07 August 2014

The secret to Success

There is a thing in American society which we call Success. I use the capital S here deliberately: I don't mean success in achieving one's goals, I mean Success in the primate-status-game sense of being recognized as Successful ... and given power and opportunities.

Apropos of this I've been meaning for some time to write about Amanda Palmer's TED Talk and have not done it because I have too much to say about it. As someone who has followed her for some time it was interesting to see her appearance in the TED venue make the rounds a while back.

There's a moment I noticed in the talk when, after several minutes of attention to the amazing story she tells, she finally gets a big round of applause ... by saying how much money her Kickstarter raised. Because yeah, the TED audience — of Successful people who paid big bucks to be there — is keeping score that way.

This helped me recognize something else about Success in her TED talk, about how one becomes a Success.

Being White and male and straight help, natch, though there are plenty of straight White guys who get nowhere near Success and Ms Palmer is only one of these things.

Palmer also lacks another important factor that Americans talk about less. I read an interview with a person who had done biographies of a bunch of Silicon Valley moguls, folks like Bill Gates and Michael Dell and Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs, and the interviewer asked them what they had in common. Surprisingly little, said the biographer, but I did notice that all but one of them has a trust fund from their parents. It turns out that to make it that kind of big, you have to bet the company, and do it repeatedly, and it really helps to do that if you don't need your job to pay the rent. So, family money. But plenty of folks with trust funds don't go on to Success.

So what about personal attributes? In my observation, there are three personal attributes that tend to support Success, and Palmer has all of them. Talent really does make difference: being smart or specially capable really does open a door to Success, even if it is far from a guarantee. Ambition is powerful: some people stumble into Success but wanting it badly helps a lot. And last, narcissism is powerful. And here I mean not garden-variety narcissism, but the real deal pathological narcissism of believing that one is just plain better and more interesting and more deserving than everybody else, believing it such that one cannot even conceive otherwise. I'm not joking about that last one, it's the one we actively propagandize for in American society: you just have to believe in yourself.

Each of those three tilts people toward Success. The combination of the three is unstoppable, the closest thing there is to a sure-fire formula for Success.

Amanda Palmer.

Bill Clinton.

Steve Jobs.

Oprah Winfrey.

Kanye West.


I think a great deal about how this has a lesson for us about the American “meritocracy” we have built.

Chris Dillow at Stumbling And Mumbling has a post Narcissism, Hubris, and Success which reflects on the feedback loop of narcissism and Success.


Ken said...

I can think of plenty of folks who are not narcissistic who became quite successful. People who are so focussed on their work that they don't have time for much of an ego. People like Carl Sagan, Jimmy Carter, Dali Lama. Maybe they don't meet your big "S" criteria for success, but in my mind, narcissism inhibits success, in general it does not promote success. I've seen more leaders fall on their face due to excess narcissism than lack thereof.

Jonathan Korman said...

I'm not saying narcissism is necessary for Success. I'm saying that it disproportionately produces Success.

Jaimie said...

I find this analysis useful. I'm thinking right now about how lots of people have talent (and ambition and I kind of think the U.S. breeds pathological narcissists -- I've encountered A LOT). But American capitalism likes and rewards a certain flavor of talent. And if your talent doesn't produce that flavor, you're SOL.