Life can be a slow and inarticulate teacher. Yet a few simple, proven ideas can give us all far more control over our lives.

Researchers who observe people who succeed in business, study, sport and relationships are revealing some valuable information about the way top achievers think. For me, the biggest surprise is, not so much what they think, but how much difference it makes to the whole of their lives.

Successful people are the captain of their own ship. They believe that success in life is up to them. Unsuccessful people are the ship – bobbing around in the sea. They believe that success is a matter of luck, fate or the influence of other people.

If we generally see ourselves as the ship, we can choose to change. I call it the ‘supreme liberating choice’ to take charge of our own life. It’s an outstanding feature of successful people.

The effects of that single liberating choice begin early. One review of 100 studies of students found that those who thought that their success was up to them, achieved significantly better those who put their results down to having a good teacher, the teacher liking them or whether the tests were easy or hard. That difference in perspective was more important than the children’s scores on motivation tests, their parents’ child-rearing skills or the quality of the teaching.

In business, people who seem themselves as the ship will tell you their business is suffering because the market is down or the exchange rate too high or low, and wait for things to change. A captain of her own ship may be just as frustrated, but believes she has a choice. One of my clients makes a habit of asking, ‘What are our options here?’ as soon as her team encounters a rough patch or a setback. It’s her way of reminding everyone, and herself, that they are in charge. There’s strong evidence from the research that people who take charge of their own lives are more optimistic, more persistent, less inclined to depression and more resistant to stress and anxiety.

When we’ve chosen to take charge of our own life we can make other liberating choices.

We can choose our attitude to events, even when we can’t change them. One of my heroes is Margaret Moth, a New Zealander and camera operator for CNN. Margaret was shot in the face while on assignment in the former Yugoslavia. Weeks later, just out of hospital, she explained to a television reporter that her American friends were saving for their retirement, but that she had a different approach to life. ‘I’ve crossed the Sahara on a camel’, she said, ‘I’ve been down the Amazon in a canoe and I’ve been shot in Sarajavo. Those are my riches.’

We can choose to be unembarassable. That’s a liberating choice. Imagine how empowering it would be if you could take away the fear of embarrassment.

Think about the last time you were embarrassed and what was achieved by it. Does fear of embarrassment make you less inclined to speak up at a meeting, sing a song you enjoy or introduce yourself at parties?

Most people I’ve suggested it to have never thought about choosing to be unembarrassable. They thought embarrassment was something that just happens. ‘Nice idea,’ they say’ but I’d just go red and prickly’. That may be true, but if we choose to be unembarrassable, those symptoms disappear quickly.

Imagine that you are leaving the library and the alarm goes off – the one that’s set up to tell everyone ‘this woman is trying to steal one of our books’. How would you react? When researchers investigated that scenario, they found that most people were understanding, rather than accusing, and could imagine being in the same situation themselves.

Other researchers have found that usually most people don’t notice or remember our embarrassing moments. Even if they do, we can choose not to need the world’s approval for everything we do.

We can choose to be happy.

Most people expect to be happy when they have a life-partner, a house, a new car or when their business is thriving and they can relax. Choosing to be happy means more than seeing our glass as half-full. We can enjoy each experience of the day: the taste of our coffee, a meaningful conversation with a friend or colleague, calm of a summer morning or the warmth of our partner’s hand. It’s the Buddhist approach to happiness and supported by research. You could say that all we are doing is creating short-term pleasure from everyday things, and you would be right. It’s when it becomes a way of life and we look back over perhaps years, that we can say we are happy or happier.

There’s evidence that many people are born with ‘happiness genes’. It doesn’t mean that they drift through life in a euphoric haze, only that they have a predisposition to be happy. Not having the genes doesn’t stop everyone else being happy, though it might take a bit more work.

There’s a special and important kind of happiness that we shouldn’t overlook. It’s the contentment we get from being immersed in interesting and rewarding activities. It’s close to what Aristotle called eudaimonia. Like the laughter and joys of life, eudaimonia gives us a general sense of well-being that helps us use healthy sceptical thinking on our down days and moments of stress.

There are other choices that can liberate us to do more with our lives. We can choose to be proactive, to be courageous, to love unconditionally, to think independently and be optimistic - and make those choices a focus of our lives.

