A Guide to Success for Talentless Hacks
The odds are not in your favour when it comes to being exceptionally successful. Statistically speaking, once the dust settles, the most likely outcome is you’re dreadfully average. In a world that demands so much of us to acheive success, where does one find meaning if so many of us don’t have much to give?
Growing up, we were told we could be astronauts, Olympians, or (if our parents were true dicks) both. What they didn’t tell us is that there exists an ocean of factors beyond our control for achieving such feats. Grow up in a tumultuous environment and develop a mental illness? Did your stupid leg bones stop growing at a normal age? Well, you can look at the stars, but you probably shouldn’t reach for them (you might break one of your shitty bones).
The sad outcome is that many of us wake up one day to realize we’ll never be enough. Enough for our parents, ourselves, or our partners. We are destined to a life of mediocrity and “good enough.” In the symphony of success, we’re dial tones.
And we’re wrong to think this way because success is much more nuanced than most realize. The path to success is fluid and largely self-determined. We can be amazing if we want.
With a narrow view of success, attaining it can become paralyzing. If you don’t have those certain “it” factors, it can feel as though you’re destined to be relegated to the footnotes of history. With a more broad definition of success–which I argue is more realistic–attaining it becomes realistic. Suddenly a race to the top of the mountain becomes a race to the top of any mountain you want, and many have nobody on them yet.
The Myth of Innate Genius
At a very young age, Darwin was destined for greatness. His intelligence was lauded by his father, who unfairly compared him to his lesser siblings. After studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, he quickly became a member of London’s intellectual and social elite.
He befriended many notable people of his time, such as the economist Thomas Malthus and the writer Harriet Martineau. He was also a frequent visitor to the house of the physician and zoologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who would later become known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” a title earned by his fierce defence of the Theory of Evolution. It wouldn’t be Darwin’s theory of evolution, though. Well, not this Darwin at least.
This is the story of what should have been the meteoric rise of one Erasmus Alvey Darwin, a man you’ve probably never heard of.
Erasmus’s younger brother didn’t seem to have the same shine. He went to the same schools but became complacent with medicine and shifted degrees to become a clergyman. Sure, a degree in anything is cool… but theology? You know what they say: those who can’t… theology. I mean, seriously. Am I supposed to even capitalize that? I won’t even look it up to check. I’m leaving it. And so he would begin his journey as Charles Darwin, the shitty little brother and black hole of available talent.
Most view him as some adventurer biologist, roaming the high seas and changing minds along the way. In truth, armed with little more than his “degree,” he didn’t even board the S.S. Beagle as a biologist or a scientist. He was the ship’s mate. You know when your mom was worried that you were a dud, so she hired some kid from the neighbourhood who was more of a dud to hang out with you? Charles Darwin. Professional dud.
He did have one ace up his sleeve, though. Ready? It was drawing. By now, you’re probably on Team Darwin’s Dad… this guy sucks! Even when he has a secret superpower, it’s lame as hell. But there it is, Darwin liked to draw.
Darwin would stroll the countryside as a child and sketch plants and animals with meticulous detail. He’d notice those little things that everybody else ignored; he saw life differently. For someone unable to connect the dots about where all this is going, that might seem like an incredibly lame thing to be into. And objectively, it is. Noticing things. What’s he gonna do with that? Notice the connective tissue running between all living things on the planet or some shit?
As luck would have it…
Of course, that’s precisely what he did. While out gallivanting in nature and sketching things nobody else cared about, he began to notice differences. Because his sketches were loser-level detailed, he could pick out something that seemed out of sorts. Bird beaks in certain areas were sized differently than in other areas. Barnacles exhibited curious differences in shell shape, size, and arrangement of body parts depending on their location.
It certainly took time, but he eventually formulated his theories around the interplay between environment and creature. While they wouldn’t become more commonplace until well after he was accepted by the big theology college in the sky, he did produce one of the most meaningful theories in the history of humanity. Not bad for the lazy little brother of Erasmis Darwin. See? I didn’t even spell his name correctly, and I have no intention of fixing it because nobody cares.
Charles Darwin found his success in a roundabout way, with a non-traditional skillset that worked well in the environment he found himself dropped into (how fitting). Darwin also succeeded where his brother failed because the definition of success is incorrect–or, to put it another way–doesn’t exist.
