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Successful people are successful

One interesting observation I've made over the last few years is about the myth of the overnight success. This is a persistent idea in the startup world (much like in any star-dominated field) - the idea that someone is unknown and unsuccessful for many years, and suddenly they shoot to fame through a combination of luck, timing, hard work, perseverance, and other assorted goodies.

The problem with this myth is that it's true, but it's also misleading. For most of my working life, I was under the spell of this "some day it will all change" myth. Having observed both myself and other successful people around me, I found that this is not true.

Rather than having a long history of self-sacrifice followed by a sudden rise to fame, successful people (even those that shoot to fame) seem to have a long history of building bigger successes on top of smaller successes. In other words, as the title puts it, successful people are successful - for a long time before you get to hear about them. Success seems to be a lifelong habit.

Does success provide compounding returns?

This is obvious if you only consider financial success. If you want to get wealthy, you have two approaches: count on a lottery ticket type of event (e.g. winning the lottery, or winning the startup lottery...), or set out building, growing and maintaining a base of wealth. Ignoring those who choose the first path (because they are clearly irrational), if you look at the behaviours of people who tend to go from little wealth to a lot more wealth, you can observe that they tend to make decisions that optimise how much money they make (this sounds obvious, but is actually quite an insight).

They'll work in jobs that pay more, or start businesses that make money. In my experience, those who have a fair bit of money are not profligate - they spend sensibly, agonise over larger expenses, are conscious of having to maintain and grow their savings, and so on. Whereas the average person will optimise for today's enjoyment (and that may well be the right choice for many), those who are money-minded tend to optimise for accumulating more money and spending less money. All these decisions add up over the decades, and they also compound over each other. When you have £100k in the bank, you can make wealth-preserving decisions (e.g. buying some Apple stock a few years ago!) that will provide a much larger return than what you could do when you have just £10k or even £0.

Because of all this, the difference between someone who consistently makes decisions that preserve and augment wealth, and those who don't, can easily get to be very large.

With non-financial success, this process is much harder to observe, but I think it's still a big factor. Decades of making successful decisions that add to whatever it is you want to do will pile up and compound and get you there. Waiting for that one big hit to get you to the stars, on the other hand, will not. Smaller successes build up your "success wealth", in the form of experience, connections, wisdom, knowledge, skill, and so on.


And yet we perpetuate the myth of the silently suffering, self-effacing, self-sacrificing hard worker who one day is finally rewarded for his or her efforts.

Having a self-sacrifice mind-set means consistently making decisions that benefit someone or something other than yourself, and often at a cost to yourself. Our culture often regards this as noble - perhaps it's a behaviour that makes society function better. It's a useful meme to keep around when you've already succeeded, certainly, but I don't think it serves us too well as individuals.

Having a self-sacrifice mindset means that, speaking metaphorically, you often make decisions that, instead of adding 10 points to your "success score", reduce it by a few points, and add a few more points to other people's. Having a self-sacrifice mindset means you consistently neglect your own success to achieve some higher objective - political, scientific, economic, social, etc. Having a self-sacrifice mindset means, I believe, that you are vanishingly unlikely to actually succeed at your lofty ambitions (assuming you have lofty ambitions, of course).

This is an extremely common mindset in the startup world. Many people think it makes sense to sacrifice everything for some elusive success that's waiting a few years down the line when their startup makes it big. They'll sacrifice their health, their social life, their appearance, their savings, their house, they'll quit their jobs, break up relationships that couldn't stand the pressure cooker, stop learning new things because "now is the time to get things done", and "there'll be time to have fun later, after the startup is out of the way".

In view of my observations above, that's a hugely damaging myth. I can reasonably state that, as far as I'm concerned, at least, this myth has cost me years of productive life. I personally could be much further towards my own objectives without this myth.

So what should we do instead?


An important way to solve this is to replace the idea of self-sacrifice with that of personal growth. Instead of making choices that benefit others, make choices that benefit yourself. Avoid things that cost you right now and have only a small chance of providing a return later (and be aware that we tend to be over-optimistic about what will happen later).

When faced with a choice to sacrifice something of yours (typically your time) for a so-called higher objective, reject that choice. Instead, find a way to make it a "win-win" - where you grow as a person and come out of it further ahead, no matter whether the higher objective is achieved. If you're going to work on a startup, plan things out so that even if it fails without making a single ripple, you'll still be better off after than you were before.

In other words, always optimise for personal growth, for building your "success pool" that you can leverage to go from smaller successes to bigger successes. Steer away from choices that reduce this personal asset.

Growth decisions provide you with:

  • new knowledge and skills
  • financial wealth
  • connections
  • valuable experience that you could not get in any other way
  • time and energy to do more things (or fewer things)
  • more control

This checklist can be useful when making decisions. Any decision that goes against one of these objectives (e.g. reduces your control, your connections, your skills) probably involves some amount of self-sacrifice and should be regarded with suspicion.

This isn't to say that we should all become selfish beasts concerned only with ourselves. We are lucky to live in a world where most of the really great opportunities involve delivering growth for many people at the same time. I'm not suggesting that we should focus only on personal growth - just that every decision should be optimised so that personal growth is part of the deal, and self-sacrifice is not.

I strongly believe that applying this mindset consistently for a long period of time can make an enormous difference to where you will end up.

More from the library:
Building international relationships
Running a business vs building a product
Learn from your competitors