To be considered successful we just have to do those things that most people don’t.
This essay is based on a talk first presented to the senior students at my old school, Rongotai College and repeated since then at other schools.
Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.
I’d like to pretend that it wasn’t too long ago since I was in Year 13.
Actually it was so long ago that back then we used the imperial naming system and called it 7th Form. But I do still remember sitting where you are. Old people like me would come to speak to us too, and they would inevitably give the same old tired advice: work hard, do your best, follow your passion, yada, yada.
I never found that especially practical or inspiring. So, instead, I thought it would be more interesting to start with a hard question:
What is something you believe that nearly no one else does? 1
Most people don’t have a good answer to this!
There is a follow-up question that is potentually even more interesting:
And, how did you learn it? 2
This is an important distinction to make:
While we are at school, success is measured by how well we can do things that people have done before. That’s important. We’re building a foundation for ourselves by understanding all of the things that others have discovered and learned.
But, once we leave school, it’s the exact opposite: success is often measured by how well we can do things that nobody has done before and, what’s more, that most people don’t think we can do.
By definition, to be successful we just have to do those things that most people don’t.
Think about that…!
Here are five specific things that I believe that it seems like most people don’t:
Technology is anything that was invented after you were born, everything else is just stuff.
That’s why we don’t argue anymore about whether the piano is corrupting music with technology.
— Seymore Papert
Most people, especially as they get older, are not curious about how things are made and how things work.
Most people assume the world is just the way it is, and that their job is to live inside that world.3
However, actually, everything was made by somebody - the places where we live and work, buildings, shops and offices; the vehicles we get around in, cars and bikes and planes; our public spaces, streets, bridges, parks; the clothes and shoes we wear; the sports we play and even the teams we support; the devices that power our lives: computers, phones, software (not to mention the power stations and electricity network that make it all possible); all of the food we eat; all of the medicines that keep us healthy or fix us when we’re broken; all of the things which entertain us: television shows and movies, art, music, theatre; even the schools, companies, organisations and institutions that make up our communities, with their rules and traditions and processes.
Don’t assume that the people who made any of these things are any different from us or that we couldn’t find some ways to make improvements if we’re so inclined.
When I was younger I used to enjoy taking things apart to see what was inside. One time I dismantled our VCR.4 It’s easy to assume that the devices we use everyday, and increasingly depend upon, are a bit magical. But, once we take off the cover we realise that actually this is an object that has been designed by somebody and that a lot of thought has gone into it - for example I discovered that the head which reads the signal off the tape was oriented on a specific angle, so that the width of the tape could be thinner. It wasn’t magic, it was design!
Likewise, whenever I get the chance to watch world class sports people compete live, I try and get to the venue early to watch them go through their warm-up routines. If it’s a team, I try to focus on one player at a time and see the various drills they complete. It’s easy to assume they are superhumans, but actually they are just skilful individuals, preparing methodically, and together with their coaches they have thought about how they want to perform as individuals or as a team. They are following a well-considered plan.
Once we understand this about the world, we realise something important: we can change it, influence it, improve it, and build our own things that others can use to make their own lives better.
So, be discontent. Look out especially for things that make you angry or frustrated. Don’t just accept things the way they are. Ask yourself, who made them? Why are they made that way? And, what could you do differently to make those things better?
Boring people focus on the past, restless people focus on the future and content people focus on the present. The lucky ones are those who are content, but the restless ones change the world.
I’m not saying we should be happy to fail. A healthy fear of failure is a great motivator to do the hard work we’ll inevitably have to do if we aspire to do anything interesting. If we do fail, it will hurt, and so it should - go and feel terrible for a bit, then remember that we’re not most people.
(Some people think that we should be more tolerant of failure in New Zealand. Some people even suggest that we should celebrate failure the way they do in the US. Interestingly, not very many of those people are as excited when I suggest that quid-pro-quo we should also celebrate success like they do in the US. Vive la inequality!)
I am saying we shouldn’t be scared to try.
Most people are generally optimistic, so their planning tends to be mostly wishful thinking.
