Preamble Notes:

I am writing this a few weeks after finishing a few books on success. They are listed at the bottom. There is no shortage of books or advice on success. What weaves these ones together is that they are social science books.

It’s social science. So we don’t have facts. Instead we have stylized facts, which are observations in data that seem objective enough to serve as the least-worst starting point. A common fact in all of these books is that the path to success is mostly unobserved. It’s hotly debated which traits a person must hold to become successful. Another fact is that what seems clear is that most people, when asked, will cook up a story about why they are successful. I tend to disregard those stories. These books all extend a version of the nature vs. nurture debate in which the authors try to formalize some more facts. I am going to use some of these facts to summarize my beliefs on success, and how to best obtain success.

Success Defined:

Success is not a psychological state, it is based on social ranking. In an evolutionary framework, the most successful people are the ones who pass on their genes and/or memes to the greatest number of offspring. Human beings are no longer simply governed by natural selection, there are cultural selection forces at work. We have biological children and cultural children. Successful people are not defined by wealth, sexual attractiveness, or any sort of record of accomplishment you may wish to definebut these are recursive signals that can tell us something about a person’s level of influence. Influence is what enables transmission of genes and/or memes. Social ranking is based on influence. If a lot of people are willing to have sex with a person, they have a high level of genetic influence, if they choose to exercise it. If a lot of people are willing to emulate or follow the ideas of a person, they have a high level of cultural influence. We know a lot more about genetic selection than we do about cultural selection, but people are working on the problem. Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of a meme. I highly recommend starting with his book The Selfish Gene.

I subscribe to the evolutionary framework because it is a positivist view of the world. A lot of people, when they talk about success, are actually talking about a psychological state of satisfaction with life. For this reason a lot of people fall into a trap of trying to define what being successful means to themselves, as if only an individual can define whether or not they are successful in life. For me, and I suspect many other people, this creates an intense level of cognitive dissonance. Isn’t defining success for myself really just an internal marketing campaign to mask failure? Well…now we have a binary where you’re either successful or not. This is another brand of nonsense.

The natural state of every person is to make some crude assessment of where they exist in the social hierarchy, and try to move up, even if they don’t know which way is up, even if they don’t know how to move up. In one way, you could also relabel this movement ‘upwards’ as living a ‘successful’ life. A lot of books and advice describe the how and why of this. However, I would draw your attention to the limitations of the very language we use to describe success. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ both imply a spatial orientation. That’s attached to our visual understanding of reality, is it not? Well, success is invisible. For fun, watch the video.

The point I am trying to make is that it gets super confusing at this point. I am limited in describing my ideas by the very tools we use to communicate. But one that I find useful is the tournament structure. I think that most people, when they envision what I am talking about by ranking and ‘up’ or ‘down’, have something like this in mind:

The tournament structure.


It is personally important for me to state that: This is wrong! It’s wrong because the real structure is not as neat. In reality, there are no clear, identifiable winners, because there are no clear measurements of cultural transmission or genetic transmission (see Dawkins for survival machines vs. selfish genes). This also does not take into account mutual benefit, it’s a zero sum game, life is not. Cooperating with people makes you more successful, and this type of drawing probably makes you think its all about dominance (like in sports).

Even think of how hard this is to apply the tournament structure to a more straight forward problem like “Who is the GOAT basketball player?”

If this is the real structure of success in our society, we don’t know how to measure it. To place people in a bracket, you need to be able to tally up their memes and/or their genes. You have to define when you measure (when you are alive, after you are dead, etc…). You have to perfectly map how well someone can exercise influence, i.e. how many ideas a person can choose/will to spread and how many kids a person could theoretically choose/will to have at any given moment.

I don’t know how to do that, and neither does anybody else. This is maybe the most powerful thing you can take away…

There is a subtle play of words we both have to navigate now. I don’t like when people tell you that you have to define what success in your own life means, but I have to tell you to do something similar. You have to figure out which proxy you are going to use. What will you use to measure your ability to influence people either genetically or culturally? This is part of being aware. Most people out there in the world are not. It is my belief that the key to a good life is finding the way that best moves you up in the social rankings. Even though you will never know what your true score is.


