Success, Failure and what has Luck to do with it
Alain de Botton recently gave an interesting TED talk titled "A kinder, gentler philosophy of success" in which he emphasizes owning of your success while not treating those who fail as mere "losers". Here is the video, and it is really worth watching if you can spare 16 minutes. Otherwise feel free to skip it as this article will make sense either way.
There are three key ideas I want to talk about here. First is the ownership of your success and what that means. Second is about the way we treat those who are burdened by failure. And third is about the role of what we call "luck" in these issues.
Your own success philosophy
There exists this popular dichotomy in terms of measuring success. Some measure achievements to some sort of a popular societal standard of success and others believe that you define your own success regardless of social standards.
If you believe the first then then you run the risk of dedicating your life to the pursuit of things which might not be what you truly desire solely because these things are popularly associated with "success".
As Alain de Botton aptly points out it is bad enough not getting what you want, but it is even worse getting it and realizing it wasn't what you really wanted all along. I bet the latter might feel like a life wasted on something that ultimately turned out to be meaningless for you.
One up side of such a way of pursuing success is that if you do achieve success as other people define it they will indeed consider you successful and it may open various kinds of opportunities, even if a lot of them might not be the kinds of opportunities you really want.
However, if you believe that you should define success for your own self and pursue it as such one might argue that this would lead to a sort of detachment from the rest of the world. For example it may be argued that your definition of success would still land you in what others consider poverty or deprivation or that it may make you into a weird eccentric that is out of touch with reality.
But that is not what "owning of your success" necessarily means for one simple reason: you can still choose to define success along the popular lines if you want. The difference is that you asked yourself first and then according to your own values evaluated the standards of others. So the mentioned dichotomy is actually quite false because the second option does not exclude the first.
You can define and own your success even if how you define it remains heavily influenced by popular definitions of success. And it very well may be because we are social creatures and easily influence each other to the point of causing genuine desires in each other. After all, experiencing the world around us plays a key part in shaping who we actually become as individuals.
What worth is trying to be more successful if it doesn't bring you any happiness? It seems to me that trying for success which does not involve the achievement of what you truly desire is doomed to a bad ending described above.
That said, knowing what success would mean to you does not guarantee that you will achieve it and certainly a lot of people fail and some even fail miserably. Is that just bad luck?
Failure and "bad luck"
"Luck" is really something we talk about when failure is on the table. If you are successful you would probably feel better attributing said success to your own efforts. But if you fail, then the temptation to ascribe it to the mysterious workings of "luck" is so much greater.
Not only that you may view your own failure as caused by bad luck, but you would probably view the success of others as simply "good luck".
Essentially those who fail find their main operator to be "luck" whereas those who succeed find their main operator to be "effort" or "merit". This is why those who succeed, as De Botton points out, in a largely individualistic and meritocratic society are inclined to look at people who fail as not "unlucky", but undeserving because they must not have put enough effort or thought in the right ways.
I think neither of these two positions is quite optimal and fair. And again the key element here is luck, or more precisely, in the definition of luck. Merriam Webster defines luck as "a force that brings good fortune or adversity", "the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual" or a "favoring chance".
Force, events, circumstances or chance (causes) which bring, operate or favor (effects). Needless to say that luck is firmly rooted in causality. After all, when somebody blames bad luck for his failure it is probably safe to paraphrase that into the belief that bad luck caused his failure.
When said force, events or circumstances are known to happen before they happen we generally do not call it luck. It is things which happen unexpectedly that we attribute to luck. Since we didn't expect them to happen these are then causes we didn't know about which were to cause the effects which are either desirable or undesirable to us (good or bad luck).
This is the key. Luck is nothing more than causes unknown to us. This should demystify the concept of luck entirely. It does not refer to any good or bad luck charms or any kind of luck superstition. It refers to the ongoing action and reaction chains that happen in the real world all the time, specifically those actions which we are simply not aware of, but which end up causing the effects which affect us.
So when those who fail blame bad luck, they're essentially saying that the reason they failed is that they didn't know about causes of too many events that affected them which is in fact quite a fair assessment that brings us closer to the truth about the reasons for failure.
The trouble is, no human being can predict everything and can be so aware of what goes on in the world around them to know all of the causes that could affect them. This is why I think De Botton's advice is sound and why I am inclined to agree when he advises us to hold our horses when coming to judge people.
You are not powerless against luck
That said, there is one thing that rears itself as a conclusion of such a defining of luck. As usual when we demystify and understand something we gain an extent of power over it. If we understand that "luck" is nothing more than "unknown causes" the task for those desiring to succeed is clear: try to know as much as possible, be aware and observant.
You certainly cannot know everything, but there is still a huge difference between giving it all up to luck (the unknown causes) and striving to increase your awareness and wisdom. It's a difference between doing what you can for your own benefit and doing nothing. It is also a difference in attitude.
There really are two kinds of attitudes and one is inevitably more failure prone than other. We tend to notice more that which is on our minds more. If all we think of is limitations and impossibilities then that's what we're gonna observe in reality. Sometimes, even things which we would otherwise see as opportunities seem like limitations.
Focusing on limitations is basically a way of giving up, a way of scaling back and losing motivation. This means we're then less likely to ever get to the point of noticing things to which we're oblivious, the very things that we would later then blame as "bad luck" when we fail.
If we however think in terms of possibilities and opportunities, that's what we're gonna notice more. This would grow our motivation and thus provide us with energy and will to explore further and see beyond what we saw before, thus making us more capable of overcoming the "luck factor", knowing more of the things which could cause us success or failure.
Such an attitude in fact sees failure itself in a positive rather than a negative way.
Failure is useful information
Focusing on opportunities rather than limitations inevitably leads to seeing failure itself, the ugliest thing of all, as something positive. It is in fact useful information which we can learn from to build our success. As Thomas Edison famously said: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." (There are more quotes by Mr. Edison on a similar note here).
Indeed, failure means that you've tried something that didn't work and now you know it didn't work so you can move on to something different and potentially better. You can analyze your failure with glee because it provides you with data, generated by your own efforts, which you can use to build a better way to succeed.
If you hear an often quoted statistic, that 9 out of 10 businesses fail, you can think it means most businesses fail and that you therefore have very little chance of succeeding or you can think it means your chances of success are great so long as you had 9 failures so far. But even so it's just a statistic. If you learn from your failures you might succeed the second or third time rather than 10th.
To sum up, here are the basic points you can take home from this:
- 1. Owning your success does not exclude adopting others' definition of success as your own.
- 2. Those who fail tend to blame luck. Those who succeed tend to blame themselves.
- 3. Luck is no more than "unknown causes" or causes you didn't know about which affected you.
- 4. Since nobody can know all causes, don't be too harsh on those who fail.
- 5. Still, luck can to an extent be conquered by awareness and positive attitude.
- 6. There's nothing more positive than seeing failure as milestones to success.
- 7. Failure is indeed just useful information you can use to succeed.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to comment, question or critique.Rocket launch image by Jurvetson.