If you put your mind to it

It’s not hard at all to find some well-meaning advice about success, usually something about achieving your dreams by dedication and hard work, and most of the time, it pisses me off seriously. It’s not that I have anything against advice or optimism, or provoking people to try harder, but the implication, far too often, is that this is all that it takes to become successful. Variations of the theme often include the habits of some successful person – I actually saw some website, desperate for content it seems, listing what famous people had for breakfast – and of course there are all the various cute little proverbs, one of the worst ways to guide thinking that I can imagine.

In short, most of such advice is confirmation bias, the practice of picking the bits that support any given standpoint while ignoring all of those that do not. While Joe Millionaire makes it a point to be up by 6 am and jog ten kilometers before breakfast, we can’t ignore the huge number of people with the same habits who somehow are not millionaires, nor even close. While some musician never let go of their dreams, how many others that are never interviewed, never even noticed, pursued the same dreams and yet failed to break out of their obscurity, or perhaps enjoyed only modest success? If we want to offer advice, perhaps we could make at least a token effort to see that the advice really does work?

The success of any individual, any endeavor, will always depend on a wide confluence of factors, many of which (probably, “most”) are not in anyone’s control. Hell, we can look to the motion picture industry, where the attendance of any given film is widely variable and influenced by timing, season, “buzz,” critical review, and even just the vagaries of social media. One talk show host, just one, making a positive or negative comment can alter the box office returns by millions of dollars – and who knows what standpoint they even comment from? Against such factors, the script and cinematography and talent and hard work and goals and all such positive-thinking advice comes crashing down.

Meanwhile, there are an awful lot of people who just fell into their success, born into the right family, or just in the right place at the right time, or in an environment where their attempts to build a network or find investors is greatly enhanced; the playing field is far from level. It has long been known that growing up in a disadvantaged area – inner-city urban blight, or remote rural communities – negatively influences the likelihood of ‘breaking out;‘ the tendency, by far, is to maintain the status quo regardless of the area or status, so the developed regions tend to foster development while the undeveloped regions stagnate. This is why so much effort is poured into developing better schools and opportunities in disadvantaged areas, to try and break such cycles. No amount of good advice, no number of internet memes, is going to dismiss such factors.

And then there’s simple human nature. Given two equal job applicants, the more attractive one is most likely to nail the position – and this influence almost certainly has an effect well beyond “equal applicants.” Additionally, the hardest and most innovative worker in the world still has to have a boss that isn’t stupid, petty, or insecure, and/or has to work for a business that is willing to recognize and foster such an asset. We want to believe that hard work always pays off, we want a society where such standards are maintained, but the bare truth is, one personality clash can negate virtually everything else. Career success can be achieved through countless other influences such as shmoozing the right people, having connections, gaming the system, and even just being ‘perky’ – and these are hardly exceptions; we all know examples of these, possibly quite a lot of them.

It’s not my intention to be negative; I remain in favor of a positive outlook and being motivated to achieve goals. If someone’s success relies on skill sets and experience, there’s a certain level of truth to the concept of ‘always try harder.’ Focus and perseverance are undeniably useful traits almost anywhere. But I take grave exception to the belief that this is all that it takes. This ends up putting the blame of failure solely on the individual, with the direct implication that if someone doesn’t achieve their goals, they simply didn’t try hard enough (this same concept appears repeatedly throughout religion, only it’s the lack of devotion that’s to blame there.) By extension, it fosters the idea that human effort can alter all other factors, the asinine mind over matter schtick. Someone can be a marvelous actor, but if they lack the ‘chiseled features’ that are in demand, no amount of effort will overcome that, and the breakthrough parts just won’t materialize. Countless talents languish in remote areas because there are no opportunities for advancement there, and no opportunities to even obtain the funds to get someplace with more opportunities. In such cases, these concepts of ‘positive thinking’ reject reality and replace it with blame; you’re just not good enough to go somewhere. In what way is this supposed to be useful?

There are also studies that show that being perpetually optimistic makes one less prepared than being at least a little cynical, and there’s a very simple reasoning behind that: those that expect problems and obstacles are far more prepared to deal with them. Few of us are stupid enough to think, “I won’t run out of gas,” at least over a significant period of time – but how many of us think, “I’ll just get gas in the morning,” without considering the possibility of an emergency trip to the hospital? At some point, positive thinking becomes denial, and no recognition of the myriad obstacles that can appear in our paths. Motivation and dedication are only parts of a formula that should also include forethought, preparedness, business savvy, judging people, evaluating failures, and having plenty of options – and a better mental attitude is going to include the simple idea that shit happens.

Yet it gets far worse when this ‘failure is only personal’ attitude is prevalent in a society. Assistance programs of any kind, the ones intended to help level that playing field, are viewed with the bias that if someone is poor or disadvantaged, it’s their own damn fault. Far too many people want to believe that their own success came from their hard work or intelligence, and had nothing whatsoever to do with where they grew up or the use of a car when they were going for their first job, or even the number of neighbors close enough that needed their lawns mowed. There’s no magic formula that dissolves unfortunate circumstances, and while the very concept of success is primarily an ego-trip, this is hardly a reason why we should attempt to deny it from others, or believe that what we’ve achieved makes us special – that’s just being judgmental. Everyone live surrounded by factors, but these are in no way the same – some are much better than others, and some far worse.

For every example of a self-made millionaire, there are millions who tried to follow the same route and failed. For every person who parlayed a single stock option into a thriving investment portfolio, there are thousands who lost their money when the stocks decreased in value rather than increasing, and millions who lack the disposable income to even make any such investments. For every founder who started out with a corner business and built it into a multi-million dollar franchise, there are hundreds of businesses that folded within the first few years. Timing and opportunity and location and connections and weather and just plain stupid luck all have their say, and to promote the idea that hard work will overcome all of these is being fatuous, failing to recognize that there are better things that we can do to promote success than offering untested and blatantly false proverbs about positive thinking.

And then, there’s this insidious concept that is rampant in our society right now, and it’s the pursuit of success in the first place, the idea that this is what’s important. Without a doubt, we all want to pay the bills, to be free from financial concerns, and to indulge ourselves a bit. Yet the drive to keep exceeding this, to always seek a higher status or a better financial position, is most likely fostered by evolved traits to compete, to appear as a better mate choice than others – just because that’s what worked to propagate our genes. But we have other desires as well, and too often, we forget that the pursuit of success or wealth or fame or whatever doesn’t actually make us happy; sometimes, all we need to be doing is what we enjoy, and most of the time this doesn’t take a lot to achieve. The competitive drive is something that, if it serves no actual purpose, we should be willing to ignore in favor of other drives or desires that actually will do something for us, many of which are a hell of a lot easier to appease. At the same time, the reduction of emphasis on success and wealth is quite likely to make our society better overall anyway.

Rather than taking our cues and goals from others, chasing the collective dream as it were, sometimes it’s better to look inside and find our own motivations, seeking what would work to make us the happiest and most satisfied. When we’re striving for a label to apply to ourselves, why isn’t “content” the choice more often?

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