One of the most freeing realizations we can make as success-starved apes is that there isn’t a set definition of it. Success is entirely an internal process that you get to decide on. But, of course, for many, success is an external process that your parents get to decide on, and if that’s your scenario, it sucks to be you, and I’m sorry.
For the ones who don’t have overbearing parents, success remains a blank canvas to decide what it means to you. Is it to be the best parent you can be? A wonderful friend or partner? Cardiac surgeon? YouTube sensation? Whatever rings your success bell is your call, so make sure you’re the one calling it.
Too often we fall into the trap of leaving this definition incomplete. By leaving your definition of success unclear, you invite others to provide one for you. Follow this path, and it’s unlikely others will formulate the definition with you in mind. Without access to your inner feelings, their definition will be external things such as status, clothes, money, cars, and other toys. If those are in your personal category of success makers, then more power to you, but typically these are low-reward investments for most people.
You also get to decide what “enough” is when making your definition. There’s no rule that success is equal to being world-class. For many, being a “good enough” parent is the pinnacle of success. Maybe they didn’t have anything close to that growing up, and they recognize that parenting is a marathon whereby the people along the sidelines don’t cheer for you as much as scold you for ruining their lives and make you drive them around during the race. Becoming a “good enough” parent is a beautiful thing and an aspiration worth striving for. It’s up to us to find our “enough” because reaching that is the end of craving, commonly seen as the height of existence.
The skill ceiling
Typically, when we observe somebody who seems to be killing it at life, we’re focusing exclusively on a narrow group of skills. Nobody ever asks if Tom Hanks can cook a grilled cheese or if LeBron James can build a log cabin. Nobody cares because those guys only have to be good at one thing each.
Skill development requires a significant investment of time. Mastery of anything requires learning, practice, and failure before making any meaningful headway. We all have the same 24 hours, so how you use them becomes critical. For this reason, most humans have a hard cap of about 2-3 things that they can truly excel. That means if your goals are to be an incredible parent, spouse, business owner/employee, and take excellent care of yourself, there is a real possibility that one or two of those things probably aren’t in the cards. It’s not because you’re a terrible parent/person/employee/parent; it’s because to develop in any field, the other fields can’t get as much attention.
The idea that we can “have it all” is a pervasive weed we’ve let grow far too long. This ideology, often propagated by those with the resources to delegate tasks, overlooks the realities of most people. Go ahead and tell a single mom of 3 that she can “have it all,” and you’ll be dodging a beautifully made grilled cheese before you finish the sentence.
So it suddenly makes a lot of sense that people are beginning to freak out in a world where we’re expected to be unicorn employees, infinitely patient parents, rom-com-level partners, and smoothie-chugging health zealots. We feel like failures because failure is the most likely outcome when the game is rigged.
Success is not always what it seems
It’s normal to look at somebody with incredible success (however we choose to define it) and attribute it to some dice roll of good luck and genetics. It feels better to recognize success as the result of innate talent or good luck because then our lack of success isn’t our fault.
When we look at success in others, though, what we see typically isn’t an in-born talent but rather several lesser skills woven together in a timely manner. This should grab our interest somewhat because this means that finding our success might not necessarily require us to become incredible at some impossible task but rather get better at several possible ones.
Edison is widely regarded as the king of resilience. When challenged by a frustrated assistant who felt they’d failed 10,000 times to find the right combination of materials for the light bulb, he famously responded, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
The cultivation of a growth mindset can be a wildly effective practice. The idea that failures are just as critical as success (if not more) is not easy to grasp. Failing sucks hard and often brings a multitude of untruths–generally some variant of “I suck forever.” The untruths we tell ourselves when we succeed are far more enjoyable (“I am unstoppable”), so it’s understandable that we’d crave one and repel the other.
For inspiration, consider the story of psychologist Adam Grant, the worst professor in all of the world. His is a story of resilience turned up to 11, where he found himself more interested in becoming better than avoiding the shame of being bad at something. The constant feedback he demanded from all students who listened to his lectures saw him rapidly rise in rank to be one of the most sought-after professors in the institution.
