Why do we fall prey to theories of success?

Why do we fall prey to theories of success?

Theories of success intrigue us because they provide a shortcut. But in following the herd, we deprive ourselves from developing and expressing our originality.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how people and businesses aren’t really obsessed with disruption per se, rather they are in love with theories of success. Silver bullet ideas that you can use to shortcut your way to “success”, theories that become hardened after “supposedly” observing them in the environment.

Recently, another success theory has been shot down: Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hour rule.

As you might remember, in his book Outliers, Gladwell wrote that the most successful people in the world became world-class because they dedicated approximately 10,000 hours of practice to develop their skillset. The 10,000 hour rule quickly became viral and sparked a wide discussion about how Gladwell’s gift for communicating complex ideas in simple terms made people believe everything he writes as true.

Of course, Mr. Gladwell came back and said that the rule isn’t exact but labeled as is to communicate it easily. Now, a recent study debunks the rule: 10,000 hours aren’t enough, it only predicts %12 performance.

Why am I not surprised, and neither should you.

Just like Jill Lepore tried to debunk Clay Christensen’s disruption theory, other researchers took the time to break down Gladwell’s theory of success. But, it isn’t a matter of doing research to debunk rules, it’s a matter of perception!

You see, unless you work in the field of physics, and even there some rules will be debunked, there aren’t many absolute rules. Much less about business. The problem is people love well packaged and easily communicated rules because they appeal to our lazy brain. And this isn’t something that is going to end anytime soon.

In the world of business, design thinking and lean startup are theories/frameworks have become success rules in short order because of their practicality. And just like the 10,000 hour rule is well packaged and easily communicated, so are these. But I advise you to always keep your “critical thinking” hat on when something is too practical and communicated in such a way that people begin to adopt it as a given. I’m not discounting their usefulness, I’m just saying people shouldn’t believe that following a 1-2-3-4 step framework is going to result in success.

And if you do believe that following some success theory, eventually that will set you up for failure for what worked for you today does not easily translate into working again in the future.

Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance

Frankly, I’m not obsessed with success theories. I’m more interested in understanding why failure happens; after success. Sustained excellence is much more interesting, and a larger challenge, than simple short-term success. It takes more focus, effort, and creativity because you are moving target and everyone wants what you have. Also, under the right mindset, it comes with the responsibility of setting and maintaining a certain standard to strive for.

In obsessing about why failure happens I’ve come to understand, and the only success theory you should pay attention to, the following: we stand in our own way.

The need to compare with others, peer pressure, and our environment influences our behavior. But, what stands in our way is mostly hidden. It is the brain bugs that trick us into following the herd, that stop us from developing our own point of view and trusting our own instincts.

Therefore, a better and smarter alternative to seeking success via theories is this: Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.

What this means is that in falling in love with success theories (seeking brilliance), we don’t eliminate our inherent stupidity. But, if we took the time to reflect and develop self-awareness of what is hidden, we’d spend less time seeking the new shiny theory of success and more time developing our own.

Bottom line: When it comes to “success”, just like innovation, it is as much a matter of mindset and perspective than it is about process. Success isn’t guaranteed, and success theories shouldn’t be the trigger that motivates you to do something. It should be your own drive to make an impact, while pursuing excellence relentlessly; but also understanding that excellence is a journey that never ends.