at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

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Tag: success

Success, Between The Lottery of Life and the Creation of Luck

Recently, we all seem to be looking for the thing – often enough nowadays, a tool, potentially an experience, and all too often just the next, preferably “smart,” gadget – that will make us happy, give our life meaning, help us make it a success.

Creating that success, personally and actively, has become an obsession du jour, with many a biography and presentation of the rich and therefore(?) successful the example to follow.

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

For an intelligent species many of whose members just cannot take the idea that everything might not be going to (a creator’s) plan, we sure are well-aware of the influence of luck. The genetic lottery, the roll of the die, the fickleness of Lady Luck…
And yet, those with success and looked up to as having been successful recently all chalk it up to their own doing. “I built that.” It’s all a story, so often, of having failed often, having failed fast, but never having given up and therefore having had to succeed. “And so can you.”

It is, to a large extent, a result of biases, not a realistic view. And it is true.

We simply tend to see our accomplishments as being due to our persevering character and hard effort. Where “I” succeed, it’s because of all the work I did; with others, it’s also a lot of luck. (Similarly, where “I” act amorally, it’s a mere matter of circumstances; others, however, have personality defects that make them act less than perfectly.) It’s called the fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias…

Looking at the successful ones, there’s also survivorship bias: We look for lessons from those with success, learn about their hard effort which finally paid off – but we fail to realize that there are scores of others who worked at least as hard, except that it didn’t pay off in the end. Those become invisible, though; they aren’t prominent.

(My favorite example: imagine Steve Jobs had died after he’d left Apple. At that point, he probably wouldn’t have been hailed as quite the great success he’s seen as now, especially given his character flaws. But, he was brought back and helmed the release of the iPhone… Or take The Beatles. They’ve just become an example of how no success is pre-ordained, but rather dependent on lots of lucky breaks…)

Some distinct aspects of “luck,” read: chance, always play a role and tend to go unnoticed, fundamental as they are.

Where and as what you are born, for example. Women are getting more and more support in some contexts, tend to do better at school and university – and they are still judged more harshly than men when it comes to looks, clothes, and behavior, seen as more responsible for household chores and given a harder time advancing in careers.
Being born in Boston, Bern, Bamako or Beijing will give radically different experiences and chances.
What languages you grow up with, and what you (can, especially given circumstances) learn will give you different audiences and markets and chances.
The best of talent isn’t going to help much if you get no chance of going to school or never develop the grit to develop the talent into actual skill, and the greatest skill isn’t going to be of much use, in terms of financial or public success, if it isn’t seen as being great and valuable – or if it doesn’t get used to produce something that can be seen as being so.

The problem in trying to see such things as they are is that we are seeing just too much, too quickly. Some people manage to emerge from the greatest of adversity, some perish in it, many somehow manage. Some never rise even as they start with the best of possibilities and support whereas others do. Most somehow manage.

Our focus just goes to the most prominent of stories, whether they are of how easy some people can have it or of how even the worst of circumstances can be overcome. That which managed to get the eyeballs, using ever the same quirks of our psychology and mechanics of “virality” gets yet more attention. It doesn’t look like we can get to any sensible insight that would make for good advice, though.

There may well be one, however: Life, like the luck one may have in it, has to be lived.

Calling for living life sounds just superfluous, calling for living luck counter to our understanding of luck – and yet, both are necessary, and both are the same: Living actively, learning more, building skills, taking chances. Doing things.

It’s all too common nowadays to wait for good things to come. Just wish them, and wish them strongly enough to manifest them. Wait for your lottery ticket to come up.

But, even to win in the lottery (stupid as that hope is, given the chances), you first need to buy a ticket. To win in the lottery of life and luck – or rather, to create the chance for luck to kick in – you equally need to get to the doing. The best chance for happiness and success will pass by unnoticed if you are not in a position to take that chance. And working on creating the conditions for luck, you might even realize that you are lucky anyways, being alive and human and in a position to get better still.
Defining success as nothing but fame and fortune doesn’t exactly cut it, after all – but in all the strive for success, few seem to stop and define what success actually means to them, even as the world indeed doesn’t need more people successful in ways that enrich them and diminish the world.

The plain fact is that 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. ― David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

No matter what it is, you won’t be building your success all yourself, no matter how much we seem to like that (spin on) the story. But, if you aren’t building anything, not even yourself, you’re just circling the drain


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.

Pudong, Oriental Pearl Tower from Bund

The Reality of China’s Rising…

In the last decades, China has achieved economic growth (and development / progress) unlike anything the world had seen since the Industrial Revolution in the West.

Pudong, Oriental Pearl Tower from BundEven as the USA and Europe descended into (“the”) crisis, China’s growth only slowed.

Looking at the skylines rising, seeing the people whose lives got more affluent, and blinded by the numbers, all the more so with this happening in an autocratic rather than democratic state (and one that showed little indication of affluence leading to democracy the way political pundit-ideologues had thought natural), talk has been of a China miracle, if not a new Beijing model for the world.

This is the story as it’s popularly told.

It’s a story of symptoms only implying reasons, though. Rarely is there any attempt at a deeper explanation.

East Asian / Confucian values, following the line blazed by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, are the one popular reason given for China’s (and East Asia’s, in general) success. Another that has only recently become en vogue is a supposedly insightful Chinese government not hampered by the time-consuming back-and-forth entailed by the democratic process.

Being focused on economic statistics and political statesmanship, situational and social contexts are often given short shrift – but they may explain a lot more than the high-flying (and at the same time simplistic-essentialist) explanations that are so common.

