Nobody ever succeeded at everything they did at first

One of my pet peeves is the idea that successful people were successful in everything that they ever did at first. I understand that failure is at times discouraging, but at the same time, everyone will fail at something that they did.

Probably the biggest misconception about people who were successful is that their success was somehow preordained, that it was inevitable beforehand that they would succeed where the rest of us failed. We are looking at things incorrectly from retrospect. That is not the case in life. Very few of the people who are truly successful knew that they would succeed.

I will be the first to acknowledge the limitations.

  • While, there are certainly people who are naturally more talented at certain things than others, there is a lot to be said for hard work, persistence in the face of challenge, practice, and yes, learning from failure. Certainly, most of us will never have the physical body to be say, an Olympic Athlete or the mind that makes up the world Chess Grandmaster.
  • Also worth acknowledging is that life is not usually fair, an example being in a society with extreme inequality gaps, a young person born to a family of great wealth will simply have more opportunities than a person who was born to a family of limited financial means. I suppose this may be a huge argument for an egalitarian society – there is no equality of opportunity if society does not have a relatively egalitarian distribution of  wealth.
  • For the truly successful in some fields like for entrepreneurs, I do not deny that luck also plays a role. Science and technology too, has situations where luck plays a role. Serendipity has played a huge role in many scientific discoveries and great inventions. Even there, successful people often make their own luck.

Nonetheless, let us look at it another way, that person born of limited financial means if they put in the effort, has a much greater probability of success than someone who is apathetic. A person that practices, at say chess, will obtain a respectable amount of skill. Entrepreneurs I find need to fail at times to learn from their mistakes. That may sound strange, but the most wise ones I have met have the experience of failure.

Sochi Medals

The 2014 Olympic medals. Think of the amount of time, energy, and effort it takes for even a slim chance to win these medals.
Image from Sergei Kazantsev from the Wikimedia Commons

Look at the image of the Olympic medals. Very few people ever even get a chance to come close to compete for these medals. For the many athletes in each segment competing, only one will go home with the medal. Yet we seem to be as a society caught up in these medals. It is a source of national pride to see our nation supposedly win these medals. That can be a dangerous fallacy.

Yet when you look at the amount of effort it takes to get into the Olympics for even a slim chance to win these medals, you realize the level of effort that the athletes have had to put into winning these games. We don’t glorify the many hours of practice, the failures, and the other challenges that athletes or for that matter anyone that society deems “successful” has put in. We tunnel on the results.

In reality, none of these people knew they were going to be successful. They had their failures, and they persisted in the face of them. There was no assurance of anything really. Remember the odds that they faced.

Can the experiences of Olympic medalists be applied to our lives? Perhaps. I think that we need to as individuals know when to persist and when we should apply the “sunk cost fallacy” (we humans are terrible at recognizing when costs are sunk), but when we are faced with a situation where persistence has the potential to pay off, really persist.

That is a lot harder than it seems, especially in trying times. The ones that do have the potential to be remarkable.

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