Why being smart and talented isn't enough to be successful


race finish line runners winner

REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

The attitude you bring to challenges is just as important as knowledge and skill.

Quick: Think of the most successful person you know.


Now think of a few words that best describe that person.

What comes to mind? Smart? Organized? Confident? Disciplined? Inspiring?

If you're like most people, you probably focused largely on qualities like the last three - in other words, qualities that have more to do with the person's attitude than their knowledge or skills. Others include driven, hardworking, fearless, humble, influential, and compassionate.

This exercise was one of several that opened a preview session of the Dale Carnegie "Skills for Success" course in New York City. The course is one of a number of Dale Carnegie Training programs offered throughout the world, each one based on the work of Dale Carnegie, author of the bestselling book "How to Win Friends and Influence People."


Warren Buffett said he took a Dale Carnegie class when he was young, and it changed his life by helping him get over his fear of public speaking.

Along with about 40 others, I attended the "Skills for Success" preview session a few weeks ago.

One of the greatest takeaways was that the attitude you bring to everyday challenges is just as important as - if not more important than - your knowledge and skills. While those attributes are critical, they can often remain hidden and underutilized without a positive attitude to illuminate them.

To illustrate the difference a positive attitude can make, our instructor, Dale Carnegie trainer Marc Fowler, recited a list of 21 random objects (he later revealed that each object symbolized a different bit of Dale Carnegie wisdom) and asked who thought they could recite the same list of objects without making a mistake.

Needless to say, no one volunteered.


"Your attitude is holding you back," Fowler said.

He then told a whimsical story featuring each of the 21 objects and had us work in pairs to remember the narrative and the objects. Almost every pair saw their performance improve drastically from the first time they'd tried alone - one duo even stood up in front of the group to demonstrate that, together, they could remember every single item on the list.

Obviously, not every challenge is so easily surmountable. But what the exercise taught me, at least, is that saying "Yes, I can" isn't necessarily a demonstration of overconfidence - it shows the willingness to work to find a solution.

Fowler never said specifically that we couldn't work in pairs, or hear the list again, or use a helpful memory trick. If we'd had a more positive attitude, we might have realized that these strategies could be paths to success - that failure wasn't inevitable.

These lessons have some important implications for the workplace.


As Fowler told us, organizations often hire based on who has the desirable knowledge and skills. But "give somebody the right attitude and they will gain the knowledge and skills," he said.

Of course, none of this is to say that knowledge and skills don't matter at all. They do - a lot.

In fact, Fowler told me later that "enthusiasm harnessed in the wrong way can be wasted." The key to success, he said, is attitude plus the right skills plus knowledge.

In the case of the memory exercise, simply being excited about the task and volunteering to recite all 21 objects immediately probably would have ended in failure. But being categorically opposed to taking a stab at the task meant that we'd never learn the strategies required to succeed at it, like visualization, teamwork, and practice.

A positive attitude, Fowler emphasized, isn't the same as idealism or unbridled optimism. Ultimately, he told me, it's about "having confidence that, no matter what comes down the line, I can deal with it."


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