What is Success? 5 Misconceptions About Leading a Prosperous Life

Psychological studies and professional advice about succeeding in life aren't always in agreement.
Chris Young

A consultant asks you to lend them your watch to tell you the time. And then they keep the watch, or so the saying goes.

Many careers — business gurus, life coaches and the like — seem to have been built on the pretext that there's an exact science to success. The truth is that, if there were, we'd all know it and over 50 percent of startup ventures wouldn't end in failure. 

But what is success? Everyone's definition is different and everyone has a different benchmark. That's why we look to science to help point out what it is that makes people successful. Here are 5 things we discovered.

1. There's no equation for success

As the renowned economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, there are many cognitive biases surrounding our perception of success. One example is the idea of "narrative fallacy."

Essentially "narrative fallacy" is the idea that, in hindsight, everything is simplified into a neat little bundle that fits into our preconceptions. By simplifying stories of success we turn a blind eye to many other important factors, such as chance.

What is Success? 5 Misconceptions About Leading a Prosperous Life
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In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman says that "the explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract… and focus on [only] a few striking events."

In other words, when people are successful they attribute their success to daily habits they performed or to one or two arbitrary events. They will then tell others they swear by these habits, when in reality other factors were most likely at work — such as the one in the point below.

2. Luck is an incredibly important factor when it comes to success

Incredibly successful people often underplay the role luck has played in their success. A book on how to be a successful entrepreneur is hardly going to sell if its main message is "get lucky."

And yet, recent findings suggest that luck is a much more important factor when it comes to success than people give it credit for.

Take a few findings, published in Scientific American, as an example; an individual's chances of becoming a CEO is influenced by their name and month of birth; people with harder to pronounce names are judged more harshly than those with easy to pronounce names; and finally, differences in income across individuals worldwide are attributed largely to a person's country of residence. These are only a few.

Aside from pointing towards systemic inequalities, these findings show that many arbitrary factors affect our chances of being successful.

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As Kahneman puts it, success = talent + luck; great success = a little more talent + a lot of luck. Even Warren Buffet acknowledges his own luck in life by saying "if I’d been born thousands of years ago, I’d be some animal’s lunch because I can’t run very fast or climb trees."

Does that mean we shouldn't even bother trying? Of course not, but there's a lesson in there about perseverance and turning chance into opportunity.

3. Intelligence isn't all you need to succeed

You may have heard that employers are increasingly paying attention to EQ, or emotional intelligence, but have you heard about the theory of "successful intelligence?"

As Robert J Sternberg, professor of Human Development at Cornell University puts it, there is a difference between our traditional perception of intelligence and his theory of "successful intelligence." 

 "Successful intelligence is defined as one’s ability to set and accomplish personally meaningful goals in one’s life, given one’s cultural context," Sternberg says.

"A successfully intelligent person accomplishes these goals by figuring out his or her strengths and weaknesses, and then by capitalizing on the strengths and correcting or compensating for the weaknesses."

Another way to put it could be that a successfully intelligent person is aware of points 1 and 2 in this article and focuses on achieving success based on the context of their situation, rather than thinking a good IQ means they are set for life.

4. Saying yes to everything isn't the way to go

Positive thinking is undeniably important for the happiness and success of any individual. However, some individuals tend to extrapolate this into every factor of their life to the point that it is utterly counterintuitive. An example is a person who says yes to almost every opportunity that comes their way.

As Warren Buffet once said, "really successful people say no to almost everything."

It comes down to time prioritization. While being open to opportunity is important, there's only so much time in the day. Make sure you're saying yes to the right things. 

This is corroborated by several workplace surveys showing how employee satisfaction is tied to how much time they spend being productive rather than in meetings, for example.

5. Being one-track-minded won't make you happy

A famous study by psychiatrist George Vaillant, called the Harvard Grant Study, came up with quite an obvious conclusion: the key to happiness is love.

The study followed the lives of 268 Harvard undergraduate male students from the classes of 1938 to 1940 for decades. 

Even if a subject was incredibly successful in work, made huge amounts of money, and was healthy, he was unlikely to be happy without loving relationships in his life, the study concluded.

The study showed that happiness depends on two important factors: "One is love," Vaillant wrote. "The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away."

The study does have its limitations — women weren't included for example — but it highlights the fact that success isn't all about money. That's if we include our own happiness as an important factor in success, which, frankly, we should.

How do you measure success? Would you call yourself successful? It's not an easy question, and it's one that psychologists and scientists grapple with just as much as the business people and philosophers out there.

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