The billion dollar question

In every human endeavour imaginable, we see success stories. Successful people are those who are talented, have worked very hard, sacrificed everything, and made it to the top. What we never get to see (unless we know them personally) are all the people who fail. Most of us fit in somewhere in between, we have not succeeded in all of our endeavours with flying colours and neither have we failed in them all. The interesting thing that I find is that conventional measures we use are not very accurate in predicting success. Is there an underlying trait or behaviour which tilts some people to succeed while leaving others to fail?

Then encountering a failure, the first thing that people ask is did they work as hard, did they deserve to get it? In many instances no, but not always. It is not always the person who works the hardest, or even the most talented who make it to the top. Somewhere along the way, people fall by the wayside. It is a fascination of mine and many people to try to understand what makes a person successful, what are the qualities which maximise the chances to get to the top.

The Habits of Successful People

It isn’t even a billion dollar question it’s worth much more. An industry has been built upon this, supposedly providing answers to this very question. I recently read one of the most popular books on the topic “The 7 habits of highly successful people” which was given to me by my boss, who swears by these habits. It aims to distill so called successful people and the habits which make them so. It is probably a good time to state a formal definition of success: The accomplishment of an aim or purpose. So when we say someone has been successful, it extends beyond just career ambitions but also into their personal life.

As with much of the literature on this subject, there is no shortage of buzz words such as “Synergise” which is in fact the 6th habit. There was however more than just rhetoric, there were many snippets of advice which were useful. In the most part I find, it is things which we already know just packaged and organised in a new way. Old, recycled ideas are wrapped up in names which suggest that they are now techniques that lead to success. A good example is to split up tasks into important, not important and also into urgent and non-urgent. The author spoke in great depth about the importance of doing the tasks which are important but are not urgent rather than the non-important but urgent tasks. To me, this was just common sense.

EQ over IQ

I worked for a company over the summer which organised conferences with people who are called “thought leaders” who advise a predominantly business background audience. You can read the opinions and thoughts of many of them on LinkedIn which is bursting at the seams with articles on how to have a successful career or a good work life balance. But I find it interesting that most of the people who are generally classed as successful do not go to these conferences, they don’t read these books which claim to help make you successful (The cynic inside me says they also don’t write them).

A popular phrase that has come into use is Emotional Quotient (EQ) which has now superseded Intelligence Quotient (IQ) in many instances especially in the corporate world. It is the epidermisation of the idea that regardless of how smart you are you need to be able to communicate with people. Being able to communicate ideas and arguments clearly is thought to be as important, if not more as having good ideas. It is also the idea of being able to make connections with people. It has now come to be seen as one of the best indicators of success. Is this the key? I think it has become increasingly important, however over the length of a career the content of your ideas and insightfulness should matter greatly.

The go to book when it comes to the topic, what makes someone successful is Malcom Gladwell’s “Outliers: The story of success” where the question is asked what makes the high fliers successful. I felt that this was an honest look into the rise of a number of the most successful people in history. It showed what we might expect to find: hard work, talent, determination and luck. I found the story of the Beatles to be particularly fascinating. I think you would have to look very hard to find someone who says that they are not talented. However, I did not know how hard they had to work before they became in their own words “Bigger than Jesus.”

More than the money

It’s not a quest that is just for people who want to become the next Bill Gates. It also extends to schoolchildren in tough schools, to help them to succeed. I watched a video presented by Angela Lee Duckworth, a phycologist who spent time teaching children and observing what made some of them successful and not others. In a way her findings are not what we might expect. It was not the kids who were the smartest who succeeded. We tend to believe that if someone is smarter then they will be more successful, having a high IQ is a good thing, it will mean success. This does not seem to be true according to Angela. IQ is a measure of one’s ability to “learn quickly and easily” which has long been seen as a predictor of success. Angela hypothesizes that the key predictor is grit. This is the ability to persevere at tasks over very long periods. I find that this to be an understandable conclusion, most of the aims and purposes that we have are very long term. The thing that catches out most people is the ability to single-mindedly pursue a task day in day out. It may not be the only requirement but it is certainly one of the most important. Talent is irrelevant if you have already given up.

Empty promises

For most of us, the quest for the secret of success can be a big distraction from what we really need to be doing. It can be useful to organise our thoughts and to give ourselves motivation from reading about how to succeed. However, I find the drive I get from this to be short lived. Many of the factors that we have shown may help to make someone successful but equally we could find others who have attained success without that set of qualities. That is not to say we should not be conducting real and meaningful studies into this, clearly it has very good applications in terms of shaping our education system to better equip children for the real world. The problem comes when we look for a shortcut, if we know the secret then we can do the same thing but quicker and with less effort. I think this is where the problem lies; there is no book which can give you the secret. I will leave you with a quote form a Bollywood film (3 Idiots) “Pursue excellence, and success will follow, pants down!”

(By Ranju)

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