The Meritocracy Myth: Why “Success” is More Complicated Than You Think
Have you ever looked at a successful person and wondered if they really earned it or just got lucky?
Some levels of success and reward just don’t seem fair.
Sure, Jeff Bezos is a smart guy, but does he really deserve to have a net worth of 105 billion dollars?
How about the man chasing his heels — Bill Gates? Gates has given away more money in a single moment than most of us could ever fathom making in a lifetime and he’s still filthy rich.
Is their success merit-based, or is there something else going on beneath the surface?
The truth about success is complicated. It’s definitely not all merit-based.
There’s quite a bit of luck involved.
Understanding this fact and knowing what to do with it, though, is one of the most important keys to becoming successful in life.
“If one puts an infinite number of monkeys in front of (strongly built) typewriters and lets them clap away, there is a certainty that one of them [will] come out with an exact version of the ‘Iliad,’” — Nassim Taleb
Many of the people you see on Forbes magazine, Entrepreneur, or any publication or website that worships the extremely rich or successful may fall under the category of a “lucky monkey.”
This isn’t to say they’re not smart, but the fact they made it big doesn’t prove the steps they made caused them to make it big.
You can have a great idea or invention in mind, but your brain might be a few years ahead of the technology needed to turn your idea into reality.
You might be intelligent, but you might not have the right connections in your network to reach the same level of success as someone who has them.
Maybe the most troubling truth, you can do everything right and still fail.
This is the idea behind survivorship bias: we mythologize the “habits and grand vision of successful people” without realizing many people use the same strategies and fail.
For every Buffet, Musk, Winfrey, Bezos, Degeneres, Obama, and Kardashian (yeah, I said it), there are thousands of people with the same intelligence, drive, beauty, savvy, expertise, and will to win who don’t become extremely successful.
You can use the exact same techniques as someone else and have dramatic differences in results.
This begs the question — why do I give tips for success if success is random? I’ve struggled with that question myself. I don’t have guaranteed answers. I can’t promise taking action x will certainly lead to outcome y. But here’s what I do know — self-help is useful when taken with a grain of salt.
You can’t take self-help advice verbatim. It’s better to put it through some filters:
In short, you want to look for habits, activities, and goals that have high odds of making your life better in general without tying them to specific outcomes.
A good example here: you should read more books because good books tend to make you smarter. At the same time realize the fact that “the average CEO reads 60 books per year” doesn’t mean reading will make you a CEO.
Avoid taking the traits of a small number of successful people and making them your blueprint for getting the same results.
Most billionaires aren’t billionaires because they read. They’re billionaires because they had a great idea and got extremely lucky at the same time.
Again, Taleb put it best when he said:
With this advice filter in mind, here’s my remedy for becoming successful in spite of survivorship bias.
Understanding how the world works often means accepting things you wish weren’t true but are.
When it comes to survivorship bias, luck, success, hard work, and the combination of them all, accepting some of the following truths up front gives you a better chance of following through when things don’t work out your way, and maybe more importantly, when they do.
We don’t fear failure. We fear doing everything the right way, working really hard, and still failing.
This excerpt from The Last Psychiatrist explains our feelings well:
Anyone who tells you your hard work will pay off in a specific way at a specific time is lying. In an isolated situation, you could put all your chips on the table and “lose the hand.”
In the long run, though, taking enough stabs at worthwhile goals tends to work out. It’s just painful to get through. So it goes.
Part of the success equation is out of your hands, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. When dealing with the fear of failure I always contemplate the other route — not doing anything at all and definitely not reaching my goals.
One hurts like a band-aid being ripped off. The latter is a chronic dull pain you experience every day. No thanks.
At the end of the day, you have a very short time on this planet. Stop giving a shit. You can do everything right and “fail” but you won’t be a failure because you tried. That’s all the world asks of you. Try.
The arrows of circumstance point in a lot of different directions all at once. A less complicated way to say this is — some people will get better results than you because everything fell into place at the right time out of chance.
There are better writers than J.K. Rowling. And definitely E.L. James.
There are thousands of computer nerds smarter than Bill Gates who could’ve figured out the technology behind Microsoft. He happened to be at the right place at the right time and ended up making a business deal that’s impossible to make today.
In your field, it’s important to stay grounded in your actions instead of getting caught up in envy. It’s also important to remember there are two sides to that coin.
You’ve had breaks other people haven’t. You’re not the smartest person in the world, either. Each of us gets a mixture of talent and luck. What the chemist of circumstance cooks up isn’t always fair. That’s life. Deal with it.
There’s saying along the lines of, “Getting rich is easy. Staying rich is hard.” See, randomness and the survivorship bias effect goes both ways. Sometimes it causes other people to advance ahead of you out of sheer luck. It can also cause you to advance further than others out of luck.
When you succeed, don’t start to believe you have the golden touch. This overconfidence can cause you to fail.
I worked my ass off to get where I am today.
But I grew up middle class with college-educated parents.
I’m no Mensa member, but I’m pretty sure I have an above average IQ.
My writing career started solely because of a few chance encounters.
Many things that weren’t in my control went my way. At the same time, I’ve had failures and bad breaks that had nothing to do with effort.
I try to adopt the beginner’s attitude at all times and make fewer assumptions about what will happen in the future. My past success doesn’t guarantee future success. I try to honor and appreciate the role luck played in my life (and I’m less judgmental of people who don’t “succeed”).
Success and failure always contain a mixture of effort and luck. Don’t give yourself too much credit for success or too much blame for failure.
When I first learned about the concept of survivorship bias, it made me think about everything I thought I knew up to that point.
I used to believe that every successful person got there out of pure merit. I now know that’s not true.
So what does that mean for me?
What does that mean for you?
It means we need to adopt an attitude that deals with the role chance plays in our lives.
Here are some of the “rules” I’ve adopted.
From billionaire business owners to movie stars to everyone we worship and build pedestals for — 99 percent of those people are at the top purely because of survivorship bias. Following their examples will definitely not yield even close to the same results.
In those articles about “the steps becoming a billionaire” the writers always miss one step — get extremely lucky.
Don’t waste ten minutes of your life reading b.s. success articles. That includes my work. If it smells fishy. Run.
Adopt the mindset of a savvy gambler. Each goal you have is like a hand you play in poker. Your circumstances are like the rest of the players in the game.
Annie Duke discusses this analogy in detail in her book, Thinking in Bets. A poker player turned probability consultant, Duke talks about making life decisions in a game-like fashion:
Here’s another good analogy for survivorship bias. In a poker tournament, sometimes a brand new player who’s not that skilled just…gets lucky and wins a tournament.
But often you see the same players at the final table over and over again. There are repeat tournament winners and players who usually always go (pretty) far in each tournament.
Life is the same way. You want to increase your odds of success. You increase your odds by building new skills, setting and attempting to reach new goals, and repeating the process over and over again until it works.
Is there a route in life where you do everything right repeatedly and become an abject failure in 100 percent of your attempts? I suppose. But it’s unlikely.
You have to roll the dice.
We all know the core traits you need to have success. I don’t need to list them out.
What’s important, though, is focusing on those traits and measuring yourself by them.
That’s how you stay sane in a random and chaotic world.
You don’t get to live in a fair world. I’m sorry. You just don’t. It’s impossible.
You do get to have an adventure, though.
And a grand adventure you can make — twist and turns included.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether anyone else’s success is due to luck. Just focus on what you can control.
And remember how lucky you are.
Just to be here. To get a chance to do this at all.
The Meritocracy Myth: Why “Success” is More Complicated Than You Think
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