How Obsession with Success May Lead to Failure

This may sound obvious, but success isn’t generic. To be successful, you have to be very good at some specific thing. 

But there seems to be a burgeoning industry in the study of success as a sort of meta-discipline. As if knowledge of how various people succeed at a variety of things might lead us to become more successful at any given thing.

But it’s all based on dubious premise.

By treating success as an object in itself, we’ve turned an incredibly hard problem, namely, the study of how to achieve at the highest levels in any specific discipline, and we’ve converted it into what strikes me as an nigh-impossible problem, the study of how to achieve the highest levels of success in any discipline.

What makes someone a great basketball player, long-distance runner, venture capitalist, attorney, writer, or pianist is not the same. There is no evidence that obsessing over the meta-habits and traits of people in a variety of disciplines provides any tangible benefit to those looking to outperform others in any specific field.

Achieving the highest levels of success requires a single-minded obsession with craft (or crafts). And then in every discipline, there are people competing over novel strategies specific to their disciplines to achieve recognition and status in those disciplines. Most will never get there. Not because they’re stupid or misguided. Because life is competitive and many talented people compete for status and recognition.

Lebron James is the best basketball player on earth because he’s awfully talented and he continues to hone his basketball skills. Everyone who listens to Tim Ferriss’s podcast knows the habits and routines of the successful people he interviews, but no amount of meta-trait analysis will make them the next Lebron James (or Magnus Carlsen, Richard Feynman, Elon Musk, or even Tim Ferriss).[1]

I suspect that Lebron James, Magnus Carlsen, and Elon Musk, on the other hard, are all totally oblivious about the traits and meta-habits of those who succeed in other fields. It doesn’t matter, because they’re masters in their fields.

Success–like so many things in life–comes indirectly. If you seek out success in general, you’re almost certainly going to be moving farther away from any hopes of success the longer you think that way. You could spend a lifetime obsessing over how to be the best chess-master, programmer, or 800 meter runner, and you probably won’t get there. And if you spend your life obsessing over how to be successful in general, you definitely won’t get there.

Success isn’t a thing you just go and get. It’s a thing that comes sometimes to some people when they get really good at some other thing.

[1] Also, traits that make you successful in one field are often detrimental in others. Not answering emails might help with your focus if you’re trying to write the great American novel but good luck with that approach if you’re a mid-level associate trying to make partner at a major law firm. Getting up at 4:30 am might work well for a former Navy Seal looking to create a media empire, but it’d be a terrible strategy for someone training for a marathon world record. Context always matters.