Posts Tagged ‘Success’

How much of success is due to luck?

June 26, 2016

I posted an earlier version of this on July 19, 2013

I think the vast majority of highly successful people have talent and grit.  But not everybody with talent and grit succeeds.

Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”  Somebody else said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”  Both sayings are true.  Both sayings also recognize the element of chance.

We Americans admire successful risk-takers and think they should be rewarded.  The reason we do that is that, by definition, most risk-takers fail.


Why Americans Ignore How Luck Affects Everything by Jesse Singal for Science of Everything.

Richard Sherman on the art of success

May 12, 2014

No matter what your field, you’ll benefit from research, analysis, strategic planning, careful preparation and self-discipline.

G.K. Chesterton on the fallacy of success

October 13, 2013
G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton, journalist, essayist and author of the Father Brown detective stories, wrote the following in 1909 about books purporting to give the secrets of success.

These writers profess to tell the ordinary man … … how, if he is a grocer, he may become a sporting yachtsman; how, if he is a tenth-rate journalist, he may become a peer; and how, if he is a German Jew, he may become an Anglo-Saxon.  This is a definite and business-like proposal, and I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back. 

Nobody would dare to publish a book about electricity which literally told one nothing about electricity; no one would dare to publish an article on botany which showed that the writer did not know which end of a plant grew in the earth.  Yet our modern world is full of books about Success and successful people which literally contain no kind of idea, and scarcely any kind of verbal sense.

It is perfectly obvious that in any decent occupation (such as bricklaying or writing books) there are only two ways (in any special sense) of succeeding.  One is by doing very good work, the other is by cheating.  Both are much too simple to require any literary explanation. 

If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so.  If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards.  You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist.  But you cannot want a book about Success.

After pointing out some ridiculous examples of the genre, Chesterton concluded:

Let us hope that we shall all live to see these absurd books about Success covered with a proper derision and neglect. They do not teach people to be successful, but they do teach people to be snobbish; they do spread a sort of evil poetry of worldliness. The Puritans are always denouncing books that inflame lust; what shall we say of books that inflame the viler passions of avarice and pride?

A hundred years ago we had the ideal of the Industrious Apprentice; boys were told that by thrift and work they would all become Lord Mayors.  This was fallacious, but it was manly, and had a minimum of moral truth.  In our society, temperance will not help a poor man to enrich himself, but it may help him to respect himself.  Good work will not make him a rich man, but good work may make him a good workman. The Industrious Apprentice rose by virtues few and narrow indeed, but still virtues.

But what shall we say of the gospel preached to the new Industrious Apprentice; the Apprentice who rises not by his virtues, but avowedly by his vices?

Click on The Fallacy of Success to read the whole essay and All Things Considered for a collection of Chesterton essays.

Hat tips to Mustapha Abiola and

Fun, money, honesty: pick any two?

February 8, 2012

Enjoy your work.

Make lots of money.

Work within the law.

Pick any two.

I don’t know who originated this.  It is clever, but is it really true?  Joseph Wilson of Xerox, Dr. Edwin Land of Polaroid, Milton S. Hershey of Hershey’s Chocolate, and George Romney of American Motors were examples of business executives who were decent, honorable, enormously successful and, by all accounts, happy, and there are plenty of examples outside the world of business.

Equating the unethical with the practical is a way of excusing unethical behavior and also a way of excusing failure.  This kind of thinking goes back a long time.  G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man speculated that ancient Carthaginians sacrificed infant children to Moloch because they thought that just because this was so savage and cruel, it would be practical and effective.  I could imagine a Carthaginian merchant saying, “Our religion might not be very pretty, but it works.”

I don’t think Chesterton knew much about ancient history, but he had great insight into universal human nature.  Today’s admiration for greed and ruthlessness in business is no more rational than the worship of Moloch.  Rationality means behaving toward others in such a way as to make it in their self-interest that you succeed.