The important thing is not to be scared of taking risks, but to better understand the risks we are taking. Try anything, provided we have a plan for getting back on our feet if and when we do fall on our face.
This was my experience. After I left school I went to university and worked hard and got a good degree. After I graduated I was fortunate to get a good job at a good company with good prospects for a good career. And then, after a few years of that, I quit to start my own company. At the time, most of the people who knew me thought I was mad, and that I was throwing my career away.
Interestingly, there was only one person who was brave enough to say this to my face at the time - the managing partner at the company who had hired me, and he may have just been saying that in his own self-interest, hoping that I’d change my mind. It turns out that there is also some risk telling somebody that they are throwing their career away, as they may turn out to be making a fantastic decision which will make you look a bit silly down the track.
Actually they were probably right to be worried - there was a very slim chance that what I was doing would be successful and a much greater chance that it would be a complete flop.
But I didn’t think I was taking a big risk. Because of the work I’d done up until then, and the opportunities I’d had, I was confident that if I did fail I could always go back to wearing a suit-and-tie and working for somebody else. It would have been embarrassing, but not fatal. But, given what happened, it would have been a much greater failure not to have tried just in order to not seem a bit crazy to people who didn’t understand that.
Either way, my observation is that this almost never happens, because in the course of trying something new you change, and so the thing you want to do next is something different, even if you fail.
So, don’t spend too much time agonising about what other people think. Especially those who are lot older than you, like me! With age comes experience, and with experience comes an understanding of all of the reasons why something is impossible, as well as a much greater fear of falling.
And for good reason: when we are kids we fall on our face multiple times a day and it doesn’t make much difference, but by the time we are an old person a fall can literally be life threatening, so it’s worth constantly assessing where we are on that spectrum!
There is a caveat to this, which is that most people who make things are terrified of criticism, so they generally prefer to keep the new things they are working on secret until some mythical point in the future where the thing is finished and perfect. This is nearly always a mistake. It’s better to take the view that we are wrong and that our job is to be less wrong. The best way to do that is by asking for considered feedback from anybody who will give it to us, but especially from our friends who know us well, and will give us an honest opinion.
By the same measure, we shouldn’t spend too much time judging other people for the risks they take. It’s a foolish thing to predict somebody else will fail anyway, because if we’re right then we look mean and if we’re wrong we look silly, so we lose no matter what happens.
Most people think they need permission from somebody else, before they get to work on the things they’re interested in and passionate about.
As you decide what to study at university you’ll learn about prerequisites. Those are the things that somebody else has decided you need to have done first in order to qualify for the things you want to do next.
This is how it works on reality television too. If we want to be a “pop idol” or “master chef” the way to do this is to wait for the auditions for the show to come to our town, then line up with all of the other hopefuls, compete in some contrived challenges and have our fate decided by some random celebrity who will give us the thumbs up or thumbs down, followed by either fifteen minutes of fame or shame. Of course if we want to be a real pop idol or master chef, without the double quotes, then it’s probably best to avoid the televised audition - do the hard yards in the relative anonymity of the shadows.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the whole world is like this, and to continue with that mindset once we leave school. But, reality television isn’t real. If we want to do anything interesting we nearly always have to work it all out for ourselves.
This is not to say we should ignore the experience of those who have gone before us. We should learn as much as we can about the things they did right, and wrong. Just don’t wait for them to open the door for us.
It’s worth constantly asking: what or who are we waiting for?
If it’s not clear then often the best option is to just press on and do what seems like the logical next step, based on what we’ve learned so far. If we’re wrong then we may have to apologise to the owners of the toes we’ve stepped on, but that’s nearly always better than wondering what could have been.
Most people think they need to work for somebody else.
Luckily, not everybody, or else there would be no jobs.
Of course, to start with you almost certainly will work for somebody else.
That’s not a bad thing. While you do, try to treat them as a “we” rather than a “they”. Your boss was in your position once, probably not that long ago. Aim to become what they are, and get them to help you with that, rather than spending your life being suspicious and resentful.
On the other hand, don’t put them on a pedestal. They are likely unsure about a lot of things too, and will need your help. That’s why they’ve hired you, right?
