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A More Nuanced Look at Success

Overview

In this post I go over some thoughts I’ve been having recently regarding success, specifically how the majority of people tend to define it: the vast accumulation of wealth, status, or power. I look at what I see as the two sides: the Hustlers, and the Critics, who are ideologically opposed, and analyze their general sentiment. I finally provide my own consensus, a sort of middleground view, on how exactly success tends to be achieved, and practical steps that anyone can take.

Introduction

I think it’s safe to say that we all want success (defined here as the accumulation of wealth, status, or power). I mean, who wouldn’t? At least a little bit. I can see the arguments for why someone might not want huge success. But we all like to be somewhat successful. Whether it be in school, in our careers, or just in, say, a video game, success is a desire that seems universal in humans.

I think it’s also safe to say that some people are vastly more successful than others. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs are the kinds of names you hear a lot in the same sentence as that of “successful”. They have clearly accumulated large amounts of wealth, status, and power (wealth defined as the net worth of one’s financial assets, status defined as how reverable someone is viewed to be along with the number of people who hold that view, and power defined as the likelihood of one’s desires to be met either by others or by oneself).

The question that (most) everyone eventually asks is, of course, how? How did such individuals become so successful? The people that try to answer that question, however, seem to be quite drastically divided into two groups. I’ll call the first group: the Hustlers, and the second: the Critics.

You can see the viewpoints of the Hustlers dominating the self-help YouTube channels of Andrew Kirby, Matt D’Avella, Grant Cardone, and others, while the viewpoints of the Critics can often be seen in various Reddit threads criticizing billionaires, in the quite recent incel movement, and the far-left’s obsession over privilege and oppression.

The Hustler’s main point seems to be something along the lines of:

Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos/Steve Jobs and others like them are successful because they worked harder and smarter than the rest, i.e. their effort contributed almost entirely to their success.

While the Critic’s main point seems to be something along the lines of:

Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos/Steve Jobs and others like them are successful because they were born with/given/stumbled upon certain advantages (otherwise called privileges) more so than the rest, i.e. their privileges (and/or lack of disadvantages) contributed almost entirely to their success.

The Hustlers

I named them the Hustlers because that’s what those in the group often always say, to “keep hustling” and that success will eventually come. In the past couple of years with the rise of YouTube and Instagram and now even TikTok, there have been waves of people espousing this mentality of “always hustling”, “loving the grind”, and other such statements relating to the effort a person can expend towards their success.

These are the people who copy morning routines, who read a book a day with their lamborghini in their garage, who go on dopamine detoxes and meditate for 20 minutes, daily. They’re the type of people to tell you to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, and that “hard work equals success”, and other such platitudes. And they’re wrong. Kind of.

The Critics

I named them the Critics because that’s what those in the group often do. They criticize people. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s not, but it’s what they tend to with people who grow successful. They criticize that people don’t acknowledge their privileges, that they’re successful because of their parents or circumstances, that the government/economy/other people are out to get them or others like them because of their inherent disadvantages.

These are the people who tend to rant about wealth inequality on Twitter/YouTube/Reddit, who cry for ever more stringent taxes on the wealthly, who despise “oppression” and glorify “disadvantages”. They’re the type of people to tell you that “most ordinary people don’t have a chance”, and that their “disadvantages” (or lack of privilege) prevents them from achieving success, and other such platitudes. And they’re wrong. Kind of.

Why the Hustlers are Wrong

Again, the Hustler’s main point seems to be something along the lines of:

Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos/Steve Jobs and others like them are successful because they worked harder and smarter than the rest, i.e. their effort contributed almost entirely to their success.

Their core thesis revolves around personal effort, that one reaps what one sows, and that’s that. Well, unfortunately, it’s not so simple. The universe is quite chaotic and Earth is not unique. The vast majority of people on this planet live in developing nations according to the Human Development Index. As Parasite (2019) so beautifully and horrifyingly depicted, the gap between the rich and poor is almost insurmountable solely by one’s own effort due to the chaotic nature of the world and the large boosting power of privilege. The children of a family in a developed nation will almost surely be more successful than the children of a family in a developing nation, on average.

