Ineffability of Success; Necessity of Humility

SuccessI wrote before that I was listening to the This American Life episode, 20 Acts in 60 Minutes. And one of the stories was about a sausage manufacturer that had moved to a new high tech facility, but found that their premiere product was not the same. It still tasted as good, but it was the wrong color. They tried everything, but they couldn’t find the problem. Eventually, they learned that the problem was an idiosyncrasy of the old factory. They manage to recreate the idiosyncrasy and got their old sausage color back. Hooray.

Ezra Glass noted that he liked the story because it showed that we don’t usually know the source of our success. That really hit me. I’ve found that to be so true in life. In general, if you are involved in some venture, you need to do a whole lot of things that are probably pointless. But you just don’t know what is important and what isn’t. For example, here at Frankly Curious, I’ve written about 7,000 articles. but there are just a few that have gotten much traction. What’s more, they are generally articles I didn’t think much about. I’ve never gotten a lot of traction for an article that I thought very highly of while writing.

Where we get into trouble — as individuals and as communities — is in thinking that we are a success because we are good.

This is why I continue to work this blog. I really don’t know what I’m doing. What usually makes for a popular article is a single person finding what I wrote to be interesting. If that person has a hundred thousand people following them, it makes a big difference. And then we are into Horatio Alger territory where what really matters is impressing “important” people — this traditionally leading to a good job and marriage to one their nubile daughters. But this isn’t the way I want to think about it, and it isn’t the way I think about it. You can’t think about it that way.

I used to do IT for a real estate investment company. And the head of sales explained the process to me as follows. There was no such thing as a great sales person. There was just a certain percentage of people who are open to your pitch. So you pitch to as many people as you can. And that’s how you make sales. Obviously, there is a skill element to it. But in general, you get that skill by giving your pitch over and over again. And that’s how I look at writing.

Indeed, it is the skills that I learned writing excessively here that led to my day job. Five years ago, I was a decent enough writer. But I wasn’t able to grind out a thousand palatable words on any subject at all in under four hours. But that’s not the main thing. The main thing is the grinding itself. It’s the constant working that leads to success. But obviously, not a lot of success — at least, not necessarily. And that’s because success is ultimately about luck. To whatever extent that we succeed, it isn’t something that we really control. And it was never my intention to write a lot to get better; it was my intention to write a lot because I enjoyed it.

Where we get into trouble — as individuals and as communities — is in thinking that we are a success because we are good. Perhaps you saw this headline at The Hill, Trump Takes Credit for Iran Prisoner Release. Trump is, in an important way, the perfect president for this country. He also represents the absolute worst aspects of who we are.

We could all of us use a great deal more humility.

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