Earned Success and the Activation Formula

What is Earned Success

Colonel Gary E. Payton, a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and former Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs as well as a former astronaut on board the space shuttle program’s first military flight in 1985 introduced the concept of Earned Success at the US Airforce Academy Acceptance Day in 2017.

He said that each of these Basic Cadets (Basics) has completed something that can never be taken away and they will look back on this experience with great pride ultimately leading to happiness. He went on to say that studies have shown that true sustainable happiness is mostly achieved through some level of Earned Success. This means that someone attempted something they may not have thought they could do but persevered and achieved their desired goals, objectives, or outcomes. By succeeding at something that is hard and challenging, that person has achieved some level of success. The Colonel was speaking to the nearly 1,000 Basics and said that they have completed something that can never be taken away and will always be looked back on as a pinnacle moment or pinnacle time frame in each respective Basics’ lives.

As the Basics stood at attention for what seemed like an eternity after six weeks of intense training, I watched several faint from fatigue and heat. In that moment, I didn’t think the Basics really understood that this would be a point that they would look at and derive joy and happiness later in their lives.

As somebody in the crowd, I was proud of all the Basics that were able to accomplish something very significant at a young age that will fuel their success and happiness in the future. I also embraced the concept of Earned Success and began doing some reading and research on it. It turns out that economist and author, Dr. Arthur Brooks, has done extensive work in the area of Earned Success and how it leads to happiness. According to Dr. Brooks, Earned Success is the creation of value in our lives or in the lives of others. Earned Success is the motivation for entrepreneurs who seek value through innovation, hard work, and passion. Earned Success is what parents feel when their children do wonderful things, what social innovators feel when they change lives, what artists feel when they create something of beauty.

My interpretation of this is that people feel more fulfilled and happier when they accomplish something that was hard. It is accomplishing a goal that might have been considered unachievable; accomplishing something you thought you couldn’t do. Dr. Brooks also said, not only is Earned Success a major key to happiness – faith, family, and community are as well.

A key ingredient to achieving success is first believing you have the potential to succeed and second having someone else that believes in your potential. Two years after completing Basic Cadet Training at the Air Force Academy my daughter switched roles. She became a Cadre (the person responsible for training and developing the next class of USAFA Basic Cadets – the one who yells at the incoming freshman Basics). Having gone through BCT two years prior, she had confidence in each of the incoming Basics that they had the potential to succeed. While her (and other cadre’s) message may have been hard, she was confident in the potential of each Basic. She took pride in encouraging incoming Basics and motivating them to achieve Earned Success.

Unfortunately, the corporate world is often driven by the quest for the almighty dollar; employees work longer and longer days at the office to earn larger and larger paychecks to buy bigger and bigger houses and fancier and fancier cars, showing off to people they don’t even know – all in the hopes that this will lead to happiness. This is a bit like my dog that used to chase her tail around in circles never catching it. There are many studies showing that material pursuits do not lead to happiness. Research shows that people who are active in their community and engaged with their family tend to be happier than those that pursue, at all costs, financial and material success.

Going back to the question asked by the CEOs, “why aren’t my employees motivated.” I started seeing a trend that company leaders believed their employees were seeking happiness through receiving a paycheck. Many of these leaders were entrepreneurs and their motivation for starting the company was to achieve “financial” success and they simply thought the same was true for their employees. Unfortunately for them, human behavioral science and dramatic shifts in social behaviors say the CEOs are fighting a losing battle if they think their employees work for cash alone. In his book, “Culture Trumps Everything,” Gustavo Grodnitzky states that people work harder for a Cause than for cash. He goes on to say that money is the most expensive way to motivate people, and it does so only in the short term. Social norms (driven by confidence in potential that lays the foundation for culture) are not only cheaper, but they last longer and are more effective.

The Activation Formula

After learning of Earned Success, I realized this is the key to motivation and how people are inspired to achieve success. If Earned Success leads to fulfillment, how do we integrate Earned Success as a formula into our lives? This triggered a comparison to Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity equation, E=mc2. I am not a physicist, but the essence of this equation piqued my interest and its connection to motivation was obvious. Einstein’s equation basically focuses on converting mass to energy. Isn’t this how leaders activate potential? I wondered, there must be a process that can be formulaically outlined where motivation (energy) can move people (mass). That’s when it occurred to me that Earned Success is the outcome and we need to identify the equation that leads to Earned Success. The “Activation Formula” became the formula for leaders to activate potential and achieve Earned Success. The Activation Formula is:

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