This is a guest post by the daughter of Steve Denning, Stephanie Denning, who writes about leadership issues from a Millennial perspective. The views expressed here are her own.
Have you ever wondered: If only I were as successful as say, Warren Buffett, I would be a happy person, I would be content?
So have I.
I don’t know why, because I rationally know it isn’t true. That there are many variables that influence happiness. But we are a culture that conflates happiness and success.
The problem with this thinking is we are actively setting ourselves up to fail. Success isn’t so simple. Anyone who has spent any time in the real world already knows this.
One popular myth floating around about success is that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is what it takes to develop expertise. We like this idea, it makes it seem like success is just within reach. If you work hard, you will succeed.
Unfortunately, success is a lot more random than we’d like to think. Success is part work, part luck.
Hard work we understand, but luck is a hard concept to wrap our heads around. And it had never really been quite clear to me how much of our success is driven by hard work versus luck. Until I stumbled upon Michael Mauboussin’s marvelous book The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing (2012: Harvard BusinessPress).
1. Not all skills are created equal
In my first job I watched in awe as one of the smartest people in the company got fired. I suspect it's because he just didn’t fit into the company culture. If hard work was the only driver of skill, these stories would cease to exist.
“Deliberate practice is powerful in domains where it applies, including chess, music, and sports,” Mauboussin writes. “But acknowledging its limits is crucial. A number of the popular books that celebrate deliberate practice fail to distinguish between when it works and when it doesn’t.”
Mauboussin offers a continuum that looks a little something like this:
Mauboussin explains: “At the right side of the continuum, the key to improvement is deliberate practice.”
The reality is that very few jobs fall on the right of the spectrum. In my own experience, I’ve come to believe every job has an invisible bar of competency. Beyond this bar, any additional expertise you gain will have diminishing returns. Interestingly, I’ve realized that that threshold is often a lot lower than I ever expect.
2. Your environment can make or break you
“When we observe the success of others,” Mauboussin explains, “we fall victim to the fundamental attribution error. In this context, the error is the tendency to base our explanation of what happens on an individual’s skill rather than the situation.” An individual’s success is most often attributed to the individual; rarely do we assign their success to the environment or system they are in.
You are carried by the success (and failure) of your environment.
The influence of your environment doesn’t stop there. Your environment subconsciously influences your definition of success. Here’s an example:
I went to college in New York where success was defined by getting a job in finance. Going into college I had no clue what finance even meant, nor any initial interest in it, but it didn’t take long to assimilate that success in school was synonymous with finding a job in finance. I also happened to graduate in 2009. You would think graduating college during the Great Recession would prompt us to shun the world of finance. But instead we embraced it. The finance jobs were far more scarce, which made them all the more enviable.
It is human nature to absorb your environment’s definition of success. But I can attest from my own experience, you’ll only go in circles if you only follow everyone else’s definition of success.
3. The butterfly effect is a real thing
When most college grads are let loose into the wild after graduation, we are told we can do anything. Beware: Your first job out of college will impact the subsequent choices that present themselves to you. Mauboussin explains in The Success Equation: “A path-dependent process is one in which what happens next depends on what happened before. It’s a process that, in effect, has memory.”
Career choices are interdependent. Where you begin influences where you end up. I have one friend who’s trying to make the leap from a 100-hour-week-job at Goldman Sachs to a startup. He’s been at it for a year now. He has spent all of his vacation time on interviews with startups like AirBnB and the likes. Recently, he was flown out for a final interview only to learn they passed on giving him an offer. The feedback they give every time is he doesn’t have enough startup experience. Our history follows us around like baggage, whether we want it or not.
4. Your brain is a “baloney-generator”
Here is one of Mauboussin’s most interesting points: “One of the left hemisphere’s main jobs is to make sense of the world by finding a cause for every effect, even if the cause is nonsensical. […] Once we know the ending, we stand ready to create a narrative to explain how and why events unfolded as they did.”
Steven Pinker, preeminent Harvard psychologist, aptly named the part of your brain responsible for this mechanism as your brain’s Baloney-Generator.
It is eerie to think that our brain might ever be mistaken.
Kahneman and Tversky, the de facto psychologists today on biases, explain that because these biases happen automatically, it is very difficult for us to have any control over the process.
Another psychologist, Duncan Watts, makes the same point: “Common sense is extremely good at making the world seem sensible, quickly absorbing even the greatest surprises into a coherent-seeming world view.”
The takeaway: You have as much of a right to succeed as anybody else.
We constantly want to interpret success as having clear drivers. We study successful people thinking we can glean some insight into their success. Our brains are wired to identify cause and effect.
The problem is, as Mauboussin writes, “Attributing success to any strategy may be wrong simply because you’re sampling only the winners.”
Here’s what I’ve learned: Don’t be daunted by the people who have succeeded. (And don’t evangelize them either.) You have as much of a right to succeed as anybody else.