Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Thinking About Success

I am reading Malcolm Gladwell's OUTLIERS, his investigations into the nature and causes of 'Success' and successful people, including himself. Mr. Gladwell, with his usual penchant for statistical evidence and razor-sharp analysis, opines that individual success emanates from a complex combination of various environmental and circumstantial factors. It is more a 'at the right place, at the right time' theory of success.

I must add here that Mr. Gladwell differs from Nassim Nicholas Taleb's idea of complete randomness - he focuses, instead, on the causation random and systemic, as well as the role perspiration plays. I think my takeaway is here - the 10,000 Hour rule - the theory that any cognitively complex discipline takes about 10,000 hours [about 10 years with 4 hours every working day] to master. However, he debunks the 'specialness' of successful people, which in a way is fundamental to our celebrity-crazed society.

The broader point of this debate about success is how we treat it and how we look at failure. Gladwell makes the point about an approach change to success and failure. Our societies worship success and revile failure. Nowhere it is more visible than in India, where, often, a less successful family member will not make it to some social invitations, while the relationship with the more successful ones will be carried around like a calling card. However, the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of success makes such 'success fetish' unsustainable and unfair. Our approach to failure discourages risk taking and innovation, and in the end, leaves the society poorer, both in ideas and achievements.

It is indeed hard to accept that success is more accidental than commonly proclaimed. Sages, Life Coaches and Business Gurus will all have a problem with the notion. However, it is easy to understand the logic here: No one is denying that hard work, commitment and focus have roles to play in building success [Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule], but these by itself does not guarantee success. And, the fallacy in our thinking is that if someone isn't successful, s/he has not done his/her part - someone can put in hard work and be as committed and yet be less successful.

Of course, this isn't an unknown notion. Woody Allen's Matchpoint is the satirist's take on our success fetish, with the necessary black humour. However, many a times, artists get to the truth faster than the scientists; the science of success is one such thing.

One parting comment: I have commented before about the extreme success fetishism in India. Celebrity obsession is universal and a feature of a modern society; but in India, success fetish extends to one's one family and is creating a new caste system. It is easy to see that India is almost two countries today: one, brightly lit, young, urban, aspirational, successful; the other, dark and hopeless, so complete in failure that suicide is often the only option left. I have noticed that many Indians, otherwise educated and considerate, would privately opine that if there was a way to get rid of [perpetrate genocide, in other words] this less successful lair, India will be better off and emerge as a more powerful country. I am certain this is not going to happen, but we desperately need to rethink about how we think about success and what we do with our less successful.

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