What Actually Makes People Successful

Ed Zitron 7 min read

When I was in high school, I was not good at French. If someone suggested I was the worst person to study French at the school, I would not have argued with them. It wasn’t for lack of trying - I couldn’t absorb the information, let alone synthesize it to answer the teacher's questions. I was in a foundation French class (by which I mean “you are all so bad we had to get an extra teacher”), and I remember the teacher in question miming flipping burgers and telling us all that “this is the best you’re going to do, so get used to this motion.” I believe his name was Mr. Wilson, or Mr. Willis, or something like that, and he can go fuck himself.

It turns out that I wasn’t inherently bad at French; I just had extremely severe and undiagnosed ADHD, along with the depression that comes with being in a school where both the teachers and the students enjoyed institutionalized bullying. Kids that did well tended to be white, neurotypical, and wealthy, and those that did well got more attention from teachers, despite needing it the least. They would get the best grades, get into the best programs, and generally have a much easier time.

I’m bringing this up because so often, we forget the real reasons that people are successful. Take this wonderful anecdote from a guy who does something with DAOs:

This may, indeed, be a joke - it’s hard to tell, because there are so many posts like this out there.

If I had to pick a series of things that guarantee success, or at least enable it, I would not think of the first four suggestions, and immediately gravitate to 5 - what privilege enabled this young man to be successful? What things happened in his life that led him there? Had I just seen the first four things, I would also have called bullshit, simply because there is no way in which these contributed meaningfully to one’s success.

The ideas of what makes someone successful are an act of group distraction - a means of trying to escape the depressing truth that most people will not be “successful” in the “never want for anything ever again” sense. It is much easier to think that something inconvenient but possible like waking up at 4:30 AM is the secret to your success because you can choose not to do it but assume that if you started, you’d suddenly be an Arnold Palmer of Tim Cook and Tom Brady.

According to Huffington Post, successful people tend to wake up at 7am, based on the aggregate of the articles they could find. Gary Vaynerchuk? 6AM. Howard Schultz of Starbucks? 4:30am. Jack Dorsey? 5AM. None of these times actually matter, because getting up early is not actually an indicator of anything - there are plenty of people that wake up that early to go to one of the two jobs they have to have to pay rent, and plenty more extremely wealthy people who get up at 10am and make dorky, boring posts on Twitter.

However, it’s much more palatable to view success as a combination of events that we have complete control over. If we just read more, we’d be a success. If we woke up early, we’d be a success. If we just hustled a little more, we’d be a success. And the proof we need of that success is that there are maybe 100 people who have done these things who are also a success - so what’s stopping us?

The answer is “luck*,” and the asterisk is *but mostly privilege.

Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Jonah Peretti, Gary Vaynerchuk, Jack Dorsey, Howard Schultz and Tim Cook were all born when college (along with housing, healthcare and everything else) was significantly less expensive (and easier to get). In the case of Vaynerchuk, he got given a job at his parent’s wine shop, which he eventually inherited - and the story is tough to grasp the details of - mysteriously growing it from $3 million to $60 million in revenue in a year. While I dislike Vaynerchuk personally and professionally, he did something right, except that something involved him being given a fucking wine store.

While the San Jose Mercury News may suggest that dropping out of college was part of Box CEO Aaron Levie’s success, it’s probably also to do with him growing up with several of the core founding members, at least one of which went to an ivy league school, and the luck of getting funding from cold emailing Mark Cuban back in 2005. There was absolutely work that went into this…but, well:

"We paid ourselves essentially nothing, but we were doing commune-style living. It came with a bed. It came with Aaron's mom's crappy minivan, which could be shared for transportation. It covered most things. And then it was mostly pizza for the rest of the week," Queisser remembers.

Huh, how did you pay for rent? You ate pizza? Pizza isn’t cheap! Hey, wait a second - hey Aaron! Quick question! Who paid for your USC education? Who paid for your friends’ educations at Duke or Western Washington?

