Do you attribute your success/failure to internal or external factors?

attribution cognitive failure mindset performance potential success Dec 02, 2019

How do you explain your own success or failure?

If you succeed in something, do you attribute that success to internal factors, like your skill, talent, and work ethic? Or do you chalk it up to external factors such as luck, coaches and teammates who helped you out, or the fact that you played an inferior opponent?

Likewise, when you fail, do you blame yourself or do you blame the weather, a bad referee, or your coach?

The answer to these questions can have a significant impact on your mindset, and ultimately your maximum potential. Psychologists refer to this as explanatory attribution, and how you explain success or failure can influence how you feel, how you relate to other people, and how you respond to success and failure.

For example, I had an athlete who was playing out of her mind for a string of golf tournaments. When I asked her how she was feeling going into the next tournament, she said something to the effect of “expecting to come back down to Earth sooner or later,” and signaled that she was essentially waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop.” 

In other words, she was resigning herself to the fact that she couldn’t continue playing at that high of a level and that she would eventually “revert to the mean.” 

Instead of thinking her extraordinary play was due to her skill, talent, and work ethic, she attributed it to external factors like luck and serendipity. 

We talked about this, and I recommended she change her mindset. Given she was the first player at the university to record under-par scores for back-to-back tournaments against elite competition, I told her luck had nothing to do with it. Instead, I encouraged her to think of her extraordinary play as her “new normal.” 

THIS was how she was meant to play, not the way she used to play. She even admitted that despite having career bests in an individual round and in the tournament total, she felt she could play even better! 

As discussed in last week’s Mindset Monday, in order to remain cognitively consistent, the brain wants to seek out evidence to support our internal thoughts and beliefs. 

If you tell yourself you stink at math, then the next time you receive a bad math grade on a test, your brain will emphasize that “evidence” and reinforce your internal belief that you stink at math. 

If you tell yourself you stink at math, and you somehow manage to get a good grade on a test, your brain will justify that good grade with other external reasons to keep you cognitively consistent. You’ll tell yourself that the test must’ve been easy, or you simply got lucky....anything other than the fact that you may be improving in math or that your hard work studying for the test actually paid off. 

The same thing occurs in sports. “I don’t play well in bad weather.” “I stink at using my left.” Or “my amazing play must be a fluke caused by luck.” 

So the next time you succeed or fail, ask yourself what explains that result. If you’re attributing success to external factors and failure to internal factors, than you may be limiting your long-term potential. 

Believe in yourself, your talent, your skill, and the growth mindset that you can improve if you work harder enough. 

Want more? Watch the video.

Want to know how to change your mindset? Work with me!

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