Part 3: Environment - the Deciding Factor in Success
Every other thing (attitude and aptitude) being equal, the environment in which talent is cultivated decides outcomes. I pointed out last week that performance coaches and motivational speakers love to talk about attitude because it is the one factor determining unequal outcomes that is mostly in our control. I have no problem with that. I agree that a positive attitude is key to producing at our best - in fact, it is the number one factor. My issue is that the discussion often ends there. This is disconcerting because positive-minded, optimistic, cheerful folks still find themselves utterly unable to perform at the level that others can, and they wonder if they are doing something wrong. They aren’t. At least not as far as their attitude is concerned.
My observation, which is the point of this series, is that outcome is based on three factors: attitude, aptitude, and environment. The first is mainly in our sphere of influence; the second less so (though we are bailed out by the “Good Enough” theory), and the third even less so. Of the three, environment is the least in our control and the most overpowering of them all. If the environment is not supportive of you or your venture, sometimes the only course of action is to move, or settle. In addition to a great attitude and the right aptitude, you need resources from the environment, and if those resources are lacking, the result will be less than it can be, for you cannot make omelets without eggs.
Examples from nature
A fish cannot survive long outside of water. It doesn’t matter how strong-willed the fish is, if it stays out of an aquatic environment for an extended period, it will become frail and eventually die.
A plant cannot survive without nutrients. If it is surrounded by weeds, its growth becomes stunted. This outcome has less to do with the plant than with the hostile environment it found itself in.
What is true for plants and animals is true for our ability to perform at an optimal level: absent an enabling environment, we cannot thrive. The key, then, is to move to a place where we can create our best work - an environment for success. Admittedly, it is not always easy – or possible – to relocate, and this may explain why many never truly reach their potential.
Characteristics of the right environment for success
Environment comes in different forms. It can be the family environment – the atmosphere around the home, together with its spoken and unspoken rules. It can be the school or work environment. It can also be a non-physical, e.g., financial or regulatory, environment.
So what constitutes the “right environment?” The following are some indicators:
- New mistakes are welcome. New mistakes signify learning is taking place. An environment where these are encouraged rather than frowned on is good for growth.
- Feedback is immediate. To develop, you need to know – on time – how you are doing. Feedback is a key component of development, and the more immediate, the better. When you do well, you want to know quickly so you can keep doing well. When you miss the mark, it’s good to be told as well so that correction can be made.
- Accomplishments are celebrated. This relates to feedback too. You want to be where your efforts are praised and accomplishments celebrated. Some hold back praise for fear that it will go into the head of the recipient. I think this is unfair. (Many times, these same people don’t hold back from excoriating those who do poorly!) Praise should be liberally applied when deserved.
In sum, the right environment to succeed is challenging, pushing us out of our comfort zones without pulling us into our panic zones, stretching our abilities without breaking them. It offers on-time feedback so we can adjust as appropriate. Above all, it is a place where we are not scared of making mistakes and where we can reasonably expect to be rewarded.
I started this series by asking why it is that only a few seem to dominate a given field, using examples from sports. But the dynamic plays out everywhere. For instance, the wealthiest one percent of the world’s population controls more than half of the world’s wealth. What makes the one percent, the one percent? My belief is that the three factors all work, in some way, to their favor. The reason not everyone will be the world’s best at any given thing, or be in the top one percent, is because not all the factors of performance are in an individual’s control. There’s nothing wrong with this because, let’s face it, most of us just want to do decent work and make a living, not make history.
I acknowledge that today’s post doesn’t come across as uplifting as others in this blog. We don’t like to hear that things outside our control can directly impact us. What I have shared is reality as I have experienced it personally and in countless others. How do you change an environment when, by definition, the environment is external and composed of a vast number of entities all interacting at the same time? But don’t despair, next week, I will wrap up this series by talking about all the factors, their significance, and how we can tip the odds of success in our favor. Stay tuned.
I would love to hear your thoughts on environment as the ultimate arbiter of how far we can go and on any other point raised in this series.