The reason I’m poking holes in this story is because Levie also said the following:

The other problem with the Thiel Fellowship is that the people drop out of college prior to executing their idea. So they propose an idea and then they drop out to do it. If you look at the successful dropouts in history—whether that's Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or whatever—they do the idea first. It gets traction and then they drop out.

But Aaron, isn’t this exactly what you did? The answer is that yes, he dropped out of college to pursue his idea, then attempted to rewrite history. I don’t even think he’s incorrect - it’s just that not having a real, honest conversation about this means that you’re leaving out the real reason Levie and others succeed - privilege.

While I am sure there are plenty of stories of very successful people that have managed to be a success just through sheer force of will, or sheer smarts and determination, there are so many more millions of people that despite their intelligence never get a chance. And when you look at the crop of successful college dropouts, it is necessary to ask the question as to how they were able to drop out, what circumstances allowed them to both do so and continue living in a house with four walls.

The answer is that they were probably able to through generous family or friends. If it wasn’t, it’s likely because of a lucky moment or two that meant that you met the right person at the right time, which, again, is usually based on privilege.

I am not suggesting that successful people do not work, or work hard, or that their success is not on some level “earned.” I come from privilege - I’ve written about this before - and acknowledge that I worked very hard to get where I am, but also got there through a combination of timing and a familial connection that got me an early internship. Copying my example - or any of these successful people’s examples - is useless to most people, because every success story is so firmly rooted in the era it happened and the circumstances that generated it. If I was born 10 years earlier, I’d have likely been a colossal failure, because much of what makes me able to do anything that I do today is on the computer.

Money As Morality

Another reason I find these “do these things to succeed!” posts so offensive is that they’re an attempt to moralize success. If you’re failing at your job, or not worth a million dollars, or not being promoted, it’s not that you are in a situation where you’re poorly managed, or at a bad company, or just not in the right place - no, it’s because you didn’t do enough of the Success Person things to succeed. Warren Buffett claims he “read 500 pages a day” and that it “builds like compound interest,” which is incredible in the levels of privilege and total and utter bullshit. Mark Cuban? 3 hours a day. Bill Gates? 50 books a year.

These are yet more meaningless metrics that exist to turn your privileged existence into something you’ve earned - these people are worth billions of dollars because they read all the right books, and they read so many of them, and they were able to carve out the time by making it a priority. There is no mention of what Buffett or Cuban or Gates had to do in the years they were reading these books, or even any proof (because you can’t prove they did or didn’t do this as these are largely made-up numbers) that they did it - just the empty idea that you haven’t read enough books, and that is why you’re not a success.

It’s much easier to see success as a moral and personal decision one makes rather than something that happens to you, because otherwise you have to reconcile with the fact that most people are not going to succeed, no matter how much they try. We were raised to believe there was a moral good in work, and that working hard would always reward you, despite there being no real way to guarantee success, and the only ways to increase the likelihood mostly being “be privileged enough to be able to afford to both go to college and survive having a student loan, or ideally not have one at all.”

And, of course, there’s the ability to pay for one’s healthcare. This isn’t just about affording health insurance, but the privilege of being able to afford to see a doctor when you’re sick, rather than working through it and getting sicker, or the ability to afford a doctor to see if you have ADHD, or to go to therapy. I wish more people realized how much the for-profit evil of the American healthcare system suppresses people’s financial and social mobility and their ability to take even the smallest risks for the sake of their career. One cannot simply drop one’s job in America - and even when they do have health insurance, there’s a low likelihood they’ll be able to escape co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses.

I am not saying that everybody should give up and that there is no point in trying, just that valorizing people’s success in a way that doesn’t reconcile with privilege and luck is ultimately something that fails both the reader and society itself. The reason that people are attracted to hustle culture is that it perpetuates the lie that we are simply a lot of hard work and the right series of tasks from a wealthy, happy existence.

Young people are growing up in a world where it’s obvious how difficult it is to even survive, and hearing someone attractive and excited tell you that you can escape that because you’re just that smart is a lot more satisfying than realizing that “success” is hard to define and harder to attain.

And, of course, there will always be people to tell them that all they need to do to be happy and wealthy is to wake up at 5am, meditate, and write in a gratitude journal.

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