The secret to success? There is no secret

EVERYTHING YOU KNOW ABOUT BUSINESS IS WRONG: Stop looking for the one thing that will turn things around.

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 03 Jul 2017

What makes someone successful at what they do? Malcolm Gladwell says it is all about practice - do the 10,000 hours and you will achieve mastery. Angela Duckworth says that it is all about grit - perseverance and determination. Any number of other authors will tell you it's down to mindfulness, or agility, or having a positive mental attitude. Let me add my bit. The single thing you need for success is... scepticism about all those 'single things'.

Firstly, these are single-factor explanations for multifactorial situations -take success on a university course. You have to allow for at least three factors - natural ability, willingness to work and persist, and quality of teaching. This is simple bordering on simplistic, but it is still a lot more complex than what Gladwell, Duckworth and the rest are offering us.

Secondly, the examples such authors cite usually apply to untypical situations. Like playing the violin, or graduating from West Point. These goals have very clear criteria for success. We know what a good classical violinist is supposed to sound like, and the West Point cadets know what they need to do to graduate. These are different from the ambiguous, unstructured challenges most of us face, like 'be a very good marketing manager' or 'start a successful tech company'. Take a cross-section of people who have done well in these areas, and you will see many more differences than similarities.

Thirdly, single-factor explanations are based on things we can do; put in the 10,000 hours, for example. But the truth is other more capricious factors are at play: luck, timing and being in the right place at the right time all matter too.

If we think that we can control our outcomes solely through our own efforts, we become blind to unexpected opportunities and risk persisting endlessly in impossible situations.

A neat single-factor explanation of success is a great recipe for a successful business book, but not for a successful business life. Cultivate scepticism.

Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants. Subscribe to his OutsideEdge newsletter here.

Image credit: Patrick Regout/Alamy


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