Talking About Success

On the weekend I came across multiple pieces of ‘thought leadership‘ describing the ideal time to wake up for a successful life. One even prompted an absurd thread where people were bidding their ever earlier waking times like the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ of Monty Python. In a recent discussion of this phenomenon, Harold Jarche highlighted that the evidence on the work practices of successful people is so varied that you can say “Everyone is different”.  The discussion prompted this response in me:

The phenomenon of personal practice masquerading as thought leadership is widespread, particularly from the rich, famous and successful. So why do we see so many successful thought leaders come up with this kind of advice:

  • Conventional Wisdom: If you want your advice to be popular and widely shared, it helps if it aligns to conventional wisdom. Nobody wants to be seen to be lazy and the ‘early bird gets the worm’. So, of course, success ‘must’ be driven by rising early.
  • Generalising the Specific: Some people benefit from an early start. If you do and you succeeded, it can be easy to assume everyone just needs to copy your methods. You may even be quite judgmental about those who don’t follow your lead. Diversity means what works for you doesn’t work for everyone else.
  • A Passion for Proxies: Discipline, mastery and practice are keys to success but they don’t sound easy or simple. For a thought leader, it’s far easier to advocate a simple hack as a proxy. Rising early to get to work is a good proxy for discipline and practice as it is one time of day to practice with little interruption. Focus on the discipline, mastery and practice, not the proxy of rising time.
  • Small Commitments: Success takes focus and commitment. Psychological experimentation has shown that small commitments can have wide impacts on people’s perceptions of themselves. Small commitments can be a great place to start building focus and discipline. Waking at a particular time of day is a commitment but anything that signals a meaningful ongoing change could substitute.
  • After-the-Fact Rationalisation: For many who succeed in life, success can be a mystery or even a source of ongoing self-doubt. When asked to explain a record of success, it is often easier, and more modest, to settle on some simple practice like a waking time.
  • Ego over Relationships: ‘My networks helped me to succeed’ is rarely considered a heroic story of success. Many successful people actively or inadvertently downplay the role that their networks and supporters play in their success.  A mentor may fit in the heroes journey but there is rarely a cast of thousands helping the hero along. A heroic individual action like waking up in the cold dawn hours seems a more fitting contribution to the story than thousands of hours of conversation.
  • Confusing Chance and Strategy: Much of success is luck or timing (or privilege). Successful people can find it hard to accept that they just happened to be in ‘the right place at the right time”. There is a temptation to have a set of rules of advice that explains their success and suggests others can replicate the outcomes.
  • Talking over Doing: Only your family knows what time you really get up. Only they should care. Stop talking about it. Success depends on what you do with your waking hours.  Focus your efforts there.

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