Wired for Success

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Why Second Best May Be Better Than Trying To Be a Superstar

A formula for super success for all is a myth

Want to be successful in your career and life? Just follow the example of the superstars of business, celebrities, professional athletes and entertainers. Emulate the habits of Tiger Woods (before his personal crisis), Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Lance Armstrong or Sir Richard Branson. Or at the organizational level, just follow the examples of Apple, GE or Google. That’s what we are told by thousands of books, movies, seminars, consultants and self-help gurus, exhorting people to follow the same steps, habits and secrets of the super successful, and they too will achieve the same outstanding results.

The problem with this kind of advice is first, it doesn’t work and second, when people try to do as suggested, they tend to fail, and become even more demotivated. I’ve coached hundreds of people who came to me with great disappointment or despair, after following the dictums of some recipe for success taken from the lives of the super successful. In some cases they have spent thousands of dollars on seminars, books, personal advisors and media sources.

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Why?

First, if super success was as easy as following a laundry list of habits or skills, then we would have millions of highly successful people and the superstars would be difficult to identify. By definition, superstars stand out because they are so few.

Second, any recipe for success assumes that the habits and skills of the successful exist in a vacuum, with no context of time and place. Exceptional performance is often a convergence the right person at the right time. Think about Winston Churchill in World War II, and his rejection by the people after the war. It’s not possible to replicate all the variables of context for anyone at any time, regardless of skills and abilities.

New research provides an additional perspective on the issue. Chengwei Liu of the University of Warwick Business School and Jerker Denrell of Oxford Said Business School have published recent research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which shows that we should stop focusing and rewarding top performers, because that leads to problems, and therefore “resist the temptation to learn from and imitate the most successful.”

The authors argue that the idea that the exceptional performers are the most successful is flawed. “The reason is that exceptional performance often occurs in exceptional circumstances. Top performers in business are often the luckiest people, who have benefited from rich-get-richer dynamics that boosts their fortune,” they say.

They cite the example of Bill Gates, who became the richest man in the world. Scores of writers and “experts” recommended following the habits and path of Gates. He may have been very talented, but Liu and Denrell argue, “his extreme success tells us more about how circumstances beyond his control created such an outlier.” For example, Gates’ upper class background enabled him to gain extra programming experience, and his mother’s social connection with IBM’s chairman enabled him to gain a contract from the then leading PC company. 

Liu and Denrell contend “Our research found that even though observers were given clear feedback and incentives to be accurate in their judgment of performers, 58% of them still assumed the most successful were the most skilled when they are clearly not, mistaking luck for skill.”  As a result the authors argue, this assumption is likely to led to disappointment.  Even if you imitated everything Bill Gates did, you would not be able to replicate exactly his initial family resources and connections.

In a similar vein, Sir Richard Branson admitted in his autobiographical works that he probably wouldn’t have achieved success if his mother hadn’t bailed him out of serious financial difficulty at least once in his life.

So what is the alternative to trying to imitate the most successful? This is where the researchers suggest something quite controversial. They say, “this also implies that rewarding the highest performers can be detrimental or even dangerous because imitators are unlikely to achieve exceptional performance without luck unless they take excessive risk or cheat, which may partly explain the recurrent financial crises and scandals.”

The research has important implications for those in my profession, who are trying to help individuals achieve greater success, fulfillment and happiness in life, as well as businesses trying to make it to the top. For example, many business books present the formula for improving from “good to great.” The researchers would argue, and I would agree with my experience in helping others, that establishing a standard of “doing the best I/we could, given the circumstances,” is more constructive and motivating for individuals, rather than creating some standard of perfection.

We need only pick up a magazine or watch a TV show where “perfect” specimens of beauty are promoted as attainable for the masses, and we wonder why millions of people toil away in gyms, undergo the latest beauty regimen, or acquire the latest style image, in hopes of replicating the rich and famous. Only to fail, because the replication of so-called perfection is not possible on such a large scale.

Developing a healthier and more realistic of “good enough” and even “second best,” in the long run will contribute more positively to a successful and happy life. We need to develop many more people and organizations that are moderately and reasonably successful and fewer superstars to envy.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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