Five cognitive distortions of high achievers

In case you missed it, this presentation by Michael Dearing has been attracting a lot of comment on the net. After interviewing 4515 Silicon Valley executives, Dearing identified five distorted thinking habits of chronic overachievers:

  1. Personal exceptionalism
  2. Dichotomous thinking
  3. Correct overgeneralisation
  4. Blank canvas thinking
  5. Schumpeterianism

Some big words there, but they look inoffensive enough. And according to Dearing, these folk get things done! Why not cut them a little slack?

Because how we achieve a goal is at least as important as the goal itself. Because in business we need to play well with others. And because no goal is important enough to justify leaving a trail of human wreckage in your wake. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at these five distorted thinking habits, and see what damage they can do. Let’s start with number one—personal exceptionalism.

This is the belief that you are special, that you are as a god among mortals. Believing yourself to be exceptional can give you enormous reserves of strength. You’ll overcome obstacles that would deter lesser individuals. You’ll sweep people along with your charisma.

And the possible downsides?

When people flatter you, you’ll believe them. Perhaps you’ll even come to expect praise, even if you haven’t earned it. Because you regard yourself as superior, you’ll begin to believe that the rules don’t apply to you. Park in the handicapped spot, à la Steve Jobs? No problem–after all, you’re special. As a result, your staff will come to resent you. As your authority crumbles, you’ll become more domineering. It’s a vicious circle. But wait–there’s worse to come.

Because you consider yourself exceptional, you’ll set yourself a higher standard to meet. If you’re working within your area of expertise, you’re more likely to succeed than to fail.

But no one excels at everything. This obvious truth won’t stop you dabbling in areas where you lack expertise. After all, the normal constraints no longer apply. Before long, you’ll find yourself out of your depth. When people who possess genuine knowledge in these fields offer their advice, you’ll ignore them—after all, you know better. Disaster is inevitable. And when you fail, you’ll find someone else to blame. It can’t be your fault—you’re exceptional.

The truth is, we all have our unique talents. In some areas we may excel; in others, we don’t. Rather than playing the role of a minor deity, it’s better to identify and nurture the strengths of all your team members. This means working with them as equals. And it’s hard to do this if you regard those around you as inferior.

Next week, we’ll look at the second cognitive distortion on the list: dichotomous thinking.


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