What Does Success Really Mean to You?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of chance in our professional lives. What makes certain people more successful than others? Why doesn’t hard work always translate into success? In the context of our current race conversation, why don’t we factor people’s starting point in our evaluation of success?
In this post, I will dissect what it really means to be successful. Professional success is the result of more luck than we’d like to admit, and because of that, we should frame success in terms of something other than just outcomes.
Why Accomplishment is Important to Us
Someone is professionally successful when they “do well” at something we consider important, and by “doing well,” we mean achieving a positive outcome. Why do we frame success this way? It is because we think of success as a result of competition, which produces a winner and a loser. And we love our winners! We treat competition as a zero-sum game, so the winner establishes dominance over a loser, transferring value from one to the other. Winners are considered more valuable and therefore more successful.¹
This definition of success is why so many people point to the number of “rings” when arguing why Kobe is better than LeBron, or the 6–0 finals record when discussing why Michael Jordan is the GOAT. For these people, results matter more than anything else when evaluating professional success.
In the business world, we learn that free-market competition allows the best-performing companies (the winners) to take market share from others (the losers), forcing them to adapt or die. We believe a company’s achievement is the result of the individuals leading it, so we project that organization’s success onto the individual. Apple’s meteoric rise in the 2000s was because of Steve Job’s vision and ability to lead the company, so the thinking goes. But this thinking is a slippery slope because it creates a one-dimensional view of success that relies on a fuzzy relationship between individual actions and company accomplishment.
What Contributes to Accomplishment
Why shouldn’t professional accomplishment be used as the primary evaluation for success? If accomplishments are based on the final score, and the results are favorable, why shouldn’t we celebrate that as success?
Quite simply, professional accomplishments rely on a high degree of randomness or just pure luck, so the link between individual skill and organization outcome is not highly correlated. In the case of corporations, a leader’s strategic decisions have to be executed across many employees in complex environments with many external and internal variables, introducing high degrees of randomness. Of course, the leader’s skill will have some impact on a company’s success, but when their decisions must get absorbed, filtered and disseminated by thousands of others whose actions create the totality of that organization’s results, it is easy to see how chance can creep in.²
There are plenty of professionals whose success is directly linked to their skill. Singles tennis is a sport that relies on an individual’s skill, not a team’s effort, so outcomes are highly correlated to the player’s abilities. While chance can still play a role in upsets, over a large enough sample size, players like Serena Williams will hoist the trophy more often than not. But that involves one individual in a game where skill can outshine chance most of the time. It is very different in a large group context.
To understand the role of chance in professional accomplishment, let’s examine one of our current business icons, Elon Musk. Tim Urban wrote a fantastic and glowing article about Musk in 2015, where he described how dangerously close Musk was to going bankrupt in 2008. At that point, SpaceX has tried and failed to launch their Falcon 1 rocket three times, and Musk only had funds for one more launch. Meanwhile, Tesla hadn’t sold a single roadster and was almost out of cash. In September 2008, SpaceX’s fourth and last opportunity for an orbital launch was a success, and in December of that year, Tesla got a lifeline investment. If either of these didn’t fall the right way, we might be talking about Elon as one of the greatest Silicon Valley flameouts of all time.³
We’re Celebrating the Wrong Thing
Suppose the final SpaceX launch failed, or Tesla ran out of cash. Would it be fair to label a Musk failure? Of course not. Elon Musk is a visionary, and even if he failed, he should be celebrated for his effort and learning, not his success. Ideas and effort are not subject to the same kind of randomness as achievement, and those are the right professional areas to recognize.
Walt Disney bankrupted an early company he started, Laugh-o-Gram Studios. Imagine what he learned before creating one of the most iconic companies of the 20th century. Einstein believed the universe was fixed and not expanding in the Theory of General Relativity. Does this mistake take away from his tremendous accomplishment? One of his famous quotes is “success is failure in progress,” an insightful way of looking at success as effort and ideas.⁴
When we focus on professional effort and learning instead of results, we create a healthier view of competition and success. Timothy Gallwey, author of “The Inner Game of Tennis,” gives a very compelling perspective on competition. Because outcomes are not always tied to skill or effort, we should view competition as the purest form of cooperation, where the competitor, whether a business or individual, presents that greatest obstacle possible for us to achieve our goals.⁵ Respecting the process through effort and learning makes the journey more rewarding than the outcome.
When viewed this way, success becomes a more authentic aspiration, one that is attainable by everyone without relying on the occasional grace of lady luck.
- The Inner Game of Tennis, W. Timothy Gallwey — Chapter 8
- Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb — Postscript
- The Inner Game of Tennis, W. Timothy Gallwey — Chapter 9