If you are into self-improvement, you’ve probably read a few books with inspirational stories – stories of people achieving success/happiness against great odds. In fact, in the last 10 – 15 years, even if you are not into self-improvement, you are bombarded with images and stories of people, who “made it” – in one way or another, but mostly in monetary/materialistic terms. The so-called “rags to riches” life stories, a simple Google search returns 44 examples in just two articles – 1, 2.
Most of these books and articles are there to inspire and show us that it can be done – no matter what your circumstances. I am going to mention some books here – this isn’t by any means their criticism. It’s more of an elaboration into their ideas, a thought using them as a stepping stone.
Let’s take Ryan Holiday’s: Obstacle is the way – a very good book that will inspire you to live a better life, discussing many stoic values and supporting them by various examples of people, who made it. It was whilst reading this book that I thought – was it nature or nurture that gave these people better skills/traits, that enabled them to succeed? Were perhaps some born with a brain that is biologically less inclined to fear certain type of situation, or despair, or give up sooner than others? Could their connections be predetermined by their DNA to be more empathic, cool-headed, determined etc? Or were they born with roughly the same predispositions as anyone, but their circumstances made them more resistant in challenging situations?
Some apply this knowledge only in a certain type of situation – why? Are they born with less fear of X but fearful of Y? Or some are born with some sort of predisposition and it’s easier for them to learn and expand on it through life, some are born like that and yet don’t learn – because their circumstances are different, their peers don’t support this learning? And some aren’t born with such a predisposition and learn this, although it might take more time, but they do – because their peers and environment support this?
Aside from predisposition, does intelligence play any role in this? Why do some people literally throw their life away – enjoy as many instant gratification opportunities possible at the cost of their health or even wider – family or friends? They spend their time and money on alcohol or drugs, big TVs or shiny things, yet they don’t stop and think about better ways of spending these resources. And they could, there’s nothing holding them back. Their circumstances might make it more difficult, but they are not an absolute indicator of their path in life. This begs the question: Why do some people see that they can improve, change how they react to obstacles, which direction their life goes, whilst others don’t?
What is required for success?
Many questions, answers to which could take several books. Let’s try to break it down into something more specific.
What is required for success, what are the predispositions we should be looking at?
First of all, it would be personal traits that might hinder or advance our effort towards success. These are in more generic terms the genetic advantages/disadvantages we’re born with.
Then it’s our circumstances and environment (upbringing, society, education).
Let’s start with traits / genetic variants then. It would be too cumbersome to list all potential traits here, so I’ll focus on one specific personal characteristic that can have a devastating effect on our journey towards success – as a representative sample of other traits (presumably, if one trait has a specific effect – it does or doesn’t influence you in achieving success, same will apply to other traits).
One of the most basic traits and instincts that can save but also destroy our life. Handling fear is integral to achieving success – whether it’s fear of new challenges, fear of failure or fear of the unknown – they are all a part of today’s life. Are you starting up your own business? Or building a career? Investing, buying properties? You will have to overcome some type of fear.
Based on the research available, most fears are learned, not innate. There are articles mentioning these types of fears that we are born with: fear of falling, fear of loud sounds and fear of snakes and spiders (although this is more of a bias towards learning to fear them faster than other things). But these aren’t really well studied or backed by any study (fear of loud sounds). Fear of falling has been studied in this study from 1960 – The “Visual Cliff” experiment by By ELEANOR J. GIBSON AND RICHARD D. WALK (there don’t seem to be many recent studies), and adds some validity to this notion. But overall, there’s no clear research that proves we are born with most of our fears, ergo – as of today, from all we know, most fears are learned.
This would mean that examples like the fearless Ulysses S. Grant, from Ryan Holiday’s: Obstacle is the way didn’t learn to fear as many situations as his peers. Or he learned not to fear (to fear less) in the same situations.
We can assume, therefore, that anyone has the option to learn to fear less. As to how he did it, we can only assume – by closely watching his peers reactions and analysing them? Was his intelligence higher and that allowed him to do a better analysis of the situation and realise, this fear isn’t justified or productive? Ah well, we now know that it’s not IQ that controls our fear response – it’s Emotional intelligence – EQ. It’s our emotional intelligence that determines our reaction to fear. In short, EQ “is the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s)” – Wikipedia.
Therefore: if most fears aren’t innate but learned and high EQ helps manage the response to fear, then acquiring higher EQ will help you handle tough situations (involving fear) much better.
In the same way, Ulysses S. Grant handled his challenges better, presumably because of his higher EQ. Very likely so did Steve Jobs or Elon Musk does today.
Astronauts undergo endless days of repeating the same routine so that they train their fear of unknown out and automate their reactions. It can be done, certainly not to the extreme extent as an astronaut, but you can train yourself to manage your reactions better.
How about overall genetic inheritance? Does it influence future success?
Luckily, there’s Duke University School of Medicine research by professor Daniel Belsky and his colleagues, looking into just that. In short – genes can have a marginal effect on success achievement in individuals (between 1% – 4%). (Side note – in my opinion, the article is trying to push the idea that genes can have an effect a bit too much. The professor is saying a “yes, but no” version, the article only highlights the positive findings. Should be titled “Your Success *might be* Shaped by Your Genes”). If you read the original study in more detail, this translates into a very weak link between genes and future success – because, during our life, our circumstances tend to influence us as well. And if you combine a varied rate of gene influence with a varied rate of circumstances influence, it’s very hard to assign measured success in individuals to one or the other influence.
