The Other 80/20 of Success

Or, How You Did (Not) Build That

Lots and lots of advice on how to achieve goals, be successful, get whatever it is you think you want, has been put out there. So much, in fact, that it may seem as if the only thing standing between you and your better life is nothing but your own damn laziness. You mustn’t be wanting it enough.

For actually living better, though, facing reality is good advice.
And the reality of it is that there is only so much of life that you could actually control.

So, it is all the more important to do what you can, but also to face up to the fact that things may still not work out the way you wanted – and there’s both problems and potential in that.

80-20One of the prominent guidelines for working towards success has been the 80/20 rule, suggesting that 80% of the results come from 20% of the work – or some such. Therefore, it should be those especially effective 20% you focus on, cutting out the comparatively inconsequential clutter that are the other 80%.

So, learning a language, don’t focus on any and all of the finer points of grammar and exotic items of vocabulary, concentrate on the high-frequency words and the much-used forms.

Working towards a goal, then, avoid the unnecessary detours and get right to the essentials… but there’s the problem:

When it comes to personal learning goals (which are self-controlled), this rule may work out to be a sensible guideline for quick success (though even then, it may come with problematic side effects). In working towards success in the world, in the form of money or impact made, however, it applies rather differently.

The real 80/20 of success may well be that 20% of it are what you yourself do, the other 80% are factors such as timing, perception of your person and product, economic conditions, and similar elements of context.

That does not, typically, mean that you can just give up trying. Without the 20% that is actually doing the work, getting a product out there (whether it’s a gadget, food, or a work of art or, for that matter, of philosophy), there is zero chance of success.

Only because we admire the successful and otherwise great people we hear of, and only because they – and we – like to explain success strictly by great products and, perhaps, great marketing, however, success cannot be built in quite as straightforward a way as marketing gurus and coaches for entrepreneurial success like to make it.

You can tweak a lot, test quite a bit, come upon such convincing marketing for an inferior product or happen to jump onto a trend at just the right time for it to carry you to rarefied heights, build such a great product and manage to get it in front of just the right people so that you don’t have to be the great marketer… There are lots of possibilities, none of them achievable if you don’t “build it.”

Only because you built it and “never gave up” does not mean that you, too, must be met with success, though. Sure, that’s what we always hear from the successful ones – but we never ask those who tried and failed, and they probably put in the same, perhaps even more, time and effort (and intelligent tweaks, and great marketing… even blood, sweat, and tears).

Most products fail. Many a great philosopher or artist achieved only posthumous fame.

That never kept the good and ambitious (or simply stubborn, or passionate and convinced) ones from trying, from having something they had to work on and towards, with determination – but often enough, they also went onto detours, looked left and right, for that may lead to new ideas and insights, new paths that turn out to be better than what was originally imagined.

More and more, this is getting considerably more necessary than the success that is so often imagined.

Dreams are of getting rich and famous, but reality is that fame and fortune are increasingly problematic goals, thanks to all their side effects (on personal life and happiness as well as on the world).

As David Orr stated in a quote that’s making its rounds through the social networks a lot (and is often attributed to the Dalai Lama or otherwise connected with East Asia, in another version of virtualism…), “the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” (“What Is Education For?” 1991)

It’s time for better goals, for a life that is more concerned about living well in many a respect rather than about achieving one thing imagined to be the be-all, end-all … but also, yes, for getting to work intelligently, with an understanding of the reality of probable failure, and the tenacity and drive to aim higher anyways.

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