The Danger of Success Stories

When the media covers stories of success, they often focus entirely on the most recent, significant and obvious markers. The race won, the goals scored, the contract signed.

This is natural and extremely misleading.

Natural – because to explain the success story in any detail would take too long. It would bore many/most of the audience.

Natural also because it’s much easier to write about one landmark event than go to the effort to study the causes of that event.

Natural also, perhaps, because focusing on single impressive events, and describing these events using terms like “luck”, “miraculous”, “genius” invites the reader to view the person as a different category of person, a freak. This makes people feel less bad. If Michael Jordan is simply a freak of nature, it doesn’t matter how hard we work, we will never be that good. As such, we are abdicated from the responsibility of our own mediocrity.

And herein lies the danger.

This is palliative, of course, on a society-wide scale. It is also sedative. If there’s no chance of me being successful, the cost of me living a mundane or unhealthy lifestyle is lower. The desire to disrupt, innovate and question is subdued. The focus becomes short term pleasure, over long term achievement.

You see this in areas that are full of conflict. Hedonism is rife. Why? They’ve got less hope of a future. Short term pleasures are more appealing. The opportunity cost of myopic pleasure seeking is reduced. They’ve got less projected happiness to lose.

If superstars are born freaks, you might as well give up hope. You were never going to make it anyway.

Sup up your beer and smoke your fags.

This is insidious and dangerous.

In most areas of life, hard work trumps talent. There are exceptions, of course.

100m sprinting is one. If you aren’t blessed with sufficient fast-twitch muscle fibres, you’re never going to beat Usain Bolt.

The difference genetics can have on athletic performance is exemplified by the East/West Africa divide.

NB: Though this divide is rough, it is clear enough to make my point.

Many in East Africa have predominantly slow-twitch muscle fibres, making them suited for long distance running. Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, have dominated the Olympic 10,000m race for decades.

West Africans, by contrast, tend to have much higher proportions of fast-twitch muscle fibres, which is one possible explanation for the prevalence of explosive athletes in the African American community. (Many West Africans were brought to America by transatlantic slave trade).

Anyway, with the most extreme exceptions placed to the side, we are left with a huge range of pursuits, sporting or otherwise, that require a mixture of abilities.

In these pursuits dedication will counter-act or trump blessings; genetic or otherwise.

Look at any of our great sporting legends: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Michael Jordan, Jonny Wilkinson, Serena Williams, and you will find individuals who have worked incredibly hard, for many years.

Wilkinson kicked so often he changed the shape of his foot. Adidas were forced to alter the shape of his boots several times to accommodate this.

Tyson would wake up at 5am and run alone. He was also hypnotised from his early teens to believe he was the most savage man of all time.

Michael Jordan trained for up to 8 hours a day. He would be at practice long before anyone else and he would be there hours after they’d gone. He also hired his own personal trainer and conditioner, Tim Grover, to ensure he was always mentally and physically ready for games. Jordan paid him personally for 15 years.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of my heroes. I’ve had the chance to talk to some extremely “successful” people.

The more you do this, the more you realise they are not of a different kind. They are in the same category as you or I.

They are people.

Sometimes they are gifted, yes, but often they are simply driven by certain circumstances – both internal and external – to focus on a particular task or activity.

It is this focus – more than any innate ability – which produces results.

The takeaway is this:

Do not be fooled into thinking the people you see on Tv or Instagram are any different to you.

They aren’t, at least not in any dramatic sense. They might be a little bigger, but you might be slightly quicker. Perhaps they’re better looking, but maybe their family life was f*cked.

Some people will be extraordinarily gifted: great. They are a tiny minority, almost by definition.

Most success stories are of people who narrowed their focus and put other things aside to achieve their goals.

If you want something – do something to get it. Shoulder the burden of your existence. The responsibility is yours.


You can also choose not to do any of these things. There is no obligation to be “successful”.

Happiness and meaning don’t need success in any external way.

But. But.

If there are things you want. If you can feel resentment towards successful people bubbling up inside you. If you feel the need to criticise those who have done or possess more than you. Consider why that is. Examine your motivations. It might be that you wish you were more than you are.

If that’s the case, sitting around hating isn’t going to make you any better. Tarnishing the successful won’t brighten the meagre. Only action can do that. And that, as we all know deep down, is our responsibility.

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