It certainly wasn’t always that way, though. Early in his career, student feedback was brutal and constant. For months, he poured over comment cards that pointed out how visibly nervous he was, how much he sweat, and how badly people wanted to stop taking his class because his presence made them feel uncomfortable.
Yet, despite the neon arrow he placed above his faults every day, he persevered and improved little by little. Where most of us would quit, Grant’s near masochistic level of being ok with criticism launched him beyond his peers in short order.
The role of focus
Never mind explosive success; managing distraction is the greatest threat to doing basic things. In a world of substantial free time, endless entertainment, and boundless connection, there’s always something more interesting going on.
Consider for a moment that those we see as successful might not be naturally gifted at their craft, but instead, they merely found a way to give it their undivided attention.
The focus problem is often phrased as learning to ignore the siren call of unhealthy habits. Binging Netflix, delicious processed foods, and social media apps that demand more of you each day are commonly cited as the types of activities you’d do well to eliminate from your life.
However, learning to ignore the things that offer value, meaning, and interest might be more challenging. We can’t chase every butterfly we see because we can’t have it all (24 hours in a day, remember). Opportunities will arise for all of us at different times in our life. Sometimes we need to tackle them as they stroll by, but we’d do well to let them pass in many circumstances.
We see people who take on far more than they can chew in New Year’s resolutions each January. They’ll start a running routine, diet program, and give more to their hobbies. Even if somebody found all 3 of those activities enjoyable–already an iffy scenario–they could never give any of them more than 1/3 of their waking hours (assuming they do literally nothing else). The odds of success drop with each passing day as they grind away at the tasks, never making much meaningful progress, which would be unfair to expect anyways.
Getting good at things is hard and often requires a deep, unwavering focus. With every task you add to your list of things to improve, you lower the ceiling on how good you can get at them all.
So is the answer to never branch out and try multiple things? Of course not. Just as I tell my kid when he’s trying (and failing) to follow a recipe, listen to a song, and tell me about whatever happens to be on his mind: you can do everything, just do them one at a time.
Grinding vs hyper-interest
Grinding happens when you allow other people to define your success for you. It’s the job you never wanted but were told it was the thing successful people did.
By contrast, hyper-interest compels you to do something because you find the act of it engaging. You lose time doing it because there’s no conflict or tension involved. Putting a whole day into it seems like an opportunity rather than a slog.
You cannot compete with somebody who’s doing something for fun. Dig into enough exceptional people, and you’ll quickly realize almost none of them are grinding. They may work as if they’re grinding, but behind it all is enjoyment or deep interest in the task. Maybe sometimes trauma, but mostly it’s interest. Even when they beat their fists and tell you that you have to work harder than everybody else, they curiously seem to enjoy the thing they’re doing. It’s not that “work harder than everybody else” is terrible advice; it’s just convenient that the people who offer it tend to love what they’re doing, so working harder happens naturally.
In 1968, at the impressionable age of 13, Bill Gates had a unique opportunity. His school in Seattle had access to a Teletype Model 33 ASR terminal connected to a General Electric (yes, that General Electric) computer system. This arrangement allowed the students of his school something very few others had: limited computer access.
Gates and his friends immediately became enamoured with the new machine. They saw the dawn of a new day and believed in it heavily. They honed their skills and explored for countless hours, even turning their learning on the machine, exploiting glitches to gain extra computer time.
Since computers were so new, it was not inconceivable for a child to become an expert at them. Moreover, the languages he was learning were the first languages, so he became familiar with what they could do from a critical stage of their development.
When the time came for computers to become more mainstream and the dream of having a computer in your home became a reality, Gates had already logged enough time jacking around for fun that he began Microsoft in 1975.
In interviews, he often credits his school in Seattle with allowing him to get in on the ground floor of computing. One thing he never seems to mention when reflecting on those days? Annoyance. Everything was magical and exciting. Driven by interest, he became a machine in his own right, logging hours that flew by so quickly he broke protocol to earn more of them.
Yes, luck played a massive role in Gates’ success, but his unwavering interest made the most of the opportunity in his lap.
