A Mind for Business: How Successful People Think

Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right!

Henry Ford

Despite the economic downturn, lots of Americans are not just surviving— many are doing exceedingly well, showing that “the dream” is anything but dead. And it’s not just “the rich getting richer.” Many new entrepreneurs are establishing themselves in the very same industries and markets in which their competitors are dropping like flies.  Why do some do so well, while others fall by the wayside? I assure that it’s not chance— there is an identifiable mindset for success that is over and above the particulars that define any given industry. Those who do succeed are aware of this and actively cultivate it in themselves. You can, too. It starts with understanding the ways that successful people think. 

In recent years I’ve been deeply involved in the business of helping entrepreneurs to improve their businesses and prosper. Much of my training, however, was in the field of cognitive psychology, which concerns the ways that “normal” people think, construct reality, and solve problems. In recent decades, this field has increasingly become a rich source of business applications, including explanations for success and failure. Why? Because habits of mind are important.

Case in point: One of the best known treatises on success is Napoleon Hill’s timeless classic, Think and Grow Rich. Hill interviewed and analyzed the lives of thousands of individuals, and found that success in business and other areas of life were intimately tied to their ways of thinking. Of course there are vast behavioral differences between those who succeed and those who fail, but these are ultimately rooted in people’s attitudes and outlooks. 

The works of other masters in the areas of success and personal growth echo Hill’s emphasis on the importance of developing the proper mindset. Peruse the works of Jim Collins, Steve Covey, John C. Maxwell, Pete Drucker, Rosabeth Moss-Kanter, and a host of others and you’ll find similar themes. It’s clear that how we think and what we choose to think about can be crucial inputs into what we get out of life. Research has shown very clearly that we can acquire mindsets conducive to success.

Leveraging who you are

This is not a call to turn yourself into someone you’re not. It’s crucial that you be consistent with your personal values and talents. The trick is to become the best “you” that you can possibly be, and this requires a serious review of who you are and what is important to you. It also requires an honest assessment of your talents. To sum up, know as best you can what you’re equipped for.

Going into something “just for the money” is a bad start. You may be able to survive, but you’ll never be the best at what you do, or even the best that you can be. Many people assume that business is all logic, dollars, and cents, but if you truly intend to succeed, you’ve really got to find something that you are really passionate about. This in itself does not come naturally to many people.

Cultivating a mindset for success

Although it is often argued that “knowledge is power,” this old adage misses the mark in that it emphasizes content over application. What you know matters, but the ways of thinking that you bring to bear on the “what” that will determine your real potentials for success. Simply put, how you think can be at least as important as what you know. What is encouraging is that these ways of thinking are habits of mind that can be developed through active effort and practice.

I will get to some of the kinds of thinking commonly employed by people with long histories of success in business a little later. But first note that, although these can be acquired by almost anyone desiring to improve themselves and their business savvy, many folks never incorporate them into their repertories. The question becomes, why not? Below are a few explanations.

One reason is that ways of thinking are intangible. We see their results— the new product, the novel approach to service delivery, or the successful new ad campaign— but the thought processes that generate them are invisible are therefore inaccessible to most people. Would-be competitors (often called “wannabes”) might be able to imitate the observable product, but that’s the best they can do. 

A second reason few people employ the ways of thinking employed by successful people is that they are independent of specific areas of knowledge. They are applicable across a wide array of domains of activity, which makes them difficult to clearly identify. Again, we see the results, but not the thinking itself. These are two of the reasons why the keys to success remain mysterious to many.  

So how do successful people think?

Below are some of the ways of thinking that are common among people who become highly successful and make life better for themselves and others. Although some may seem contradictory to others, they are actually complementary. Successful people typically think in lots of different ways. With diligent and deliberate effort, these ways of thinking can be developed by many more people than commonly have access to them. Some of these are briefly discussed below:

Big picture thinking: Also called “systems thinking,” this involves the ability to grasp realities that are neither immediate nor obvious. Big picture thinkers have an appreciation for complexity, often being able to see order in what appears to others to be chaos. They also integrate aspects of past and present situations into visions of the future, which equips them with at least one of the important abilities required for success in leadership positions— the ability to anticipate events before they happen.

Ability to think creatively: Successful people generally have the ability to look at situations in ways that others might find peculiar, if not outright weird. Rather than following the crowd and imitating in “monkey see, monkey do” fashion, they risk rejection or even failure by challenging what is common and accepted. If you follow the careers of successful individuals, you’ll find that people with unusual ways of looking at things are overrepresented. You’ll also see that they are very open to the novel ideas of others, and encourage creative thinking among those around them. Creative people tend to have lower fears of failure than their less creative counterparts, which is why they can express their more offbeat ideas.

Focus like a laser beam: Seeming to contradict the breadth suggested by big picture thinking, and the search for novelty of creative thinking, focused thinking is actually complementary to them. It is essential for developing any plans or products inspired by the other two. If you’re going to succeed in business, sooner or later you’ll have to buckle down and zoom in on a limited range of activities at the exclusion of all others.  One key to outstanding performance is commitment, which means also deciding what you’re not going to devote time and effort to. Those who engage in focused thinking make great sacrifices to make things happen.

Strategic thinking: It’s time to get practical. Perhaps the most identifiable aspect of how successful people think, strategic thinking is frequently articulated in written business plans. Its outstanding characteristic is its systematic nature. Strategic thinking starts with a clear vision of a desirable future condition or outcome, followed by the development of means for making that desired outcome a reality. Strategies are broken down into critical goals to be achieved, as well as the specific action steps required to achieve them. Really top-notch strategic thinkers actually specify possible obstacles that might be encountered, as well as solutions for each obstacle.

Thinking of others first: Success in business is ultimately dependent upon the ability to meet the needs of others. In order to do that, you’ve got to develop the capacity for seeing things through their eyes. By the way, those “others” would of course include clients and customers, but also employees. One of the most powerful social norms in our society is the “norm of reciprocity,” which impels us to repay in kind, the treatment that we receive from others. When we put others first, we maximize their willingness to be benevolent to us. It’s the foundation for constructive long-term relationships, which are essential for success in business and in life.

Setting yourself apart

Any review of the “best practices” in any particular business shows that these have their roots in ways of thinking— habits of mind. The short list I’ve offered is by no means complete or comprehensive, but was included to make the point that these habits of mind can be cultivated and developed by most people who want to improve themselves and their lot— to the extent that they are interested in doing so.

The alternative is complacency: Accepting ourselves as “good enough,” and not in need of improvement. The evidence regarding this alternative has been painfully clear— people (or businesses) who don’t actively work to improve tend to deteriorate.  Many businesses that have achieved great successes subsequently declined as a result of resting on their laurels.

It takes an active and continuous effort to cultivate fresh thinking, but such efforts pay dividends in the long run. If you “study up” on cases of individuals who achieved great things over long periods of time, you’ll notice that one theme will emerge time and time again— it was their thinking that set them apart. It’s all about choices and consequences, and as has been said so often, success is a choice.