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Book Summary: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith (part 1)

Subtitled “How Successful People Become Even More Successful,” this book focuses on continuous improvement, especially for those people who have already achieved a certain level of success. The issue lies in a belief that “I’m successful” and the thinking of “Why change if it’s working?” However, these people have as much reason to change and improve as any of us…and to recognize that the skills and habits that have taken them this far might not be the rights skills and habits to take them further. What got them here won’t get them there.

To set the stage, Goldsmith writes about the “success delusion,” where we delude ourselves about our achievements, our status, and our contributions. For example, in the workplace, we:

  • Overestimate our contributions to a project
  • Take credit for successes that truly belong to others
  • Have an elevated opinion of our professional skills
  • Conveniently ignore the costly failures and time-consuming dead-ends we have created

In addition to other obvious issues, our delusions become a serious liability when we need to change. And change is even more difficult because one of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, “I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore I am successful because I behave this way!” The challenge is to make them see that sometimes they are successful in spite of this behavior.

Goldsmith focuses on practices that successful people need to stop doing because too often we limit our change initiatives to what we need to start doing. He also contends that it is easier to stop doing bad things (an act of omission) than it is to institute many positive changes at one time (acts of commission). So he identified twenty habits, the most common faults and challenges in interpersonal behavior, “transactional flaws performed by one person against others,” that successful people who are committed to change need to stop doing.

1.  Winning too much: The need to win at all costs and in all situations-when it matters, when it doesn’t, and when it’s totally beside the point.

2.  Adding too much value: The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.

3.  Passing judgment: The need to rate others and impose our standards on them.

4.  Making destructive comments: The needless sarcasms and cutting remarks that we think make us sound sharp and witty.

5.  Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”: The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly say to everyone, “I’m right. You’re wrong.”

6.  Telling the world how smart we are: The need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.

7.  Speaking when angry: Using emotional volatility as a management tool.

8.  Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work”: The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren’t asked.

9.  Withholding information: The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.

10.  Failing to give proper recognition: The inability to praise and reward.

11.  Claiming credit that we don’t deserve: The most annoying way to overestimate our contribution to any success.

12.  Making excuses: The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.

13.  Clinging to the past: The need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.

14.  Playing favorites: Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.

15.  Refusing to express regret: The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.

16.  Not listening: The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.

17.  Failing to express gratitude: The most basic form of bad manners.

18.  Punishing the messenger: The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.

19.  Passing the buck: The need to blame everyone but ourselves.

20.  An excessive need to be “me”: Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.

Goldsmith devotes so much energy to identifying interpersonal challenges in successful people because the higher you go, the more your problems are behavioral. It’s typically not about flaws of skill, flaws in intelligence, or even flaws of unchangeable personality. As we advance in our careers, behavioral changes are often the only significant changes we can make.

Having identified these common challenges in interpersonal behavior, how can an already-successful person change for the better? We’ll cover Goldsmith’s seven-step method for changing our interpersonal relationships and making these changes permanent next month in part 2 of this book summary.