The Meritocracy Myth: Why “Success” Is More Complicated Than You Think

The following is an excerpt, Chapter 5, of my new book — Real Help: An Honest Guide to Self-Improvement

Usually, around this point in the book, the author will tell you about their heroic journey to success. They’ll talk about how they always believed in themselves, never quit, and made it to the top through pure hard work without a shred of luck. “If I can do it, you can do it!”

Too bad that’s not true.

At least, it’s not all the way true. Of course, when you’re in the advice-giving business, you have to make suggestions. The people that do have odds of helping you become successful. But that’s the best you can give anyone. You can’t guarantee anything.

Yet, there are people who do. This ethos makes people feel jaded about self-help.

In your mind you think “How the hell can you guarantee my success? You don’t even know me. On top of that, you probably got lucky!”

Over time, I’ve learned to honor the role luck played in my life. Yes, I worked hard, damn hard, but I’ve had a ton of lucky breaks. A friend asked me to write for his website, thus giving me a window of opportunity to jump through. I didn’t start “on my own.”

I luckily found a writing mentor early on in my career. I started writing in one of the greatest and most opportunistic periods for indie writers in the history of writing. Many things lined up. So let me quell your feeling that some people just get lucky in life. They do. I did. Your best chance at success is to figure out how to engineer luck.

The first step involves taking your eye off the magical fairy-tale level of success because it’s essentially improbable for most people. Some levels of success and reward just doesn’t seem fair. Sure, Jeff Bezos is a smart guy, but does he really deserve to have a net worth of $105 billion? How about the man chasing his heels, Bill Gates? Gates has given away more money in a single moment than most of us could ever fathom making in a lifetime, and he’s still filthy rich.

Is their success merit-based, or is there something else going on beneath the surface?

The truth about success is complicated. It’s definitely not all merit-based. There’s quite a bit of luck involved. Understanding this fact and knowing what to do with it is one of the most important keys to becoming successful in life.

The Genius Monkey

Many of the people you see on Forbes magazine, Entrepreneur, or any publication or website that worships the extremely rich or successful may fall under the category of a “lucky monkey” as described in the quote I used to begin the chapter. This isn’t to say they’re not smart, but the fact they made it big doesn’t prove the steps they made caused them to make it big.

You can have a great idea or invention in mind, but your brain might be a few years ahead of the technology needed to turn your idea into reality. You might be intelligent, but you might not have the right connections in your network to reach the same level of success as someone who has them.

This may be the most troubling truth: You can do everything right and still fail.

This is the idea behind survivorship bias. We mythologize the “habits and grand vision of successful people,” without realizing that many people use the same strategies and fail.

For every Buffett, Musk, Winfrey, Bezos, DeGeneres, Obama, and Kardashian (yeah, I said it), there are thousands of people with the same intelligence, drive, beauty, savvy, expertise, and will to win who don’t become extremely successful.

You can use the exact same techniques as someone else and have dramatic differences in results.

So Why the Hell Do We Read Self-Improvement Books?

This begs the question: Why study success if success is random?

Why are so many of us consumed with the idea of changing our life if the changes that happen in our life are out of our control?

If you live in a world of randomness, shouldn’t you just leave it up to God or the universe?

You read self-improvement books because change is possible. Hard work does work over the long term. You’ve seen people do it, and you want the answers. The key to getting the results you want is to stop looking for the exact formula for success.

You can’t take self-help advice verbatim:

  • What worked for one single person might not work the exact same way for you.
  • What has worked for a large number of people across time has a better chance of working for you.
  • Often, the traits associated with how people react to situations are valid, e.g., grit, persistence, and a positive attitude.

In short, you want to look for habits, activities, and goals that have high odds of making your life better in general without tying them to specific outcomes.

A good example here: You should read more books because good books tend to make you smarter. At the same time, realize the fact that “the average CEO reads 60 books per year” doesn’t mean that reading 60 books per year will make you a CEO.

Avoid taking the traits of a small number of successful people and making them your blueprint for getting the same results.