What you can do is often limited, but what the universe can enact is quite infinite. Unfortunate circumstances spring up in the most unfortunate of times, and it is by the laws of probability that dictate that those who survive tend to be those who were fortunate. But of course, there’s a catch.

Why the Critics are Wrong

Again, the Critic’s main point seems to be something along the lines of:

Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos/Steve Jobs and others like them are successful because they were born with/given/stumbled upon certain advantages (otherwise called privileges) more so than the rest, i.e. their privileges (and/or lack of disadvantages) contributed almost entirely to their success.

Their core thesis revolves around privilege and disadvantage, that one’s external circumstances contribute the most to one’s success, and that’s that. Well, unfortunately, it’s not so simple. We humans have all been given the ability to think, to reason, to plan ahead, and to act. No matter what, barring some ridiculuous circumstance, one can always think for oneself and can always act for oneself. There are a large number of actions, bordering on infinity, that one can choose to do, but a finite set of those actions have the overwhelming probability of improving one’s success, even if it’s by just a tenth of a percent. It therefore becomes a choice, a choice to act on the things that one can act on, and there always is something one can act on. As Viktor Frankl testified in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, one’s circumstances do not entirely define one’s suffering.

Actions upon the world tend to affect the world and the actor. Repeated actions (habits) tend to compound their effects, i.e. exercising—as your body grows stronger, you are able to exercise more and get stronger still, reading—as your knowledge base grows, you are able to understand and learn more about the world, meditating—as your attention span grows, you are able to be ever more present and focused. One must choose to act, one must expend effort. But of course, there’s a catch.

Consensus

Haven’t I contradicted myself? On the one hand, I’ve espoused the chaotic nature of the universe, of how circumstances can define one’s success, but on the other hand, I’ve espoused the power of action and of habit and how one’s circumstances do not define one’s success. Well, yeah, there’s clearly a contradiction, but the reconciliation is quite simple.

While the circumstances of your upbringing, and the number and strength of your privileges and disadvantages can and do affect your probability of success, you can’t do much about that. If you’re born in a developing nation, you can’t change that fact. If you’re born a certain ethnicity, you can’t change that fact. Thus there is no benefit from focusing on such things.

However, you can control your actions, and you can (generally) control your thoughts, your reasoning, and your planning. Thus there is massive benefit from focusing on such things. Even if your circumstances, your disadvantages are such that they massively affect you, that does not decrease the practical benefit of focusing on what you can control.

It is, however, also important to realize the ever increasing gap of inequality, and the power of privilege or lack thereof. But it is equally as important to realize that the only things worth focusing on are what you can control.

In short, different people come from different circumstances with vastly different sets of abilities, but all people regardless are able to think and to act either for their benefit or their detriment. Focusing on circumstances outside of your control is a waste of energy. Focusing on your actions and habits, on the other hand, will overwhelmingly increase the probability of something getting done. Whether that something is positive or negative depends on the action or habit but also circumstance. But again, focusing on circumstances outside of your control is a waste of energy.

Practical Steps

It’s important for me to say that I don’t see my level of success as even remotely close to that of Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos/Steve Jobs. I struggle with my actions and my habits as does everyone else. But how I strive to differ is with my focus. I focus on what I can do, not what could happen to me. I focus on how I can improve, not how something/somewhere could help me/hurt me. I focus on my habits, not on my misfortunes.

Here are some steps we can all take to shift our focus onto our actions and habits:

  • When remembering past successes and failures, try to think more along the lines of “what did I do” rather than “what happened to me”
  • When talking about yourself and past events, lean towards using active sentences vs. passive sentences; “I did x” vs. “x happened to me”
  • Journalling can be really great to get a bunch of thoughts off your mind so that you can clearly think about the next best course of action
  • Do at least one thing towards your goals every day, no matter how small that thing is; one push-up, one line of code, one sentence