Follow your passion (kinda)
So we’ve determined that success isn’t a single path nor a gift given to those born with particular skills. So what can we do with this understanding moving forward? One common over-simplified bit of advice (which is often stupid) is to follow your passion. This advice can be your key to freedom or the most ridiculous thing you ever do, depending on your unique situation in life.
Counter to the “follow your passion” advice is to “follow what you’re good at.” The idea is that passion will naturally follow if you pursue what you’re good at. Again, an excellent idea in theory, but not necessarily one that works for all situations. Some people have incredible skills for tasks they despise. Every year we hear a story of some professional athlete who quits their career despite being a 1-in-a-million talent, and it turns out they were only doing it because their dad made them. There are tons of people who are phenomenal at their job that would kill to do anything else.
For a more well-rounded solution, we turn to Japan. The concept of ikigai shares some similarities with both lines of advice above, but it weaves them together and introduces two other factors. We’re left with a heat map of opportunities, and we can take a hard look at whatever ends up overlapping them all. The four criteria are:
- What you love: This refers to your passions, interests, and activities that bring you joy and a sense of fulfillment. It involves identifying the things that make you truly happy and enthusiastic.
- What you are good at: This element focuses on your skills, talents, and strengths. It involves recognizing your unique abilities, the things you excel at, and the areas in which you have expertise.
- What the world needs: This aspect relates to the world’s needs, problems, or issues that resonate with you. It involves understanding how to contribute to society, positively impact, or help address challenges.
- What you can be rewarded for: This element concerns finding avenues where you can be rewarded for your contributions (financially or otherwise). It involves identifying ways to support yourself while pursuing your passions and making a difference.
Ikigai does a beautiful job covering a few more bases than “follow your passion” or “do what you’re good at.” If your passion is basket weaving, asking if the world is currently at max-basket capacity is not beyond reason. You’ll run into trouble if you’re good at tennis but feel a deep longing to make something of a difference for people (aside from sports gamblers).
Even if you find a path touched by all four categories, it’s no guarantee you should follow it. That said, you should perhaps give it some attention.
The feeling that we’re not enough and will never be good at anything is crushing because that’s a hopeless feeling and because it’s mostly a lie we’ve told ourselves. Likewise, the belief that success only comes to those naturally gifted or limitlessly talented is bullshit, mainly because neither of those things are real.
Some of history’s greatest success stories were people who possessed not the most incredible skill but the most useful one for the opportunity they happened upon. If you let Charles Darwin (or his father) pick his skillset at a young age, you can bet your ass “detailed sketching” wouldn’t be among them. Yet, in an unexpected twist, his interest in the world and ability to sketch helped him make the critical early connections that would change our understanding of life.
There is freedom in realizing that success isn’t a trophy you can hold up and examine. Success is a concept you develop for yourself, which can be as small or as large as you desire. For somebody who has a clear idea of what “enough” means to them, success might be easily attainable, whereas for the person who doesn’t have their meaning of it pinned down could live their whole life attaining things and dying with a scowl on their face. It’s essential to define what success is to you, lest you adopt the definition from other people who will undoubtedly have only their best interests in mind.
Often when we think of people who are excellent at many things, we only see a handful of things that matter to us or are flashy. Most people would struggle to be genuinely excellent at more than a handful of things because becoming truly excellent at a thing takes an incredible amount of time and energy. Once you account for the base necessities of living, there may not be room for you to be excellent at even a few extra things. Sometimes success means being good enough at parenting, partnering, and being kind to yourself.
Focus is an essential key to success (however you define it). Much more than just pushing back the bad and letting in the good, we must also hold back the excess interesting things that actively tempt us. If you’d like to be 20% good at five things, then by all means, indulge. If you want to be 100% good at one thing, you’ll have to get choosy.
If you find something genuinely interesting, you’ll become enormously difficult to compete with. When tasks become fascinating to you, they cease to be tasks.
To find where you can be successful, consider the concept of ikigai, where you look for the overlap between your passion, your skills, what is needed in the world, and what you can be rewarded for. By adding a few more vectors, we can better identify what might be your unique path to success.
Overall, we are a society that mostly lets others decide what success is. We tell each other it’s money or fame, simultaneously ignoring the rich and famous who tell us it’s far more complicated than that. We let this lack of success torment us and stand in our way, failing to ask if we might already have it.