I’ll bet I know why you’re reading this: You want the secret of success. And today, I plan to deliver. But the secret isn’t what you think. It’s not a practice, business model, or trend. Those are all just by-products of the real secret. All the “best practices” in the world won’t bring you results unless you understand what really drives success. What is it? Simple: belief.

Beliefs are where it all starts—they determine everything. Beliefs about what’s possible guide the goals you’ll set. Beliefs about human nature guide whom you hire, how you pay them, and how you promote them. Beliefs about the future have an impact on your strategy. In short, your beliefs become policies that become results. As much as we love to think we’re logical, beliefs don’t come from logic. Beliefs aren’t about what’s true; they’re about what we happen to absorb from family, friends, and culture. When I was seven, I was happily singing away when my dad told me to plan on a different career choice. Wham! For thirty years I believed I couldn’t sing. (Six months with a voice teacher revealed a very nice singing voice, thank you very much. Who knew? Not my dad.)

So-called conventional wisdom is just beliefs. Everyone knows this is true, and no one questions it. Growth is good. Sure it is. I always love hearing Warren Buffett discuss See’s Candies, a business that funded some of his early acquisitions. Warren is keenly aware that See’s has a natural limit to how big it can get without hurting its business. So he lets it stay small (small by his standards). As the second richest man in the world, his beliefs about growth catch my eye.

(Note the hidden belief there? Do you believe being rich means someone is smarter, or that their opinions are worth listening to? That’s just a belief. It could be wrong.)

Beliefs are sticky. Once you have a belief, you’ll interpret the world to match the belief. You’ll throw away or discount evidence against the belief. Just listen to any political debate. When data supports a point of view, the proponents leap. When data doesn’t, they try to discredit the data. It’s the belief driving, not reality.

Drive your business by driving your beliefs

If beliefs drive everything else, you owe it to yourself to know your own beliefs and choose them carefully. You just need to decide what to believe and then use the real belief-creating methods to drive the belief home. Oddly, you don’t have to choose beliefs that correspond to reality. You can choose any beliefs at all, as long as they drive you to create the world you want to create. For example, you can believe people basically want to show up and do a good job. If you do, you’ll create structures and systems that support people doing so. In turn, people will show up and do a good job. The belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Next time you study the people you admire, ignore the details of what they think made the difference in their success. Instead, listen for their beliefs. When you see a company succeed by having dual career tracks for managers and scientists, the key isn’t so much the specific program. Try on the belief that there are multiple forms of excellence and you should offer multiple forms of success to celebrate them all. That underlying belief may well lead to more innovation than just dual career tracks.

Old beliefs get in the way

Even if you identify great new beliefs, your existing beliefs will fight back. You might decide to believe that organic, self-funded growth is the healthiest. Yet your dot-com-fueled fantasies of Google’s IPO keep insisting at the back of your mind that high-growth, high-profile is the path to a great company. Your old beliefs put up a formidable roadblock to the new.

When you start fighting yourself or saying, “Yes, but . . . ,” congratulate yourself! You’ve found a limiting belief. If you preface it by saying, “Of course, it’s human nature that . . .” or “Everybody knows . . . ,” then you know you’ve found a really powerful one.

So kill it. Mull your conventional wisdom over in your mind, and start taunting it. “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah. You’re a limiting belief. Get lost!” If you have fun with your belief, you actually weaken its hold. Slowly start playing “what if” and make them wilder and wilder. You’ll find yourself slipping outside the box of your own thinking.

Want some good ones to start with? Try challenging some of my favorite conventional wisdoms:

  • the goal of business is to make money for shareholders
  • growth is good
  • quarterly results matter
  • the size of my office matters
  • pay should be related to performance

people are our most important asset (if you’re in Houston, air conditioning is your most important asset, and don’t you forget it!)

Use emotion and selective attention to solidify the new belief. Remember that logic is the quickest way not to change a belief. Beliefs, like significant others, are impervious to logic. So go straight for emotion.

Contemplate something you believe is true. Notice the emotions you feel, “rightness,” or a confidence. And now hold that feeling while you start repeating your new belief to yourself. You literally want to start transferring your feelings of certainty to the new belief.

But feeling isn’t enough! You also have to train yourself to filter reality, just like your current beliefs filter reality. So start reviewing in your mind every example you can think of where your new belief held. If you’re adopting the belief, “we can find ways to partner with competitors,” start searching for every example you can find where competitors have partnered. For examples, read Co-opetition. Meditate on Microsoft buying a hundred-million-dollar chunk of Apple as the latter struggled for growth. Think about research joint ventures like the MIT Media Lab, where all partners pony up the bucks, and all share the results.

When you come across a counter-example, simply ignore it. “Gee,” you think, “my dad did business with a competitor and got wiped out.” Forget Dad’s two decades of bankruptcy and depression. Just focus on the times when partnering worked. Remember, you’re building a castle in the sky here. This isn’t about accuracy, it’s about training your emotions to act differently.

It’s OK to have an unreal belief—your current beliefs are just as unreal, only in the other direction. Remember: Beliefs just act as filters that help you direct behavior; they’re not about what’s real. You’re adopting beliefs because they will lead you to do different things, build different structures, and get different results than your current beliefs.

Regardless of belief, you still need a high-quality decision-making process. Making decisions should include a thoughtful phase where you leave beliefs behind and bring in data, real-world considerations, and lots of alternative viewpoints. That’s when you have the chance to avoid Dad’s fate, while still getting the benefits from “co-opetitive” innovations. You take reality into account in your decision-making process, not in your underlying beliefs.

There is a lot more to beliefs. They form the box that everyone seems to want to think outside of. They turn into organizational behavior, and they also have a deep impact on your own actions, your feelings, your family, and your culture. They’re one of the most powerful forces I know, and we’ve just scratched the surface here. I will be discussing beliefs on my blog and in my newsletter in weeks to come. Because the more you design your beliefs, the more you can create the results that you want in the world. Or at least, that’s my belief

Thinking Outside Your Beliefs

read time: 5 min