Is Your Success Predetermined?

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The Story of Success, makes the argument that people we often laud as “self-made” successes actually had a lot more assistance than it appears. These advantages are myriad, and beyond all the obvious elements (race, class, and gender), also include war, racism, and even birth date. It is, without a doubt, a super fascinating take on success. In essence, Gladwell believes meritocracies – systems in which headway is dependent on one’s talents – are an outright sham.

At first look, I found this concept antithetical to the base principle that Art Of Hustle proposes: That each of us can excel if we put in the work. But how can that be true if there are entire frameworks considerably helping some and hindering others? Can both realities happen simultaneously?

I would suggest so. The existence of these complex forces doesn’t take away our abilities each to make a choice, and not just the choice to work harder or to never give up. Discipline and perseverance definitely have value – and these are, in a sense, givens (In fact, Gladwell talks about this in detail in his “10,000 hour” rule). Rather, I would say, if cultures and societies have this powerful effect on our outcomes, then it would behoove us to seriously consider what lifestyles and communities we participate in. These are not, as it may seem, predetermined fixed variables that are totally outside of our control.

Go where people get you. And that doesn’t mean surround yourself with ‘yes’ men and women who never challenge you to refine your skills and methodologies. It means you will want to spend less time with people who habitually complain, who talk but never do, who don’t share resources, who don’t share your core values, who regularly break engagements, who distract with promises of immediate gratification, who don’t recognize your potential, who themselves don’t practice excellence, who belittle you, who tell you you’re dreaming too big, or who have a knack for attracting conflict, poverty, and plain bad luck.

You are who you spend time with. You ought to think of your company as your company. That is, your friends and colleagues as members of your figurative organization. As a good boss, you wouldn’t give someone a duty they weren’t capable of handling, would you? Nor would you fire them straight away (that would be so emo and unnecessarily dramatic) because you assigned them a task they couldn’t manage. The buck stops at you. You must promote and demote people according to their abilities to carry out certain responsibilities. Again, this is a metaphor – It doesn’t mean you should start delegating actual jobs to your buddies. What I encourage is for you to populate your symbolic advisory committee, the people closest to you, only with top-ranking dreamers and doers. Of this, you are in charge.

In maintaining a similarly aspirational and high quality inner circle, you can spark momentum. You can begin to cultivate an environment that is more conducive to producing best practices and results. And likewise, everyone you affect within this sphere and beyond will also benefit, enabling them to focus better, breathe easier, and accomplish more.

Find those bright spots. Live there.

Post Script:
Why are the characters from the cult film Trainspotting pictured in this post? One big theme running through the movie has to do with proactively choosing beyond your given circumstances, friends and surroundings. Which is ultimately what I am advocating for in this entry.

And, for those of you who are a little more curious about Malcolm Gladwell and Outliers: The Story of Success, here’s a short interview with him on CNN:

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7 responses to “Is Your Success Predetermined?”

  1. bjr says:

    hear hear! so i love this post, anthem. it’s stuff i think about all the time.

    i always fear, tho, that surrounding myself with folks who work work work and ‘practice excellence’ makes people view me as an elitist. of course, i know i have recently blogged about this, my being selective as a curator/editor/reviewer. when i say that i don’t get to everyone under the sun, and that that’s not the point, sometimes i fear this is a bad thing.

    the sheer volume of private emails i receive from so very many people who want me to notice them and want me to promote them – it troubles me sometimes that i don’t give all of them attention/promote them. but also that the unsolicited work samples and event announcements they send me doesn’t always float my boat. sometimes i just don’t find it particularly interesting.

    so then, what to do.

    • thanks, barbara!

      I hear ya on the dilemma. honestly, though, it doesn’t help ‘the community’ or you for that matter if you were to spread yourself too thin. there’s nothing wrong with being decisive. defining clear priorities for yourself (which means having to say no thanks once in a while) means you’ll be in a better position to help when the time is appropriate.

      I once read in a book, people don’t need a handout, they need inspiration. handouts are short term, disposable hook-ups. but inspiration can lead someone to aspire for greatness, which is longer lasting and ultimately inspires / helps even more people.

      and this you are certainly doing.

  2. Thanks for this Anthem. You just blew my mind. Your post just made me come to terms with the idea that I can excuse myself from certain company and communities who “don’t share my core values.” Why not? Though the more I commit myself to writing and teaching, the more difficult it is to spend time with the doers. So many of us spend so much time doing that hanging out with one another is like mission impossible. We have to wait for certain planetary alignments. I guess the take away for me is that we always have choices, and no matter how locked in we feel, we have only to open our eyes and start taking some action. Much to chew on here. Thanks again.

    • Hi Raashan! Thanks for reading. I’m glad this resonated with you. Yes, choices, choices, are plentiful. And I hear ya on the difficulty making time to hang with fellow doers. But on the upside, I also think that the time that we do make for each other becomes higher quality and more purposeful. Which is why conferences or, way on the other side, ordinary coffee meetings can be so enriching. Looking forward to what’s next! Please keep me posted on your happenings.

  3. […] I mentioned in the “Is Your Success Predetermined?” post, your selection of your team is critical. And how you decide can either set you back or […]

  4. Brooke says:

    I read Malcolm Gladwells Outliers a few years ago and remember feeling frustrated. Even if I did my 10,000 hours, if I wasn’t born into the right location/connections etc it may never happen (damn u silicon valley) he he… of course it makes perfect sense that true success comes from seeking out the structure of your own success. I suppose the real trick is knowing your passion and working out what structure you need to be seeking to support it!

    • Howdy Brooke! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Yes, I found the Outliers premise quite disempowering – at first. I suppose, even with all the “givens,” we all still have this: choices. I take comfort and draw strength from that. Good luck claiming your passion and building an environment to maintain it!

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