or administrators it becomes very easy to make judgments about the futures of people with whom we are helping. Heck, we've spent our life's work studying our own particular area of performance, whether it's hockey or physics, golf or English literature. And our tutorees are asking for our "expert" advice. The last thing we want to do is let them down. Being humane, kind-hearted souls who have chosen a "helping" profession, we want to protect our prodigies from harm, protect them from painful heartbreak. And we want to see them succeed.

So we try to paint a picture of "reality" that demonstrates the hard work necessary to make it and urges one to strive for something "attainable". Besides, we naturally love young men and women who show above average work ethic. And that seems to take over as our unwritten definition of success. We'd rather see someone go for a high probability job and make it, regardless of the limited fulfillment that inherently goes along with an easy path and mediocrity, especially if we work with the underprivileged or disabled. If these folks get to middle class, often it is quite a success story, at least to those of us who got here easily.

Look at it this way: if your mission is to win at basketball you can "make it" with no problem. Just go out and play 6 year olds all the time. You'll dominate, I guarantee. But, you probably won't have much of a challenge. If you want to be happy and fulfilled, though, your mission should be to find out how far you can take your talent and who the most skilled players are that you can beat. A whole different journey, one that will bring you a great number of failures, but one that will be very rewarding. You'll be able to sleep well every night knowing you gave it all you had that day, and you'll be able to retire with a feeling of completeness. Something you'd much rather have than retiring with a lot of wondering "what ifs".

The point is, if you're in a position to advise, influence, and even direct the future of people, you have a duty to believe in them. Very simply, don't assume you know what is best for them. Let them tell you, and then get totally juiced about helping them chase whatever it is they want. Your job as an "expert" is to teach them how to love tackling failure, not how to prevent or avoid it. They need to feel from their mentor or support system a confidence that there are no impossibilities, only possibilities. Check out the following quotes. Here are a bunch of very well respected experts, Ivy League professors and Fortune 500 CEOs getting an "in-your-face" lesson about assumptions made on probability rather than possibility.

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out a year."The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957
"But it good for?"Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, commenting on the microchip, 1968
"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."Ken Olson, President, Chairman and Founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."Western Union internal memo, 1876
"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C', the idea must be feasible."A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. Smith went on to found Federal Express.
"A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make."Response to Debbie Fields' idea of starting Mrs. Fields Cookies "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out."Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962
"If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this." Spencer Silver on the work that lead to the unique adhesives for 3M "Post-it" Notepads
"So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet." Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempt to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer.
"Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard's revolutionary rocket work, 1921 "You want to have consistent and uniform muscle development across all of your muscles? It can't be done. It's just a fact of life. You just have to accept inconsistent muscle development as an unalterable condition of weight training." Response to Arthur Jones, who solved the "unsolvable" problem by inventing Nautilus
"Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929
"Everything that can be invented has been invented." Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899 "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872
"The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will be forever shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon." Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria, 1873
"The phonograph is not of any commercial value." Thomas Edison, 1880
"Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible." Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1902
"Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote." Grover Cleveland, 1905
"It is an idle dream to imagine that automobiles will take the place of railways in the long distance movement of passengers." American Road Congress, 1913
"There is no likelihood that man can ever tap the power of the atom." Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize winner in physics, 1920
"Babe Ruth made a big mistake when he gave up pitching." Tris Speaker, 1921
"Who wants to hear actors talk?" Harry Warner, Warner Brothers Pictures, 1927
"The odds are that the United States will not be able to honor the 1970 manned lunar landing date set by President Kennedy." New Science Magazine, 1964
"640K ought to be enough for anybody." Bill Gates, 1981

JOHN F. ELIOT, PH.D., is an award winning professor of management, psychology, and human performance. He holds faculty appointments at Rice University and the SMU Cox School of Business Leadership Center. He is a co-founder of the Milestone Group, a consulting firm providing training to business executives, professional athletes, physicians, and corporations. Dr. Eliot's clients have included: SAP, XEROX, Disney, Adidas, the United States Olympic Committee, the National Champion Rice Owl's baseball team, and the Mayo Clinic. Dr. Eliot's cutting edge work has been featured on ABC, MSNBC, CBS, ESPN, Fox Sports, NPR, and highlighted in the Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Entrepreneur, LA Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and the New York Times. Dr. Eliot serves on numerous advisory boards including the National Center for Human Performance and the Center for Performing Arts Medicine. His latest book is Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance. For more information, visit Dr. Eliot's site at

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