If you are in the habit (like I am) of blowing by the videos embedded in blogs that you read, please don’t skip this one. It’s quite engaging and only about 17 minutes long.
In this video, Alain de Botton talks about the definitions of success and failure in today’s society. He raises a TON of issues that we don’t have time to dig into, so I’m going to pick just one.
He makes the following quote:
Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We’re told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. We’ve done away with the caste system. We are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea. Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality. We’re all basically equal. There are no strictly defined kind of hierarchies.
Can you really do anything you set your mind to?
That’s one of the things I was told growing up; I’m willing to bet a lot of other folks reading this were, too. But is that really the case? Have all the barriers been removed that hold us back?
I don’t think they have. While great strides have been made in leveling the playing field for many people, there are still divisions that preclude some people from achieving. I’m not talking about discrimination here. Although bias based on gender or race or any number of other factors still exists in our world, it’s becoming harder and harder to point to this as a reason for not becoming “successful”.
What I’m talking about is what Warren Buffett has termed the “Ovarian Lottery”. Here’s a quote:
I’ve had it so good in this world, you know. The odds were fifty-to-one against me being born in the United States in 1930. I won the lottery the day I emerged from the womb by being in the United States instead of in some other country where my chances would have been way different.
Imagine there are two identical twins in the womb, both equally bright and energetic. And the genie says to them, ‘One of you is going to be born in the United States, and one of you is going to be born in Bangladesh. And if you wind up in Bangladesh, you will not pay taxes. What percentage of your income would you bid to be the one that is born in the United States?’ It says something about the fact that society has something to do with your fate and not just your innate qualities. The people who say, ‘I did it all myself.’ and think of themselves as Horatio Alger — believe me, they’d bid more to be in the United States than in Bangladesh. That’s the Ovarian Lottery.
–Warren Buffett, in “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life” by Alice Schroeder
Buffett talks about being born in America vs Bangladesh, but the Ovarian Lottery isn’t limited to location. It can relate to economic advantages, genetics, anything. Warren Buffett seems to think that at least some of his success isn’t attributable to ambition, or being smarter than everyone else, or working harder, but to the blind fortune of being born where he was at the time he was.
Many of us (myself included) would hope for an absolute meritocracy. By that, I mean that nothing would play a part in success other than our willingness to earn it (whatever “earn it” means). However, the implication of “the cream rises to the top” carries with it the converse statement: “those that don’t rise aren’t cream”. But, according to Buffett, blind dumb luck plays a part in everyone’s success.
Is there a way we can cut through what we can’t control and determine what we will be successful at, regardless of circumstances that are beyond our control?
Most everyone would agree that a decent definition of success is achieving the goals that one sets for one’s self. How you pick the targets you set for yourself is probably a more relevant question.
In fact, an even more relevant question is, do you even pick those targets? Or do you allow others (friends, family, business associates, advertisers, celebrities) to tell you what you should be shooting for in order to be “successful”?
The key to success is ensuring the targets you’re shooting for are targets of your own choosing. If you strive to achieve goals that you’ve set for yourself, you’ll have the motivation to keep going until you achieve them. That’s just the way it works. If something is important to you, luck becomes less and less of a factor.
Sure, there are things in life that you can’t change. For instance, someone who’s lost a leg can’t hope to win a track and field gold medal at the Olympics. That doesn’t mean that they’re destined for failure, though. Those individuals who are truly successful, as trite as it sounds, make lemonade of life’s lemons.
However, if you’re trying to find contentment by keeping up with the Jones’, or doing something someone else says will make you “a winner”, or bemoaning the factors that keep you from doing one thing or another, then you’re not going to be successful. It won’t matter whether you actually reach that goal or not. You’ll flit from activity to activity, achievement to achievement. There will always be “something else” out there, and you’ll eventually wind up unfulfilled.
So define success the way YOU want to, not the way someone else tells you you should. Choose goals that resonate deep down inside of you. Overcoming the obstacles that life puts in your path can only happen if you’re truly passionate about what you’re trying to achieve.