How Do We ‘Succeed’?

Failure and success both imply personal responsibility. People call other people success or failures and worse still people call themselves failures or successes by comparison to others. This is partly a marketing issue: the examples that media parade and are celebrated by our nearby humans are, by nature, exceptions; outliers of the statistical norms. The big name celebrities. We trace the pattern of what we ought to be not from what there is in fact but what there is in fantasy—many of us want to be an X, Y, Z on IMDB, Nature, the BBC or whatever outlet of power out of a dim sense it would satisfy us. We feel that way out of a mammalian desire for power, through money or influence, we feel, we can ensure our survival and the propagation of our bodily genes and our mindful memes.

There’s that true evolutionary psychology argument, but culture contributes to nature—the creation of huge middle classes sets the baseline higher and the aspiration line too high for everyone to ever occupy. The difference between baseline and aspiration is proven by immigrants proud and happy to work jobs privileged natives are ashamed to; their aspirations are met because of a lower base and aspiration line. By the proliferation of how-to-be-a-leader guides which ignore how leaders must, by definition, be outnumbered by followers. By the “money and power does not bring happiness” line said by people that, funnily enough, forfeit neither.

What that all comes down to is a little thing called Meritocracy. Where rewards are theoretically determined by ability rather than birth or circumstances. Anyone could become a Nobel winner, for instance, because there’s no prejudices other than performance criteria. But we all know that isn’t how it works: that to become a Nobel winner is an exceptional feat celebrated exactly because of that. When one takes that peak or outlier performance it becomes obvious that favourable circumstances predetermined their success.

If we can recognise how their brains were made unique by favourable circumstances (pushy parents, moneyed schooling, genetic predisposition, obsession) we ought to, then, accept that the polar of success – failure, does not come from a lack of trying but circumstances overruling what anyone can succeed and fail at because circumstances determine how people spend their time, even the choices they make depend and are triggered by the set given to them.

Mozart became a young genius because his father, a music teacher, made him. Albert Einstein was born an autistic obsessive savant. Jorge Luis Borges became an amazing writer because his father was a failed writer who trained him. Stephen Hawking became famous for the tragedy of his disease more than his discoveries. Steve Jobs plagiarised a now forgotten company. Bill Gates became the Microsoft founder as an effect of his school having an early computer.

That life is a lottery is a commonplace that we rarely extend into to our own emotions or treatment of others. We blame and praise people, but what we blame or praise are products of neuron myelination and clocked spare hours. When we praise a Usain Bolt or a Michael Phelps we praise freakishness – bodies with championship proportioned limbs suited to their sport. When we praise a Jorge Luis Borges and an Albert Einstein we praise bank accounts and spoilt behaviour. So when we shame others and ourselves we similarly ought not to shame them but their forcing into low income and labour occupied hours—circumstances rather than individual responsibility.

Here History can come in and have a liberating influence: none of us as any philosopher – Camus, Russell, Wittgenstein – would say we are totally free. Everyone is trapped by body, personality, brain’s experience, financial, social, technological, and cultural forces. Nowadays there is dustbin disposal and packaging and distribution instead of serfs and lords but every society with an implicit money reward scheme has a hierarchy.

Accepting our fate is unfashionable but inevitable. But there is a distinction between what is given and what we make of our lives; between fate and destiny. Everyone sane has to accept their fate, but almost every happy person has to (at least endeavour) to fulfill a destiny.

For how to become a success there are books like Outliers and Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise that give evidence-based methods for progressing at whatever it is you want to; and also, to not feel down because you never had the correct doses of a skill in childhood—most of that, by definition, is fate, not ‘you’ at all.

Oh and a festive message? That we all come together for a ritual to, in part, acknowledge how our selves are not self-reliant or self-made at all.

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