Book Review: Succeed by Heidi Grant Halvorson

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In the third paragraph of the introduction to Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, Heidi Grant Halvorson points out a key truth from the book and connects it to her personal journey.

“Most of us blame our failures on the wrong things. Even very smart, accomplished people don’t understand why they succeed or fail. Before I started studying this for a living, my intuitions about achievement were no better than anyone else’s. I thought that I was good at school and disastrous at sports because I was born that way. I wasn’t— actually, no one is simply ‘born that way.’ I had a lot to learn.”

What she learned from the professional study of goals and how to achieve them is what this book is about. She uses the introduction to discuss what we know about willpower and why what most of us “know” about it is wrong. That sets us up perfectly for the rest of the book which is divided into three parts: Get Ready, Get Set, and Go.

Part One: Get Ready

The first chapter is titled “Do You Know Where You Are Going?” We learn that good goals are specific and hard. The author also talks about different types of goals, what to consider when you’re setting a goal, and the fact that positive thinking is good but it can get you in trouble.

The last section of the first chapter is about using mental contrasting to set your goals. This section is worth the price of the book. It’s the best short tutorial I’ve seen on basic goal-setting.

Chapter two is “Do You Know Where Your Goals Come From?” It’s about the plasticity of the brain and how we are so much less than what we can be. That will be familiar to you if you’ve read Carol Dweck on mindsets. But there’s also material about how unconscious thoughts help us trigger our goals and how we can use those triggers to do a better job of getting what we want.

Part Two: Get Set

Chapter three is “The Goals That Keep You Moving Forward.” Halvorson defines “Be Good” and “Get Better” goals and then discusses when each is appropriate.

Chapter four is all about goals for optimists and goals for pessimists. Chapter five, “Goals Can Make You Happy,” describes the research of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. They identified the three basic human goals of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Daniel Pink’s writing has taken that research and distorted it. The Deci and Ryan research is covered well here and you’ll learn about intrinsic motivation and how to make it work for you.

Chapter six is “The Right Goal for You.” By now Halvorson has laid the groundwork by defining different types of goals and different types of motivations. Now she shifts to outlining how we can use different kinds of triggers to get the performance that we’d like. In this chapter, you’ll find out how to choose goals for specific situations.

This is a “bring it all together” kind of chapter. You might find it helpful to read this chapter quickly and then start the book from the beginning. Chapter seven is like chapter six except that it describes how to set goals for others.

Part Three: Go!

Halvorson moves from a general discussion of goal-setting to specific situations. Chapter eight is about conquering the things that are out to conquer your goals.

Chapter nine is “Make A Simple Plan.” Halvorson introduces you to the very simple and very powerful concept of “if-then planning.” Researcher Peter Gollwitzer has described this kind of planning as “instant habits.” It is an incredibly powerful tool and this chapter is another one of those parts of the book that will repay your money and attention.

Chapter ten is about building the self-control muscle. This was an amazing chapter for me because I’ve studied building self-discipline and self-control for most of my adult life. It’s a key to being successful at what I do. I’ve learned an awful lot about building, maintaining, and recovering self-control, but this chapter was full of “ahas” for me. I don’t know if this is a chapter that would be great for everyone, but it was absolutely incredible for me.

Chapter eleven, on keeping it real, introduces you to the concept of realistic optimism. I found this similar to a part of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. He talks about “confronting the brutal facts but never losing faith.” This is a chapter about optimism, when it can work for you and when it can be trouble and how you can make it more likely that it will be a positive force.

Chapter twelve is titled “Know When to Hang On.” This is another one of those “worth the price of the book” chapters. There’s an awful lot that’s written, especially in the areas of personal development and goal-setting, about the need for persistence, but almost nothing on when to decide to quit. In fact, the only book I know about quitting is Seth Godin’s excellent book, The Dip. Yes, this is another of those worth the price of the book chapters.

The final chapter in the book is “Give the Right Feedback.” If you’re a person who’s responsible for the performance of a group, or if you’re a parent, or even a grandparent, read this chapter. Halvorson shares the research of Jennifer Henderlong and Mark Lepper and their five rules for giving feedback well. This is another subject I’ve spent a lot of time on. It was a key part of my classes for new supervisors. I’ve studied the research and spend decades applying it in class and coaching with supervisors. Even so, I learned a ton from this chapter. I learned some important details from the research that I wasn’t aware of and I also learned the science behind some effective tactics.

Bottom Line and Reading Suggestions

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I think this is a truly great book. It will help you set goals for yourself, help you help others set goals, and help you meet certain specific life situations with the knowledge to handle them effectively. You will be tempted to jump into the chapter that is about what most interests you. Resist that temptation. This book is written in a manner that builds knowledge throughout. You go from general principles to general guidelines to specific situations. That said, I think you’ll benefit if you scan chapter six to get an idea of the framework into which the information on earlier chapters will fit. Then go back to the beginning and read through.

Halvorson has helped you make this book useful by including a section at the end of every chapter titled “What You Can Do.” It provides a great overview of the chapter. Use it get the key points before you read a chapter, then use it to review them after you’ve read the details.

The Very Bottom Line

This is easily the best book I have ever read about setting goals because it brings the understanding of science to the practical reality of setting goals in real life. No matter who you are, how successful you’ve been, or how much you know about goal-setting, you should buy and read Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson. I’m about to start my second time through.


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