This Is How to Succeed — and This, and This, and This

Posted on 2014 September 4

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Of all the suggested methods for achieving success, which is the one that really works? (Bonus question: Why are there so many suggested methods?)

We shall set aside the question, “What is success?” except quickly to define it as “getting what you want”. 

Let’s look at the most well-known and popular methods of achieving success:

Trust God — or, for that matter, Jesus or Moses or Mohammed or Buddha, etc etc. This is a widely applied method for self improvement. If you believe in (and obey) God, you will be rewarded with a good and (if you’re really lucky) miraculous life. The upside of this approach is somewhat akin to the Placebo Effect: like a sugar pill, all by itself it can make you feel better, improving your situation upwards of 30 percent. 

The downside is that much, if not most, of the world’s people try this approach, and most of them are nonetheless beset by tragedies, wars, illness, old age and death.

Be Superstitious — Your luck will change if you do such and so. This idea crops up everywhere, even among believers of other methods for achieving success. Once again the Placebo Effect makes a contribution, giving the believer enough confidence to push past fears and tackle problems. 

If a given superstition really worked, we’d all know about it by now. Instead, we move the goal posts by thinking up new ones, which makes them kind of hard to test. But that’s the point: people would rather believe in magical hope than find out for sure it’s not going to work.

We can trap ourselves with these elaborate efforts to placate the Fates, working up a kind of spiritual OCD so strong that it becomes nearly impossible to let go of our favorite rabbit’s foot. A wise man pointed out that if you put a stick on a shelf and bow to it once a day, in a month it will have become sacred. (Lately I’ve been petting my aging car’s dashboard in an effort to be “encourage” it, and now I’m firmly convinced it’s a living being.) Superstitions can sneak up on us.

(The A-students among you will have figured out that most organized religions may themselves amount to elaborate forms of superstition.)

Be Good — The theory here is that obedience and helpfulness will be rewarded. If you Render Unto Caesar and obey the Golden Rule, indeed your life will usually run more smoothly and people will like you better. 

The downside is that many folks will still try to screw you — they’re the ones who don’t give a crap that you’re nice — and, no matter how law abiding you are, your friendly neighborhood government will toss you to the wolves if it really needs to. 

Another problem: obedience is what parents want from their children, and most of us carry this attitude with us when we set out at 18, looking upon our professors and bosses and political leaders as parental figures (and then bitching about them like we once did about our parents). Today there’s almost no conversation about what it means to be an adult — how to deal with the complex moral and practical problems that confront us in the real world — so most of us remain stuck, effectively children in grown-up suits.

Work Hard — Similar to “Be Good”, the idea is that if you toil away, you’ll be rewarded. This can be dismissed simply by pointing out that billions of us work hard and are still poor. Granted, most successful people work hard, but they must, as their competitors also work hard. Often, though, it’s a convenient excuse — “I’m busy!” — that keeps us too occupied to notice our failures.

Be Resigned — This includes Stoicism and Buddhism and AA, which warn us we’ll suffer if we try to change things that can’t be changed. The Stoics (and they’re popular again today) suggest we turn all obstacles to our advantage or at least use them as opportunities to practice self-control. AA and Buddhism are more about simple surrender to the inevitable, so that we can get on with our lives; often this allows problems to dissolve on their own, as if the very struggle to resist them had made them worse in the first place. 

The downside is that these systems are more about accepting failure than creating success. What’s more, Buddhism posits that the very search for success tends to interfere with success, and that the most successful of us care about it the least. But that’s like saying, “The way to succeed is to not care about success.” So what’s the point if you don’t care about it?

Meditate — Traditionally, Hindu or Buddhist or Yogic meditation involve sitting while focussing on a single thought or image, in an effort to quiet a noisy mind. It’s supposed to build serenity, which is supposed to help with life. One modern version instructs us simply to be aware of our feelings as they flow through us, including the bad emotions and sensations, so the painful things we’ve mentally blockaded can finish processing themselves and we can get back to the rest of life. (There’s more than a little Stoicism in this.) 

But the very effort to quiet ourselves generates its own yearnings and mental noise. It’s the dilemma of “trying not to try”. Still, meditators usually maintain that the process helps them be more calm and collected throughout the day.

Visualize Success — This is based on the vaguely spiritual notion that our thoughts control the world around us, so that the results we get in life are due to the way we’ve thought about our problems. If we focus on pessimism, things go poorly; if we focus on happiness and success, those things come our way. Again, there’s a lot of Placebo Effect here: the good feelings from imagining success are liable to energize us and produce some good results. 

But there’s also a trap in the form of “begging the question”: once you become a visualizer, any failures must be due to faulty practice on your part, and never from some flaw in the system. Thus it’s hard to have conversations with prominent visualizers about their own pot bellies, marital troubles, aging bodies, etc etc. The old practitioners who up and died must have done it wrong, eh? Otherwise, there appear to be distinct limits to this approach, including minor details like the laws of physics

Worship Tech“You only have to know one thing: you can learn anything.” — Khan Academy … Many people are coming to believe, not in God or some philosophy, but in modernity itself, including science and high technology and the Internet. To them, every obstacle will succumb to inventions: disease and old age will be banished by genomics; loneliness will be cured by interactive tech; environmental problems will be solved by solar and fusion and carbon sequestration; transportation will become cheap and efficient with pneumatic trains and self-organizing flocks of driverless taxis. The list is endless. 

This attitude filters down into everyday life: we become accustomed to thinking that any problem we face has a solution if we apply a bit of personal ingenuity (or buy an ingenious product from Amazon). It’s the newest form of optimism. 

The jury is still out, though, as to whether it’ll come true for us all: the Third World resents the West’s wealth, sometimes with violent effect, and it’s possible that robots will steal your job. So the enthusiasm may be premature.*

. . . There they are, the most widely practiced approaches to achieving success. And of course there are endless variations on each of these methods, complete with believers who argue heatedly about which is best. Ultimately you must decide. Make of them what you will.

. . . Our Bonus Question — “Why are there so many suggested methods?” — deserves some thought. After all, if one of these systems really worked, wouldn’t most of humanity be onto it by now? We adopted cellphones to the point where impoverished African tribesmen now own them; we cured illnesses with public health measures that spread rapidly across the planet (though it’s a work in progress); jazz, and then rock and pop, took over world musical culture; democracy streaked through international politics like a fire through a coal vein; and everyone wears blue jeans. Yet there’s no consensus on how to be successful. 

Perhaps it’s simply that most of our ideas about success involve competition — “I want more than you!” — and therefore any new approach will quickly be adopted by all competitors until the benefits get diluted down to nothing. Or maybe it all depends on the type of success you seek: those who want deep inner satisfaction might be more inclined to meditate or follow their God, while those who desire a big family or wealth or fame will gravitate toward visualization or Stoicism or tech worship. 

Or maybe success is one of those abiding puzzles that must remain unsolvable. You know, like: “Which is better, milk chocolate or dark?” or “Which Kardashian is the most crass?” I’ll leave it to you.

“Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” Up to Your Ass in Aphorisms

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*PS: As for the “Tech” approach, your friendly blogger suggests his book about how automation threatens job security.

PPS: More from Yours Truly on the search for the secret to life.

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