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The Formula for Success

The Formula for Success

Many of us have been searching for this our entire lives.

If you grew up in typical pre-Internet circumstances, life was most fair when you were a child. This will still be true if you’re a digital native, just a bit less so.

Your job as a kid was to go to school. The teachers taught lessons, and you took tests. The lessons were simple, and nearly every child had the ability to get a B just by paying attention and an A with a little preparation. For the most part, kids who went home, turned off the electronics, and studied did the best. Kids who threw their backpacks on the couch and played video games all night did the worst.

Grades didn’t matter much at first, but as time went on the students were separated into different classes based on performance, and, at least when I was a kid, the high-level classes could award grades better than an A–above 100%–to compensate for the increased workload. By the time grades started counting toward GPA and class rank, the lower-performing students, in the standard classes, were irretrievably behind.

By this time, you were conscious of a pattern.

The Rule:

harder work = better results

Perhaps by the end of High School and, if not, by some time in college, you had to adjust that rule. At some point, hard work wasn’t enough. Students who succeeded in sports or difficult classes had to work hard and have “gifts” or aptitudes.

New Rule:

some function of hard work and talent = better results

That might have been a tough blow if you weren’t talented. But there was a lot of reinforcement for the rule in the world around you. When you went to your first real job or visited your parents at their jobs, you probably noticed that the people in the suits not only behaved but moved and spoke differently than the people pushing the brooms. They had all of their teeth, they used different words, their clothes were neat and clean, and they showed up on time. If asked, the best, most successful of them not only knew how to do their own jobs, but the jobs of most of the people around them.

New Rule:

better people = better results???

The upside of that rule was that it inspired you to be a better person, to improve your talents so far as you were able. The downside was that it might have inspired you to feel that the people above you were better than you or, maybe worse, to assume you were better than the people below you. It’s not the healthiest, most generous way to see life, and I don’t endorse it, but a lot of people feel that way, and it more or less worked when the CEO made 5x what you did.

Occasionally you’d run into “some kid” who’s first job straight out of college was to be your boss’s boss’s boss. That wasn’t easy to take, but you could live with it, and the rule mostly held.

Plugging In

Then comes the Internet, and we all “meet” people who have up to 1,000,000x times more than we do—and a lot of them look and talk like the janitors at our parent’s office. Some of us (at least this is how I hear it) assume these rich people are 1,000,000 times better than the rest of us. They worship the rich like lesser gods, scour the Net for scraps of information about them, buy their 6x9” books, and repeat their hackneyed witticisms like holy scripture.

I don’t personally know anyone like that, but I hear they’re out there and I know those 6x9” books are selling.

We all get a little star struck by someone, but the people I know personally, even the most stridently non-intellectual, process 1MMx outcomes as a mathematical, philosophical problem to be solved. Their first priority is to adjust the rule. Because, if you have the “right” rule, you can buy the “right” 6x9” books, repeat the “right” hackneyed witticisms, have the “right” position, feel the “right” way about yourself, and in general be “right” … which, given the role of luck—we’re coming to that—in so many other forms of success, may be the most righteous measure of a person we have.

So, we end up throwing around a few terms: outliers, fat tails, and privilege are useful to describe the phenomenon of 1MMx outcomes and halo effect is used to describe the mindset of people who aren’t savvy enough to recognize the role of luck.

And now we can improve our rule.

New Rule:

some function of hard work, talent, and luck10 = better results

For what it’s worth, that’s probably accurate, and I’ve preached it myself. An extremely hard-working friend once told me that he believed he could have been born anywhere in the world and in any situation and been as successful. I pointed out that he’d maybe quintupled the wealth of his parents and might expect to do the same if his parents had lived in a slum. “As successful”, yes; “as wealthy”, not even close.

I’ve been as quick as anyone to toss out a cursory “life isn’t fair” to console a defeated friend.

I have read, and enjoyed, and still enjoy 6x9” books about the role of luck in our lives:

… are two of my favorites, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both authors got famous around the time Facebook and Twitter took off in the late-middle 00s.

I blog about probability and statistics, cautioning others not the be Fooled by Randomness.

But don’t be fooled by Fooled by Randomness.

The work, talent, and luck10 rule is probably right, but is it worth saying out loud? By repeating the rule, I scored a point in an argument with a friend, but I scored the wrong point. Because, as right as the rule may be, IT MEANS NOTHING unless you’re trying to pick out a book or win an argument.

The Only Rule That Matters is This One:

The harder ~I~ work, the better results ~I~ will have.

It was right in 3rd grade, and it’s still right, and if whatever rule we use to explain other people’s success contradicts or even distracts from the only rule that matters, then it’s not worth repeating (at least not so often as we do), even if it is—for what it’s worth—accurate.

Compete with yourself.