The rewards of optimism are extraordinary. The research is showing that optimism is a key, not only to motivation, but better physical and mental health, better relationships, more happiness and even a longer life. Optimism creates an upward spiral, a positively biased view of the world.

But it’s real optimism we need, not: ‘Don’t worry, everything will be okay’, accompanied by doing nothing. Most often, that’s denial.

Real optimism is not just a positive view of the world, but a focused way of coping with our inevitable setbacks. There’s a simple process you can use to train yourself to be more optimistic.

First, choose to be on your way to being first-class.

On your way is important because it says that you expect setbacks as you learn – that’s just part of the process. If that sounds obvious, compare it with what many people (The research says especially men) tell themselves. For them, only the gold medal will do; anything less than full success now, would be failure. It’s a cultural pressure that starts early. I once heard 12 year old boys agreeing that one of them who came second in a race was ‘the first of the losers’.

Next, act the part of someone who is already a first-class leader, parent or whatever role you are focusing on at the time.

Acting the part means staying in role - giving your best, no matter how you may be feeling. If that seems insincere, think of acting the part as being heroic. Think of Sir Winston Churchill who suffered depression throughout his adult life, yet there’s no hint of depression in ‘We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’ He had obligations to his nation and himself. Sincerity wasn’t the issue.

Here’s the vital part. It’s what you tell yourself when you have a success or setback.

Let’s imagine that your sales are down dramatically by the end of this month. Clearly, it won’t have anything to do with your potential as a salesperson or businessperson, because you are on your way to being first-class. It must be something you could learn or do differently next time.

If you have a successful sales month, your ability or potential get the credit. It’s sensible to note what you did well to achieve your figures, but the most successful people believe in themselves, not just what they do. You might not want to share it with the world, but you should be affirming your potential by telling yourself that your success is further evidence that you are on your way to being first-class.

In our culture, which has so much going for it in other ways, we are encouraged to do the opposite. If we succeed, other people will help us to put it down to luck. It may be considerate to agree, but actually believing that our success is a matter of luck, is a very damaging habit. You might recognize variants of the lucky theme: ‘They must have been desperate to choose me’ and ‘The boss must have been in a good mood’, or ‘I got away with it that time, but it won’t be long before they discover I’m no good at this’.

It’s also damaging to believe that our setbacks are failures (so permanent), entirely our responsibility and evidence that we have no ability or potential. People who think about setbacks in that negative way, will tell themselves, ‘I’m hopeless at this, I’m a loser, I should stick to things I can do’, and ‘It just shows that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’

What’s the damage? Habitually thinking in those unhealthy ways is learned helplessness. It’s a feature of depression, low motivation and poor resilience to stress.

Optimists live longer and healthier lives – and not just a little longer or a little healthier. Researchers checked the records of men who had graduated from Harvard University and found that they could predict the men’s health at 65 from their optimism at 25. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic who studied the health of patients over 30 years, found that the optimists decreased their chance of early death by 50 per cent. They were also happier, more peaceful and more relaxed. A study of nuns found that those who were the most positive lived an average of seven years longer than those who were least positive.

Researchers have revealed that optimism and pessimism are very stable traits – unless we choose to change them.

We know that successful people set goals and that it’s more effective to write them down, but here’s a refinement. German researchers have found that visualizing both the goal and the way things are, can make a significant difference to our motivation. The key is to keep revisiting the gap between how things are and the goal.

It’s essential that the goals be our goals, not other people’s goals for us.

Take care with goals. Top achievers don’t link their sense of self-worth to their goals. Instead, they reason that if they are living according to their values, that’s enough to feel that we are worthy people. It’s likely that most people don’t. Jennifer Crocker from the University of Michigan surveyed more than 600 students and found that 80 per cent based their sense of self-worth on their academic success. Those students did not receive better grades, despite being highly motivated and studying more. They were more likely to feel stressed and to be in conflict with the academic staff. When they did do well, their sense of self-worth didn’t increase any more than the other students who weren’t depending on their academic grades to feel good about themselves. We can avoid the same trap when we think about our cash flow, sales figures, market share or meeting our project goals and deadlines.

Author's Bio: 

Ralph Brown is the author of 'The Village That Could - 15 ways to develop your resilience' and 'Success at work and at home - practical ways to develop your emotional intelligence'.

He is managing director of Skillset New Zealand (formerly Media Associates) a training company specialising in communication and personal development skills based.

Read Ralph's blog and information about his books at