When I work with early-stage companies, I always encourage the founders to hire people smarter than them who could, if things go well, eventually do their job. Because, when everybody hires their replacement that enables them to take on more responsibility at the next level up. That’s how you grow a great team. A’s hire A’s. But it’s a scary thought for most people. B’s hire C’s.
Most people mindlessly believe what they see on television and read in the media.
We need to constantly ask: who is telling the story, and why? It’s okay to be suspicious. Think about what that person or group is trying to sell us, or how they might benefit from having us believe one thing or another.
We should learn about the different types of bias that can confuse or distort how stories are presented.
For example, history is normally written by the winners. The reason I get to tell my story is because the things I’ve worked on have mostly been successful. We normally don’t get to hear from the many others who tried similar things and didn’t have the same result, even though you would probably actually learn a lot more from them than you can from me.
We should seek out media coverage of a topic that we know well. When we do we normally find that it’s confused and shallow, if not inaccurate and misleading. Then, we can extrapolate from that and consider what this means about all of the other areas where we are not knowledgeable and therefore take what is reported at face value.
We should look for repeating patterns.
One of my guilty pleasures is seeing how the media cover large Lotto jackpots. It’s the same stories repeated every single time: the buzz of anticipation as the prize pool grows; the excitement of the “lucky” outlet that has beaten the odds and sold the winning ticket; and finally the winner, once identified, will inevitably tell journalists about all of the things they are going to spend their windfall on, while at the same time wanting to remain anonymous and/or continue with their existing life.
Interestingly, we never hear from the unlucky losers.
We soak in this sort of high-calorie/low-nutrition news constantly, and hopefully (from the perspective of the people selling us the stories) also notice the advertisements which are sold around them.
We should try to differentiate between being famous and successful. Those that make the most noise about their achievements aren’t always the only ones who are most deserving of our respect or attention. It’s good to have heroes and role models to look up to, but be careful who you choose. Try not to compare your inside with anybody else’s outside. Chances are we don’t have to dig too deep in order to find some major flaws or shades of grey.
And, don’t forget that everybody spins their story. I’m doing it right now! Few things are as simple, or obvious or absolute as they are often presented.
If you want to be successful surround yourself with people who are more successful.
If you want to be happy surround yourself with people who are less successful.
Last but not least…
Most people don’t realise the influence that their friends and colleagues have on their life.
We all normalise our behaviour. We reasonably quickly become the average of the people we spend the most time with. If we hang around with people who behave a certain way, odds are that we will behave that way too, for better or for worse (unfortunately this seems to be true for negative behaviours just as much as for positive behaviours). So, it’s important that we choose those people carefully.
We can use this knowledge to help us change something about ourselves that we want to change. If we want to be fit and healthy, choose friends who are fit and healthy. If we want to stop smoking, stop spending time with people who smoke. If we want a better balance between work time and family time, find people to work with who already organise themselves this way. Likewise, if we want to really push ourselves in our career it will be much easier in a company where our colleagues are doing the same.
At the same time, I encourage you to work hard to keep in touch with the friends you’ve made at school, because you’re probably not going to have the same opportunity again. It may seem to you now like that will be easy. At the moment you all have a lot in common. More than you realise. But, once you leave you’ll find your lives diverge quite quickly. Some of you will go to university, and study different things. Some of you will get jobs. You’ll find yourselves in different places around the country and around the world. Some of you will have a family. Some of you won’t. But, either way, all of you will get older, and as you do it’s worth remembering those who knew you before you were any of those things. They will keep you honest.
So … think about the definition of success. We don’t have to be like most people if we don’t want to be. We just have to ask ourselves: what is it we believe that nobody else does?
Most people believe that capitalism and competition are synonyms, and I think they are opposites.
Source: Ben Horowitz in On Career Moves and Business Leadership:↩︎
At this point in the talk I sometimes segue into a brief lesson in ancient history, to explain what a VCR is, but assuming the audience for this post is a bit older than at the schools, I’ll skip that here and just provide a link to Wikipedia for those who are interested. ↩︎
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