in Life Optimization

An Introduction to Success Spirals

You may or may not have heard about success spirals. They’ve been broken down at Less Wrong, mentioned by Leo of Zenhabits, and even is used in stuffy business pdfs. Yet it’s a concept that I hadn’t heard of until recently, although since then I’ve noticed and tried to implement it as much as possible.

The idea behind a success spiral is that if you want to tackle something big and hard, first start with something small and maneagable. The Less Wrong guys above use the example of practicing speaking well to yourself in front of a mirror, then to your friends, and then to strangers. You start with something so easy to do that it is no challenge whatsoever, and buoyed on by the sense of accomplishment and self confidence you get from that first step, you tackle the second, harder step and succeed. Now you’re caught in a “success spiral” and cannot help but continue attacking the obstacles with gusto, no matter how big they get.

It works best with tasks that build on each other, like above, but it also works with dramatically different activities. As Amy Cuddy explains, just posing in a posture normally reserved for confident moments can bring you confidence. Leo used his quest to stop smoking to build on other habits he wanted to change in his life. After completing that, he felt ready for any other challenge. He went in with a sense of “I can do this”, and as we know, hope and despair are self fulfilling prophecies. You can do the same.

I had mostly forgotten about success spirals until the other day, when I had to drive my housemate’s stick shift truck. I haven’t driven stick shift in a long time, but I knew I could do it. Every simple movement became a challenge – getting out of the parallel parking spot, figuring out exactly where each gear is, the stop sign on a hill, and so forth. As I successively met and bested each of these difficulties, I noticed my spirits rise perceptively. By the time I was on the highway I was downright jubilant and started singing along to myself on a Mexican radio station. All this from nothing more than driving a car.

If only I had been driving to a job interview that night – I would have been so pumped up under the weight of my successes that the next one was all but foretold . Knowing this now, I feel like people who own stick shift cars are better off than the rest of us – by the time they get to their destination they are pumped up on success. True, after a few months it becomes second nature and stops pushing your comfort zone. But you would still have that capability in your toolkit, like a line on the resume for life – proficient in with a manual gear box. As your father would say, it builds character – and a sense of confidence.

This is why LessWrong mentions adventure/outdoor classes as great foundations for success spirals. You may only navigate whitewater a few times in your life, but each time you do, you go into a mildly dangerous situation and come out of it on top due to your choices. Learning a new skill in the wild will translate to the rest of your life in the form of your confidence and can-do attitude.

My friend Alton likes to bring dull butterfly knives with him, and  teaches people how to flick it open like in the movies without fear of a cut. The trick requires a certain level of dexterity, but it isn’t nearly as difficult as it looks,  so when you master it after fiddling around for ten minutes you feel great. He encourages you to then translate that success into another one, and start the spiral.

I loved fiddling with those knives. What other feats of manual dexterity could you practice on in your spare time without difficulty? How about rolling a coin over your knuckles, or learning some of Tim Ferriss’s pen tricks? Heck, most of r/learnuselesstalents  applies here.

With those silly tricks in your tool belt, you could then tackle useful skills, or spirals that build on actions learned earlier. What big bad feat are you dreading to face soon? How could you break it down into bits that you can face one by one?