Most billionaires aren’t billionaires because they read books. They’re billionaires because they had a great idea, worked insanely hard for decades, and got lucky all at the same time.

With this advice filter in mind, here’s my remedy for becoming successful in spite of survivorship bias: Understand how the world works, which often means having to accept things you wish weren’t true, but are.

When it comes to survivorship bias, you have a better chance of following through when things don’t work out your way, if you accept some truths up front about luck, success, hard work, and the combination of them all.

You Can Do Everything Right and Still Not Get the Outcomes You Want

We don’t fear failure itself. We fear doing everything the right way, working really hard, and still not getting the outcome we’d hoped for.

This excerpt from the website The Last Psychiatrist explains our feelings well, “The short answer is that it’s really risky to work hard because if you fail you can no longer say you failed because you didn’t work hard … It’s far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare.”19 Anyone who tells you your hard work will pay off in a specific way at a specific time is lying. In an isolated situation, you could put all your chips on the table and lose the hand.

In the long run, taking enough stabs at worthwhile goals tends to work out. It’s just painful to get through. So it goes. Part of the success equation is out of your hands, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

When dealing with the fear of failure, I always contemplate the other route: Not doing anything at all means definitely not reaching your goals.

You can do everything right and “fail,” but you won’t be a failure because you tried. That’s all the world asks of you. Try.

People Less Talented Than You Will Surpass You

The arrows of circumstance point in a lot of different directions all at once. Some people will get better results than you because everything fell into place at the right time for them, out of chance.

There are better writers than J.K. Rowling. And definitely better than E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, let’s just be honest. There are thousands of computer nerds smarter than Bill Gates who could’ve figured out the technology behind Microsoft. Many things went right for him, too.

First, he was born into a somewhat affluent family, which statistically increases your odds of career success. Second, he was born at the right time — a decade later or sooner, and he wouldn’t have been a college student right around the time the computer revolution was taking off. Third, he happened to go to one of the few schools in the entire country that had a top-notch computer lab. Fourth, he had the genetic wiring of a tech-geek. Fifth, the licensing deal for DOS, the operating system Gates built Microsoft on, is one of the most lopsided deals in the history of business, something the likes of which will never happen again.

When you think about success, you should think about building the type of successful life that would occur repeatedly if you were to run simulations of your own life over and over again.

If you run Gates’ life through a simulation a thousand times, he becomes the founder of Microsoft zero times. If you run a billion simulations, maybe he does it once. He probably would’ve been a pretty successful guy in most of the simulations, but it would’ve been foolish for him to expect to become a billionaire; just like it’s foolish for you to expect wild and crazy success.

In your field, it’s important to stay grounded in your actions instead of getting caught up in envy.

It’s also important to remember there are two sides to that coin. You’ve had breaks other people haven’t. You’re not the smartest person in the world, either. Each of us gets a mixture of talent and luck. What the chemist of circumstance cooks up isn’t always fair. That’s life. Deal with it.

I only say this so matter of factly because “deal with it” is almost always the best option. Give weight to the usefulness of your actions. Complaining about your unique set of circumstances could very well be justified, but is it useful? Thinking this way helps you develop the level of acceptance you need to just “get on with it” and work with what you do have.

You’re Not a Genius (But You’re Not Stupid Either)

There’s a saying along the lines of “Getting rich is easy. Staying rich is hard.”

See, randomness and the survivorship bias effect goes both ways. Sometimes, it causes other people to advance ahead of you out of sheer luck. It can also cause you to advance further than others out of luck.

When you succeed, don’t start to believe you have the golden touch. This overconfidence can cause you to fail. I worked my ass off to get where I am today. But I grew up middle-class with college-educated parents. I’m no Mensa member, but I’m pretty sure I have an above average intellect. My writing career started solely because of a few chance encounters. Many things that weren’t in my control went my way.

At the same time, I’ve had failures and bad breaks that had nothing to do with effort. The editor and mentor I mentioned earlier in the book quit his job, and the site I wrote for basically stopped accepting my articles, just like that. This has happened more than once, actually. Entire platforms I built my writing audience on disappeared overnight. I’ve seen other writers who I feel like I’m better than go viral and build entire careers out of the opportunities their viral hit provided them.

