Is there a more tempting question to ask than this: “what is the key to your success?”
Blogs, books, and research are dedicated to harvesting the secrets of success from the presumed successes.
Doubtless, you’ve read, even from this column, tips to reach your goals. But there’s a problem with this advice.
When you ask, “what makes you successful?” you purchase a ticket to a freak show of half-truths, outright lies, and fantasies cut from whole cloth. And here’s how you know that’s the truth.
First, success is highly personal. What you perceive as success, much like perfection, is merely a set of observable outcomes that appeal to you, such as status, wealth, or owning two PS5s. Invariably, these perceptions differ between people.
Meanwhile, the presumed successes are on the precipice of failure. The clock starts ticking when they buy into the idea that they are an unqualified success and others need their guidance. It’s a matter of time before the public writes them off and relegates them to the indices of history.
So they buy into the premise and begin to answer the question. Whether they’re incredibly fit, popular on social media, or have a high-value business, the modest will thank the people around them and the luck they found along the way.
But the dangerous individuals will prescribe us a step-by-step process to become them. We, the unsuccessful, who clamor for such answers, will follow their guidance. We believe that by repeating their behaviors, we gain their rewards. My client is one such person profoundly sick with this mental illness.
He looks to organizations 100x his size and mimics their behaviors. They use this color scheme, and so will he. They use this copy, and so will he. They have this feature, so must he offer it. Rather than outmaneuver his opponents by employing his unique gifts, he attempts to beat them at their own game, a game in which they are the clear frontrunner.
This practice is poisonous because success rarely understands its nature to the fullest extent. And the observer, studying exclusively the observable traits of the successful, fails to account for the Invisibles.
And while we fall prey to this mimicking practice with games of the mind, we rarely do with games of the body. How many people watch an Olympic gymnastics routine and think, “oh yeah, sign me up, I can do that.”? In physical performance, all machinations are visible: we see muscles at work and the body in continuous and harmonious motion.
Furthermore, it’s common knowledge that the world’s best athletes are born with genetic advantages and compound them with intense training regimens. Top athletes are both born and made.
Yet we pop onto social media, see someone with a million followers smiling in their profile picture, and think, well, I need to post 2x a day and write once a week, and I’ll have a huge following, and I’ll be rich. Preposterous, I know, but thousands of us think thoughts such as this each day.
We cannot observe the machinations of mind games, so we ignore their existence. We reduce success to a rational, school-like series of procedures that anyone can mimic and, in so doing, reap the predictable reward.
But that is like watching someone perform a personal branding quadruple axle and thinking, “yeah, strap me in; I’m ready to do that.”
I don’t know what it takes to succeed because no one does. Please don’t ask me. But here’s something I would like you to ask yourself before hunting for tips: what does success look like in a world without idols?