Do You Have High Ambitions But Low Progress?

Here’s how to take control of your success.

Andrii Zastrozhnov/Getty Images
Andrii Zastrozhnov/Getty Images

My dad used to always say, “There are no guarantees except death and taxes.” Growing up, that saying made no sense, but now it does. When world-class athletes set their sights on the Olympics, there are no guarantees they will make it there—let alone make it onto the podium. I’ve had the opportunity to ask Olympic hopefuls and former Olympians what it was like the moment they decided to go for it. To go all in. All of them said essentially the same thing: It was like tunnel vision as they decided, and there was no turning back. They had zero excuses on their quest to be the best.

What about the rest of us? Maybe you have reached a personal Olympics or maybe you haven’t. Before effectively moving forward, it’s time to gain an important perspective and make peace with past inaction. It’s history. Then you’ll be ready to take control of progress towards your future success.

You may have heard of the buddy system, but you may not be familiar with the science behind why and how it works. Two classic researchers on the topic of social influence, Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard, explained two psychological needs that lead us to conform to expectations of others. One is normative social influence—the “influence to conform to the positive expectations of another” (Deutsch and Gerard 1955, p.169). In other words, we may conform because we want to fit in or because we are scared of being rejected. The other is informational social influence, which is a way for us to gain knowledge when we are unclear or ambiguous about a situation (SimplyPsychology, McCloud 2007, 2016).

When we create an accountability structure for ourselves using a buddy system, we essentially construct a system to influence ourselves to move towards our best selves. Whether this is due to others doing what we want to do (normative conformity) or due to us being unclear about what we must do to get better (informational conformity), we must have this structure in place to pave the way to our best.

However, it’s also important to choose the right buddy for this to work. If you choose the right person, social influence can come into play and help you become the champion you are meant to be—as opposed to trying to go it alone. Here are a few characteristics of an accountability buddy who will champion your results. Be sure to choose someone who:

-is a little better than you (ideally).

-has your best interests at heart.

-is not in competition with you in any way.

-is not threatened by you.

What to discuss prior to getting started with an accountability partner:

-Be explicit about what is important to you, what you are committed to doing, and what help you are hoping for. If you ask someone and they aren’t fully on board, that’s okay. Thank them for their honesty and for considering it, and then move on.

–Ensure they are committed to the process, i.e. Will they show up consistently? When will you meet and what time? Be very transparent at the outset about how important this process is to you.

What you’ll need to do:

-Verbally commit to whomever you are accountable to. Let your accountability buddy know what you are practicing and when you will commit to accomplishing a task. By committing out loud to her, you are committing to yourself.

-Commit to the process and to progress, rather than the outcome. This will also allow you to pivot when needed and to be as agile as possible, especially when setbacks occur. Greatness is born from lots of failed attempts.

Having this type of accountability structure in place will help you to go down a path of consistent progress, even when it gets hard. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, our next level of ambition almost always gets hard. The good news though is that you can create a structure for your success. When you get knocked down (and you will—it’s almost as assured as death and taxes!), you will have help dusting off and getting back into the arena of your personal success.

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