I try to adopt the beginner’s attitude at all times and make fewer assumptions about what will happen in the future. Our past success doesn’t guarantee the future one. Try to honor and appreciate the role luck plays in your life, and you’ll even find yourself less judgmental of people who don’t “succeed.”

Success and failure always contain a mixture of effort and luck. Don’t give yourself too much credit for success, or too much blame for failure.

How To Thrive in a Random World

When I first learned about the concept of survivorship bias, it made me rethink everything I thought I knew up to that point. I used to believe that every successful person got there out of pure merit. I now know that’s not true.

So what does that mean for me? What does that mean for you?

It means we need to adopt an attitude that deals with the role chance plays in our lives. Here are some of the “rules” I’ve adopted.

Stop Reading Books and Articles About Becoming a Billionaire

This applies to everyone we worship and build pedestals for, from billionaire business owners to movie stars. Following their examples will definitely not yield even close to the same results.

In those articles about “the steps becoming a billionaire,” the writers always miss one step: Get extremely lucky. Don’t waste another 10 minutes of your life reading BS success articles and books.

And just understand that trying to model yourself off a billionaire to become a billionaire probably won’t work. Take someone like Steve Jobs. He was a great example of qualities that can help you become successful. He thought well outside the box, stuck to his guns when people doubted him, created a long-term vision with rigorous levels of planning, and saw the success of his products in his mind well before anyone else did. But that doesn’t mean you should try to build the next Apple. You’re probably not going to build the next Apple.

It’s not that these articles don’t have good advice. They do. But you’ll get yourself too pumped up by reading them. You’ll imagine yourself becoming a millionaire or billionaire without actually having done anything. This is the vast majority of the online entrepreneur and creator space. It’s full of people who claim to be “up next” but do absolutely nothing to reach their goals. Don’t be one of these people.

Increase Your Odds

Adopt the mindset of a savvy gambler. Each goal you have is like a hand you play in poker. Your circumstances are like those of the rest of the players in the game.

Annie Duke discusses this analogy in detail in her book Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts. A poker player turned probability consultant, Duke talks about making life decisions in a game-like fashion, “Improving decision quality is about increasing our chances of good outcomes, not guaranteeing them.”20

In a poker tournament, sometimes a brand-new player who’s not that skilled gets lucky and wins the tournament. But often, you see the same players at the final table over and over again.

Life is the same way. You increase your odds by building new skills, setting and attempting to reach new goals, and repeating the process over and over again until it works. If you want to increase your odds of success, you have to roll the dice.

Value Traits That Have Nothing To Do With Luck

There is a certain set of traits you can have, regardless of the outcomes you get in your life:

  • Patience
  • Persistence
  • Impulse control (delay your gratification)
  • The ability to iterate and revise your strategy over time
  • Diligence
  • Willingness to learn
  • Curiosity
  • Optimism
  • Calculated risk-taking

What’s important, though, is focusing on those traits and measuring yourself by them. Make commitments, and follow through with them. If you say you’re going to write three articles per week, write three articles per week. Do it for six months straight. Then, at the end of those six months, you’ll be able to at least tell yourself you made that commitment and, odds are, your writing skills and audience will have grown.

If you want to start a business, measure your sales versus the previous sales month over month or year over year. Even though luck comes into play in that scenario, you can iterate over time by doing things like trying new sales strategies each quarter, getting feedback from customers, and trying new marketing platforms. You’ll never be able to exactly quantify how well your effort impacts your results. But you can get a good enough idea. Put yourself into motion. Bet on yourself, and take the results that come with it.

That’s how you stay sane in a random and chaotic world.

We don’t get to live in a fair world. I’m sorry. We just don’t. It’s impossible.

You do get to have an adventure, though. It’s a grand adventure you can make, twists and turns included. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to you whether someone else’s success was due to luck. Just focus on what you can control. And remember how lucky you are. Just to be here. To get a chance to do this at all.

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