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Two Broad Paths to Success in Life

Some succeed through all-out selfishness while others succeed by truly caring.

Key points

  • Humans have evolved a broad suite of social strategies that solve all kinds of adaptive problems.
  • In the human lived experience, there are, without question, multiple routes to success.
  • Some succeed by sheer and ruthless selfishness, while others succeed by gaining reputations as truly compassionate and caring for others.
Source: bertvthul/Pixabay

Think about different kinds of leaders for a minute. Ever notice that leadership styles vary dramatically? Some leaders seem to genuinely come across as caring about the broader people whom they represent—and they seem trustworthy, altruistic, and kind. On the other hand, some leaders seem kind of scary—selfish, intimidating, and even ruthless.

Feel free to fill in the blanks with your own examples, but in short: History tells us that there are definitely different pathways toward success and toward achieving leadership positions. And this basic story speaks to the fact that there are different pathways toward success in life more generally.

Strategic Pluralism

As is found in so many life forms, humans seem to demonstrate something we call strategic pluralism1 when it comes to patterns of behavior. In short, strategic pluralism speaks to the fact that there is often a plurality of strategies that can lead to success in all kinds of contexts. When it comes to natural selection, the engine that drives the nature of the living world, it is often the case that multiple phenotypes (observable features of an organism) emerge to address various selective pressures (i.e., things that tend to impede survival and/or reproduction).

As a quick example, consider the fact that some male wood frogs find success in the mating market by having large bodies and effectively attracting female wood frogs with their deep calls, while other (often smaller) male wood frogs find themselves successfully mating via an alternative route: by hiding in the bushes near a large male wood frog and mating with females who are attracted by the calls of the larger male. The latter is a sneaky strategy, for sure—but it often works.

The same goes with humans when it comes to broad social strategies in terms of how we treat others. People vary from one another in terms of how truly other-oriented versus how dispositionally selfish they are. The concept of strategic pluralism provides us with a framework for understanding this variability in behavior.

In the human experience, there are multiple pathways to success. Some successful humans have reached the top by gaining the respect and admiration of others by being truly other-oriented, genuine, and kind. On the other hand, many successful humans have reached the top by lying, cheating, intimidating, and stealing. The concept of strategic pluralism can help us to understand how this can be.

Dark vs. Light Approaches to Life

In recent years, work in the field of personality psychology has found that there are reliable and measurable individual differences in terms of the degree to which people tend to employ a dark strategy when it comes to dealing with others2 versus a light strategy3 in dealing with others.

As is the case with wood frogs, these two different behavioral strategies in humans seem to each have the capacity to lead to success. Under some conditions, an all-out selfish approach leads to success in life—largely via tactics such as intimidation and bullying. In other conditions, a genuinely other-oriented approach has the capacity to boost one's social reputation4 and open the door for all kinds of success in life.

In other words, across evolutionary time, nature has selected both selfish and other-oriented approaches to dealing with others in life.

Two Broad Paths to Success in Life

From this perspective, we can think of two broad paths to success in life. A selfish approach to life, for better or worse, can have its merits when it comes to success. History is full of all kinds of figures who found success by moving simply toward their own selfish goals.

On the other hand, humans evolved in small, tight-knit communities in which social reputation mattered quite a bit. In this context, demonstrating genuinely other-oriented, caring behaviors has the capacity to facilitate one's own success in an ultimate sense.

Bottom Line

Human behavior is complex—people utilize a broad suite of behavioral strategies in their efforts to succeed in life. Based on the principle of strategic pluralism, it turns out that multiple—and often wildly different—strategies have the capacity to lead to successful outcomes.

Knowing all this, when it comes to the strategy that works best for you in life, realize that there are choices to be made. Sure, a self-serving approach to life might lead to all kinds of success, but it often does so at a cost to the welfare of others. On the other hand, a genuinely other-oriented approach to life has the capacity to also facilitate one's own success while, at the same time, cultivating the success of others and of one's broader community. Via eons of evolutionary pressures, both strategies have made it into the human behavioral repertoire. In large part, the strategy that you utilize as you navigate the obstacles of life is up to you.


1Gangestad, S.W., & Simpson, J. A. (2000). The evolution of human mating: Trade-offs and strategic pluralism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 573–644.

2Jonason, P. K., Kaufman, S. B., Webster, G. D, & Geher, G. (2013). What lies beneath the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen: Varied relations with the Big Five. Individual Differences Research, 11, 81-90.

3Kaufman, S.B., Yaden, D.B., Hyde, E., & Tsukayama, E. (2019). The Light vs. Dark triad of personality: Contrasting two very different profiles of human nature. Frontiers in Psychology.

4Geher, G., Di Santo, J., & Planke, J. (2019). Social reputation. In T. Shackelford (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Science. New York: Springer.

5Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

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