Why some succeed in life and others do not

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How come some are successful at everything they do while others seem to not go anywhere in their lives?

Behavioral scientists know why, and have been able to attribute a lot of success in people’s lives to a concept they call “Internal Locus of Control”.

I have two friends who are both smart, driven, outgoing and social. If you just hung out with them for a day, you wouldn’t notice any fundamental differences between them.

Still, one of them is wildly successful while the other one gets nowhere in his life.

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One of them, let’s call him Jordan, says things like this:

  • “I didn’t spend much time on the job application because I’m pretty sure I won’t get that job anyway.”
  • “I tried to get better sleeping habits, but it didn’t work. There’s no point trying.”
  • “I asked two friends if they could help me with my project but they couldn’t so I guess there’s not much I can do.”

My other friend, Nina, says things like these:

  • “I failed that intake test so right now I’m figuring out what to do differently on the next one”.
  • “I’m pretty sure I can get that job, as long as I can understand exactly what they’re looking for”.

Jordan has an external locus of control – meaning he tends to attribute success and failure in life to external factors. This can be luck, or others, or circumstances.

Nina, on the other hand, has an internal locus of control. She assumes that she’s responsible for success or failure.

“But you can’t control most things in life !” – replies people with an external locus of control.

That’s true – and no one argues with that. What research DOES show is that people who actively try to change the outcome of their lives (rather than just letting life happen) are often happier, suffer from less stress, and are more successful in life. (ref)

If we go back to Jordan, technically, he might be correct that he’s unlikely to get the job anyway. But, by assuming he won’t get the job and putting less effort into his application, he’s lowering his chances even more.

Nina, on the other hand, sees that there’s a chance she’ll get a job. And this insight instead triggers her to try even harder. “If it’s tough – I need to work harder to improve my chances!” She sees the job application as a challenge instead of an obstacle.

So how do we cultivate an internal locus of control? One of the most powerful methods is to always acknowledge that we have a choice. No matter our life situation, we almost always have a choice. Realizing this increases our internal locus of control.

Here’s what that choice can look like:

  • “I have the choice to put more work into the job application, which will improve my chances.”
  • “I tried getting better sleeping habits, but nothing changed. Now, I can learn from that and try a better method next time.”
  • “I asked two friends and they couldn’t help me. I have the choice to ask more friends or to find another solution that would require less manpower.”

What’s one choice you’ve made this year to improve your chances of success in any way, big or small? I’m excited to hear in the comments!

References: Roddenberry, Angela; Renk, Kimberly (2010). “Locus of Control and Self-Efficacy: Potential Mediators of Stress, Illness, and Utilization of Health Services in College Students”. Child Psychiatry & Human Development.

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David Morin is the founder of SocialPro. He's been writing about social skills since 2012. Follow on Twitter or read more.

Go to Comments (2)

2 thoughts on “Why some succeed in life and others do not”

  1. Just a few weeks ago I spoke to my school’s social worker and she’s helped me get therapy! I’m so happy and ready to improve!!

  2. I’ve hired a language tutor to help me reach my goals when there didn’t appear to be any readily available resources online for my target language


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