    There are social classes. There is the ruling class, the middle class, etc… but these are poorly understood divisions. They are ways that we reference the type and level of influence various people have.
    Our society is imperfect at correctly driving wealth or attention to culturally successful people during their lifetime, and the genetic selection seems to be secondary in modern life.
    There are a lot of obstacles beyond your control that determine your objective level of success in life and they are random. Some examples: Where you are born. When you are born. Who your parents are…etc…
    There are a lot of things that are in your control, basically this boils down to figuring out your strategy to climb the social ladder, and the effort you put into executing that strategy.
    You have a moral imperative to be more successful than people who would use their influence to hurt people.
    Success and influence are recursively related to accomplishment. They cause each other. They are endogenous to the same system. People equate doing great things with being successful, but it’s probably better to think of success as potential to do great things, and great things require success/influence to accomplish.
    The true reality of success is far more complex and strange than I am able to pin down.

Musings on success

Caution: the writing meanders a lot below this statement. These are musings, it’s not an essay. There is no thesis. I have a lot of block quotes. I put them there to remind you how common some of these ideas actually are. They are remarkably common, and yet people still ignore them. You should repeat them to yourself a lot. Think of them as tools. You can roll your eyes, but that’s not useful.

You have to be aware of your own situation. Are you a citizen in Sub-saharan Africa and not the USA? That will exclude you from ever becoming the President of the United States of America. Undeniably the president of the USA has influence, is successful…right? You have fundamental limitations on how successful you can become. So be stoic about it. Also realize people have known this a long time.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Defeatism is not productive.

Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

There is a mental block that I often run into. I will not be the best … whatever, so why even bother? This is in a way a lack of awareness of what resources you have or advantages you will need. In The Success Equation, The Sports Gene, and Success and Luck there is a common theme. The people that we attribute with success are the beneficiaries of some random good luck that allowed them to be successful, either their genetics or the chance events that determined where they ended up in life. So there is an element in success that is beyond your control.

Be motherfuckin’ stoic about it.

Ranking yourself is hard

The The Success Equation mostly centers around the concepts about how much luck vs. how much skill there are in a given set of professions. It centers on measurement. If there is some blend of skill and luck, then the outcomes of how a tournament structure sorts people into a social hierarchy is dependent on how much luck and how much skill is inherent in the achievements we view. To be successful, you are more or less pursuing a goal, and all goals require metrics–some way to measure progress. You need to realize that you will have messy signals, and just accept that you will face ambiguity (there is future blog post I want to write about ambiguity). You can never really know if you are successful or if you are doing the right things to be successful. However, you have no choice but to pursue success. So you have to figure out something. Just don’t let it go to your head.

Success and Luck is more about the implications for successful people. You didn’t do it alone. To sum up: this book is about how complex the observation of “success” actually is. If you think about that tournament structure, you can probably take guesses of who to put in the top spot (President of the USA?). However, you have to consider that a successful enterprise is borne out of an environment that mixes all of the societal norms, infrastructure, available resources etc.. to coalesce into a just-so way for your individual effort to even matter. These books are more about dispelling the myth of the “self-made millionaire. I guess the reason this is important to understand is that our society tends to reward people as if that tournament structure is in fact well understood, and that our wages or capital rewards are perfect signals of how successful we are in life. It is a myth. This is somehow related to why envy is one of the seven deadly sins. People make the mistake about the tournament structure. You put yourself on it using these bad metrics. You blame your self for being inadequate. You envy the people that overcame everything. It’s not constructive.

In The Secret of Our Success, there is a model laid out for technological advance. It is heavily based on learning. It shows how a society with good communication but low average intelligence between a lot of cooperative people advances technology faster than another society that has a lot of geniuses that do not cooperate with each other. You can think of this as the difference between thinking of your self as “self-made” (the super genius that didn’t need to cooperate with others) vs. the person who relies on others to advance in life. You need to deepen trust with other people, and you need to communicate your ideas. It is no surprise that you have top venture capitalists saying things like:

Storytelling is the most underrated skill.

