Say Goodbye to “Good-Luck” – How to communicate effort based success

by Paula Moran

You have a lot riding on this test.  It’s going to make or break your next career move.  You’ve been studying for months and can recite the material from memory.  On your way into the computer testing room the staff wishes you “Good Luck!” 

Several hours later the screen announces you passed.   To celebrate you go out for a drink with a friend.    When relating how relieved you are that you passed your friend comments, “I knew you’d pass you’re so smart.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Your success on the test was purely based on the effort you put into studying, not your luck at picking the right answers nor your fundamental intelligence.  The smartest person in the world would probably fail the bar exam if he or she did not study.  Despite all this, we live in a good luck society.   Think how many times you’ve been wished “Good Luck” in the past week.

It is dangerous to attribute success to luck.  When individuals attribute success or failure to luck rather than effort it separates the individual from the success or failure of the endeavor.  If the endeavor is successful then the individual is robbed of full credit for the success and de-motivated in future efforts.  Why should I bother putting forth my full effort if it only increases my probability of success?  I need luck to ensure success.

On the other hand, when we fail we need to learn from our mistakes.  If failure is attributed to luck, rather than an act of the individual, that person is robbed of the ability to reflect and grow.  If your presentation fails to make the sale, luck says it just wasn’t your day.  Whereas attributing the failure to a particular lack of effort requires you to reflect on what the shortcoming was and what you need to improve on in the future.  The later case will lead to better success in the future.

Attributing success to intelligence has a similarly damaging effect on individuals, particularly with children.  Children that have an easy time learning and earning high grades in school are generally referred to as “smart.”  If they are told for years that they are “so smart” they will begin to attribute their success to their innate ability rather than the effort they put forth.  If this was true and ability was innate rather than effort based we would all be stuck permanently at a particular ability level.  If you were a poor reader in 2nd grade you’d be a poor reader all your life.

However we know this is not true; you are not stuck at your innate ability.  We know that anyone who gives the effort can improve their ability to read, dance, sing, do math, play football, etc.   Individuals who attribute their success to their innate ability rather than effort tend to give up on hard problems sooner.  If you are constantly told for years you’re a smart math student and suddenly you can’t do your math homework it is an assault on you as a person rather than a reminder that you might need to study your notes again. A more extensive discussion of this issue can be found in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.

So, how do you change the message you’re sending to others?  By changing your vocabulary.

Instead of “Good Luck” substitute phrases such as:

  • Give it your best effort
  • Remember you’ve been preparing for this
  • Relax and think about what you’ve done/learned
  • Make it happen
  • Show me what you can do

Instead of “You’re smart” substitute phases such as

  • I can see you’re ready for the next challenge
  • You did really well.  I can tell you’ve been preparing/practicing
  • Look how much your hard work paid off
  • I like how you did not give  up
  • It was obvious that you worked really hard on this

Even if you are working with someone who attributes success to luck or smarts, you can change their thought process by changing your vocabulary.  In my experience the transition can be made in under a month.  To make the transition people need about 4 successes that are attributed to effort rather than luck or intelligence.