Bertrand Russell said that if people really understood their self-interest, their behavior would be on a higher ethical level than it is.  He wrote nearly 90 years ago in Skeptical Essays: “It may be laid down as a general rule to which there are few exceptions that, when people are mistaken as to what is to their own interest, the course they believe to be wise is more harmful to others than the course that really is wise.”

When I was small, we boys would organize games, and everybody was expected to play by the rules.  If you cheated, nobody would play with you.   In adult life, it takes longer for cheating to catch up with you, but very often (alas, not always) it does.

Good intentions alone won’t make you succeed, but neither are crookedness and double-dealing a magic formula for success.  The saddest thing in the world is somebody who has in effect sold their soul in return for success, and failed to find a buyer.

Click on shirky’s law: “equality. fairness. opportunity. pick two” for a related “law,” somewhat off topic, of which I also am skeptical.  I found the “enjoy, money, law” version in the comment section of that post.

Click on Shirky: Power Laws, Weblogs and Inequality for thoughts on the sources of success in blogging, and an argument (with which I disagree) that these are the same as the rules for success in the real world.

Drugs and the struggle for success

May 18, 2010

A friend of mine who teaches in college says that students nowadays take memory-enhancing drugs so they’ll do better on exams. They don’t admit it themselves, but they all say they know others who do.

And what, those students may ask, is wrong with that?  How is it different from drinking coffee to stay alert?  If people can make themselves smarter, stronger, less depressed or more focused by taking a drug, isn’t this a good thing?

Well, it depends.  If everybody used these drugs, would it be of benefit to all? Would everybody be able to function on a higher level? Or are these drugs part of a zero-sum game, whose only purpose is to gain an advantage over those who don’t use drugs? No chemical substances that has any biological effect at all is entirely without risk. What do we know about the side effects?

It is like plastic surgery.  No reasonable person would object to plastic surgery for someone who was disfigured.  But what about a reasonably attractive person who wants to become even more attractive? Suppose everybody did this.  Would the percentage of people regarded as attractive increase? Or would there merely be a raising of the bar for the standard of beauty?

Competition is a means to an end, not a good in itself.  Competition is good when it encourages people to strive for excellence. It is not good when it encourages people to do things that are harmful to themselves or others just to win.

Whatever you or I answer, one segment of society will have no qualms about performance-enhancing drugs.  That is the military.  If you think it is all right to order people to do things that put them at high risk of being killed, you can’t reasonably object to giving them drugs to reduce that risk.  And where the military goes today, the rest of society goes tomorrow.

Was it merit? Or was it luck?

May 13, 2010

Is Bill Gates one of the world’s richest men because he is smarter and harder-working than everybody else? Or is his wealth due to luck?

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers points out the advantages Bill Gates had.  First, like many of the pioneers of the computer industry, he was born in the 1950s. He came of age just when Altair introduced the first do-it-yourself personal computer kit was introduced in 1975.  Moreover, as a teenager, he attended one of the few private schools with its own state-of-the-art computer, and graduated from high school with thousands of hours of experience in programming – an opportunity that very few people had in that era.

Microsoft Corp. took off when IBM Corp. commissioned him to provide an operating system for its new PC and neglected to require Gates to sign an exclusive contract.  If IBM had done so, Gates would never have been able to make the MS-DOS operating system a standard for the whole computer industry.

So, yes, Bill Gates had opportunities that nobody else had, but he had the intelligence and determination to use these opportunities in ways that not everybody would have done.  And, yes, somebody else would have created a standard computer operating system if Microsoft hadn’t done so, but it was Bill Gates who would have done so.  Yes, success depends on good luck, but, as Louis Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind.

Even when success is wholly a matter of luck, as in a lottery, you need to offer a prize if entice people to enter the lottery.

I don’t begrudge Bill Gates his billions.  He helped create something of value.  The only people I resent are those who got rich not by creating something of value, but by milking the system to enrich themselves at others’ expense.  Unfortunately we don’t have good ways of distinguishing between the two.