“There’s nothing in our study that says these genetic variants are a more powerful predictor of outcomes than family backgrounds,’ said Dr Belsky.” – in another article about this study.
In another study by Wei Chi of Tsinghua University, there are more tangible findings: “scientists investigated how genes influence traits like self-control and motivation that impact a person’s career success. The DRD4 gene is involved in regulating dopamine receptors, and variations in the expression of DRD4 are associated with differences in people’s motivation, their responses to rewards, and their ability to engage in self-regulation. Specifically, the DRD4-7R variation of the gene has been tied to attentional difficulties, including a higher incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, DRD4-7R has also been linked to positive traits, such as a predilection for exploration and leadership qualities.”
Although this sounds more promising, this study also mentions circumstances and environment as a key factor that can support or cancel some of the genetic advantages.
Therefore the answer, for now, is that genes might give you a head start, but your circumstances can also hinder your progress – and given the small percentage of positive effect, we might as well say that the role of genes in achieving success is negligible in most cases. For some people, if they do have some specific genetic advantage (higher risk-taking, fearless, better empathy) AND their circumstances are conductive to these traits, they MIGHT achieve more. Ergo, this isn’t measurable, therefore more of an outlier. Talking about those…
Outliers - circumstances, timing and luck matter
We’ve mentioned Steve Jobs, Elon Musk earlier. We could talk about many others who succeeded in the last 30 years. As we have suggested in previous paragraph, there is a big player in their road to success:
They were born to a different family and world than you and me. They took different steps, had different opportunities and options during their life. And they might have been lucky – more often than not – to make a certain step in the right time and place, which was rewarded.
I won’t get into too much detail here, Malcolm Gladwell covered it in great detail and very easy to read form in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. In short – there’s always plenty of external factors that go into someone’s success, that they have no influence over. If those factors didn’t come together at random, they wouldn’t achieve their success, no matter how skilled or fearless.
But at the same time – if those factors did come together and these people wouldn’t have the skills and lack of fear, they probably wouldn’t achieve anything as big as they did.
Oh, there’s one more little trick up your sleeve you might want to use. It’s called persistance. It’s not someone’s genius, super high IQ, creativity that fueles most of the worlds successes. It’s their persistance. The ability and will to keep going despite all the obstacles, failures. The ability to keep trying different ways until you find one that works out – sometimes big time.
It’s not about blindly doing whatever you think you should be doing. It’s part that, but another part is learning from failures and listening to what your target audience is telling you. Keep your eyes open for opportunities. Watch your competitors, learn from what they do well (and do it better) and from what they do bad (and avoid it). This is a recipe for success – learn, keep your eyes open, and persist. Time will weed out all the get-rich-quick folks, so that you can enjoy your success, be it later on, but nonetheless.
Mostly, we don’t have any predisposition for success. Even if you do have some genetic advantage, it might get cancelled out or be hindered by your circumstances. For some lucky individuals, things can work out in their favour – a genetic advantage combined with a supportive environment might help them achieve success. But at the same time – having to overcome more obstacles can make you better, tougher – and this can be a positive factor in achieving success. So an individual with no genetic advantage in tougher environment might just beat another person with genetic advantage – because he learns more whilst overcoming more obstacles.
So what can you do to improve your chances of being successful? Actionable conclusion 🙂
- work on your EQ – empathy towards others, understand and control your emotions better
- learn from obstacles – no matter what life throws at you, it’s always an opportunity to learn. Use challenges and obstacles as stepping stones towards a better you.
- seek an environment that supports your goals – you can’t change what circumstances you are born into, but you can always change them later in life. Find an environment that will help you achieve success, not hinder it.
- seek out people that help you achieve your goals – the same as for environment – you control who you spend your time with, so make sure it’s people who inspire/help/coach/support you on your journey.
- be persistent, but also watch, listen, learn and adapt – don’t give up to failures – they are essential to success. If success wasn’t this hard to achieve, we would all be successful. Overcome obstacles with your persistence and strive longer than everyone else – if you’re the only one standing, you will be successful.
There are many external factors in achieving success that we can’t influence. But if we don’t want to miss out any random alignment of factors that can spark our genius, we should be prepared – and manage our circumstances and environment so that it’s conducive to whatever your goals are.
That means working on our emotional intelligence (EQ) which will help us control our emotions better and hence handle tough situations calmly. This will provide a much better foundation for anything we work on – be it business or relationships. We should improve our skills in whichever direction we feel best, so that when or if a moment comes, we can apply them and shine. If you consciously choose not to improve yourself in this manner, that’s fine too – it is your decision. Most likely, we’ll choose some sort of middle ground between the two – improve ourselves in some ways we find meaningful and allow ourselves to enjoy some vices in other ways. There will be those, who will lean towards one or the other side more – as long as you’re conscious about it and it’s your decision, it’s ok.