Blog, Commentary

Scattered thoughts on thinking about success

I was emailed this excerpt from an HBR article recently:

Before trying to pursue a significant goal, especially a professional one, it’s important to assess whether you have the ability to achieve it. Consider two things:

  1. Do you have the required core capacities: knowledge, skills, and personal characteristics?
  2. Are your capacities as good as or better than those of other people with the same goal?

If you answer no to either question, you should consider revising your goal. If you answer yes to both, make sure you’re not succumbing to one of these five common fallacies:

  • The hard-work fallacy: Believing that determined effort will compensate for your shortcomings
  • The smarts fallacy: Thinking that general intelligence translates into specific skills
  • The magnification fallacy: Assuming that your particular talent is somehow more special than your peers’
  • The passion fallacy: Believing you’re good at things just because you really enjoy them or because they are immensely important to you
  • The “wishing will make it so” fallacy: Convincing yourself that success (for you, anyway) will be easy

So this is an interesting concept, but it feels a little bit like the cold-reading of self-help business writing, because it could apply to everything, but it could also apply to nothing. The inverse of those conditions are also truisms, right? Don’t measure yourself against other people in order to gauge your success; everyone is different. If you wait until you are absolutely sure of all conditions for success before starting, you will never start anything, so start before you’re ready. (That second one is a big thing in programming – start a project before you know what you’re doing, and learn as you go.)

I mean, think about what the inverse of one of those “common fallacies” would actually say: “Determined effort is no guarantee for success”. “Being intelligent does not necessarily mean you have skills”. “Your unique skill set is actually not unique”. “You’re might suck at things even if you really love them and try really hard.” They might be more “realistic”–whatever that means–but those types of thoughts are all also oftentimes symptoms that someone is, well, clinically depressed.

And while it’s true that clinical depression has been linked with a more harsh worldview that does indeed take into account these fallacies, it’s certainly no way to live. These rules also neglects the “risk assessment” portion of decision making – sure, nothing is a guarantee, but what are the chances I’ll succeed, even though I’m not unique or skillful and only have hard work and passion? Well, that depends on your definition of success, but I would say they’re not too terrible, especially if you are privileged enough that you have free time to read HBR articles (or know what HBR is). Hard work (which assumes that you are able-bodied in a way that’s suited for the work you need to do) and passion (which often translates into perseverance) are harder to come by than you’d think.

Plus, maybe someone else has the same goal and has more absolute “capacity”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a zero sum game. Maybe both of you can succeed in similar measures, or that someone else might get a better version of that goal (Ubisoft instead of Zynga if you’re both game devs) without knocking you off your rail. Since both of you have a mix of different types of capacity, even if theirs is “objectively” better than yours, there will be specific circumstances where one trait will be more important than another, and vice versa (e.g. sometimes personal characteristics like eagerness to learn will outweigh absolute technical skills). It’s not like capacity is a raw score from 0-100 – it’s a mix of a variety of interacting factors that are difficult to predict.

Those “fallacies” also ignore the halo effect – confident people seem like they know what they’re doing, so people believe in them more. There’s a reason “fake it ’till you make it” is a popular mantra. In many instances, being deluded about your chances for success actually is not a bad trait to have, as long as it doesn’t preclude you from learning things you don’t know.

TL;DR: Success is large; it contains multitudes.

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