This cannot be true if there really is a “self-made” person out there. Because if you were totally “self-made”, you wouldn’t need to convince people of anything, ever. Because to be “self-made” you never needed help on your way to success. It’s delusional. It’s another reason why that tournament structure actually sucks at explaining success. People think that because they can tell a story about all the work they did, that it means they were solely advancing themselves up the ladder. It’s dumb. It’s intellectually dishonest. Don’t. Everyone likes humble people more, anyway.

If we go back to the definition of success: the ones who pass on their genes and/or memes to the greatest number of offspring, then you realise that cooperation is a super powerful tool, and it amplifies your contributions enormously. It also brings me to a future blog post I need to write. I think my number one moral imperative is this:

The number one duty in life is to enhance the people around you.

It’s not the golden rule. It’s better. I think the highest moral thing to do in life is to help other people reach their highest maximum potential. It’s vague, which is why I need to devote a blog post to it at some point in this project, but since it is my number one rule of thumb, it belongs somewhere in a discussion about success.

Progress is slow.

80 percent of life is showing up

A total creep said the above, but it gets to the core thesis of Grit. The people who are successful tend to get there by deliberately setting goals that are hard, and working on them. Gladwell gets at this in Outliers. There is a lot of lore and pop-culture already out there about this. I don’t know if I needed to read a book about it. However, the fact is out there, if you score high on the GRIT score, you are more likely to be successful. But one of the things these two books talk about is the “10,000 hours rule”. It means 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is needed for mastery, on average, for a lot of technical skills. So you’re in this for the long haul. The truth about that 10,000 hours statement is that it is really hard to actually do. Gladwell actually talks about how one of his goals in writing Outliers was for people to realize that people would need so much support to be successful that we shouldn’t expect to be masters of anything unless we have a team of people helping us out.

And on deliberate practice, there is a future post I need to write about the brain. I talked about it a little bit already, but it comes up a lot. Your brain basically wants you to stop thinking and return to rest at all times. Deliberate practice is about not letting your brain do this. It is unpleasant, which is why most people do not do it.

No pain. No gain.

And this is where goals come in. Why would you endure pain if you don’t have a reason? Goals are the reason you endure shitty things. They are the thing that you tell your self, so that you do the things necessary to improve your success. But goals are talked about all the time in a really misunderstood way. They exist and you need them because the alternative is directionless. You waste a lot of time and energy just bouncing around myopically without goals. But they are also limited tools. Considering the above conversation about skill and luck…you almost need to set conditional goals. If, then… Which is really the language of strategy. For now I am going to hold that thought, because I don’t have a clear goal of what to say next, and I’ve been writing this for about 6 hours.

So finally, I’m going to leave this topic incomplete with a last reflection. There is a self-aware moment I am having…part of this project is to spread my ideas, which will make me a more “successful” person in the context of this blog post, doesn’t it? Well I think it serves both myself and you. Which is another reason the tournament model is bad. I make you more successful by making myself more successful. It’s a win-win. People need to remember that. It’s important. In the immortal words of Red Green:

Remember, I’m pulling for you, we’re all in this together. Keep your stick on the ice.

Aside:There are a few freakonomics podcast worth listening for a discussion about these ideas. Go here. Listen to episodes 243-247. They are all topical.

Reading List

Partly to try and remember where I get certain concepts from so I can trace back to them.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Grit by Angela Duckworth (pyschologist)

The Success Equation by: Michael J. Mauboussin (Finance)

Success and Luck by: Robert Frank (Economist)

The Halo Effect by: Phil Rosenzweig (Business Professor)

The Sports Gene by: David Esptien (Journalist formerly of Sports Illustrated)

The Selfish Gene by: Richard Dawkins

The Secret of Our Success by Joe Henrich

A note of reflection…almost all of these books are written by men, and I’m not sure if that is a coincidence. It could be that I naturally move towards a male perspective, since it is easier to relate to for me–a male, or if it’s because men still dominate thought in these topics. Or both or neither. It’s a puzzle. Such puzzles make life interesting.






5 thoughts on “Success

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