1 – Situations

The main situational context to note is simply the baseline from which China’s development started, which has been very low.

Considering that China used to be one of the major world economies (prior to the colonial and industrial eras), got properly plundered and pushed back later, and then opened up and reformed, it is no wonder that its catching up with industrialization should have led to tremendous growth.

Local market in Northern Beijing. Offer what you can...

Local market in Northern Beijing. Offer what you can…

Things didn’t even stop with mere (first wave) industrialization (i.e. iron / textiles / assembly lines); there were also the second (steel / railroads / electricity / chemicals) and third (communication / information / automation) waves to ride, all at once… another situation / context that has given an impetus.

Even now, even with all the environmental problems and (perhaps) world economic contraction China is facing, even if domestic consumption should not kick in quite as strongly as hoped for, at least some growth would still continue. China could easily be a major world economy again, just based on the satisfaction of its people’s basic (and not-so-basic) needs.

No miracle, but simply number of people and economic doings – industriousness?

Rather than Confucianism, a major part of that industriousness is also rather more situational: Of course, social/cultural dynamics do play a factor. However, the way that Chinese families work as business units is rather reminiscent of the way many an African family is said to work as  a unit, with everyone having to help the others of their group or face social ostracism – but in Africa, it is said to be one of the reasons holding everyone back (because you can’t get rich without having to hand over much of that money you made, making for low motivation) whereas in China, it supposedly leads to rather more positive effects.

So, something else might be at work. Here, and also in how much of the world is still consuming, as are Chinese who can afford to, things lead to…

2 – Social Context

Yes, Chinese do work hard enough – except when they don’t, like everybody else.

Oil Drum Flatbread on a Beijing Street Corner

Oil Drum Flatbread on a Beijing Street Corner

Social/cultural pressures are strong in China, and point in a different direction from where they tend to go in ‘the West’, but they are themselves (more obviously and more strongly than in ‘the West,’ again) situational:

Education and intense hours of study are seen as the sure – and if not certain, then most open – way to success, everybody is studying hard and competing with each other from an early age, so it takes a very rebellious character or weak intellect to not try your best.

The vast majority of people also, still, starts out in pretty poor circumstances, but sees that one can make it, that everyone is taking at least some job, doing some kind of entrepreneurial work, improving their lot somehow.
So, just as with studying, people will also do what they can when it comes to work. They will, perhaps, do whatever they can, even if it means that corruption comes natural to a government official and a rich marriage or even the position of mistress has quite some appeal to young women.

As Kate Xiao Zhou writes in the preface to “How the Farmers Changed China” (p. xx):

“On many summer nights, several young village girls would lie on top of the rice straw stack listening to my stories of city life and talking aloud of their dreams. One hoped that someday she would walk on the Yangzi Bridge; another wanted to take a ride on a train; still another wanted a bike. At that time, however, [around 1970, during the Cultural Revolution] even these simple dreams were only fantasies for those rural youths. Locked in a  closed system, these young villagers had almost no chance of upward mobility.”

These are now the middle-age parents to the 90后 (post-1990s) generation; people who have come of age with the time of “Reform and Opening-Up,” people who were offered chances of upward mobility (in fact, as the book argues, people who created many of those chances and saw the government follow their lead and allow for them), people who have seen the chances of making it and the ways that this worked out.

It is here that China’s current and (seemingly) continuous rise has its roots. Not currency manipulation, not a distinctly East Asian industriousness that ‘Westerners’ just wouldn’t have, but a context – political and economic, but mainly situational and socio-cultural (but not in the ideological/philosophical way it is often portrayed) – that lends itself to a  rise by giving people a chance to employ their agency to build a better future for themselves.

No Chance but to Take Chances

Work not only gives chances for a (much) better life, but mere survival depends on work, whatever and wherever that should be – no wonder, then, that people will struggle and try. You simply must work, or you will starve. But, given the expectations of a continuing rise, there is work – and if there isn’t any work being offered to you, you better hustle and find yourself something if you don’t want to be left behind and starve.

This also explains why social inequality is still so widely accepted, as long as people think that there is a chance for upwards mobility for them. As Sim Chi Yin wrote in The New York Times,

“The migrant workers and the poor mostly accept that life is unfair, at least for now.
‘There is no difference between me and the people who live in the posh condominium above,’ Zhuang Qiuli, 27, a ‘rat tribe’ pedicurist who lived in a basement apartment, told me in Beijing. ‘We wear the same clothes and have the same hairstyles. The only difference is we cannot see the sun. In a few years, when I have money, I will also live upstairs.’ “

This is also, aside from environmental pollution and food safety concerns that hit everyone, one of the issues that could easily hurt China; it is a powder keg if the entire system should come to be widely perceived to be tilted towards none but those who are in power already (and abuse it), without giving anyone lower on the economic ladder a chance to join.

Already, concern over political stability and/or future chances, alongside real estate cost and the daily fear about pollution and food safety, has led many well-to-do, or at least well-educated, Chinese to emigrate or seek a foothold abroad.

The outlook that emerges from this view is decidedly undecided.

The story of this century may well not end up being that of the rise of China, but great changes certainly are in store and China is likely to (re)gain a stronger importance.

China is not, as seen here, quite as unique and mysterious as it is often portrayed, though. The Chinese are a very diverse people and peoples, too – and yet, there is a dynamic that is likely to push forward, for better and worse, with a dynamicism that often seems to have gone missing with the security and structure gained in ‘the West.’

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