We often attribute success to hard work. And sometimes, this can lead to notions of someone not being successful just because they are lazy.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Why? Because hard work alone doesn’t guarantee success. No one should ever think that.
Here’s an example:
Digging for a hole for two weeks non-stop is an impressive display of hard work. But the effort probably won’t produce a very deep hole. Especially compared to someone who has the advantage of say, a shovel.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I think it is important to recognise that other factors are involved in being successful. Here are the four biggest ones we think have the most impact.
TRIGGER WARNING. Conversations like these tend to incite a lot of strong emotions, so we’d like to declare that this is by no means the definitive guide to success, just our own attempt of making sense of it. We are open to differing opinions.
In addition, the following illustrations are parodies of card games and should not be the only material used in serious, scholarly discussion.
There have been a lot of great and important conversations about privilege lately. Privilege is the kind of the advantage you’re born with.
If you’re born into a rich family, you have the privilege of a safety net to take risks. Of course, this is not just limited to wealth.
If you aren’t a minority – whether it’s race, sexual orientation, whether or not you have physical or mental disability – you have privilege because chances are, you will face less discrimination.
In addition, beyond these two popular narratives about privilege, perhaps it’s worth thinking of the other forms of privilege; it can also involve the era or place where you are born.
We have the privilege of being born in modern-day Singapore – currently a relatively safe country where the life expectancy is high, and infant mortality is low.
You generally have no control over what privilege you receive, nor should you be ashamed of having it.
What is important is that you realise that it has some role to play in your success. The more privilege you have, the easier it is for you to find success. No one should ever deny that.
That will help you be more empathetic, as opposed to saying ‘oh the poor are just lazy.’
That said, it’s also important to point out that while it is many things, privilege is not everything.
Think about it: if privilege was everything, then Jeff Bezos wouldn’t be the richest person in the world today – after all, Bezos’ dad started off as a broke immigrant when he arrived in America, speaking only spanish.
Perhaps what is more accurate to say is that if you reach a certain level of privilege, you stand a good chance of achieving financial success.
Which brings us to…
Generally, ‘effort’ or ‘hard work’ is the default factor people always fall back on when they have to explain their success. You might say this is purposefully disingenuous; but consider this explanation:
Telling someone ‘I was born rich’ or ‘I was lucky’ does not make for good interview material.
On the other hand, ‘I did xxx things differently’ and elaborating on how might give away any competitive advantage you have.
‘I put in a lot of effort’ then becomes the most convenient answer to give. Not to mention it’s often semi-true: working hard is often a prerequisite for success, even for people from privileged backgrounds.
Because of its disproportionate role in making sense of success, effort is the most inspirational of all the horsemen. It’s also the most relatable, and it also makes for good storytelling, because everyone can put in hard work.
Still, that doesn’t change the fact that effort and hard work matter, and they’re a massive game-changer. Passion and perseverance for long term goals are often more important than things like IQ.
Make no mistake: Practice still makes perfect, and there is no substitute for hard work. It’s just that there are more factors at play you need to consider.
The next factor is something I struggled to name, but I’m going to call it distinction – or the ability to do something different from others. Being unconventional, or innovative.
Distinction, or the lack of it, is probably why many of us can spend 12 hours a day working, yet receive no benefits from it.
Here’s the concept in action applied to freelance writing:
As a freelance writer, I get paid anywhere from $50 – $2,000 for an article.
What I’ve learnt is that the $50 articles are generally stuff that almost anyone who can string a sentence can write.
For example, <Five things to do in Singapore when you are feeling bored>.
Why does it pay only $50? It boils down to simple economics – supply and demand.
I try not to take on projects like these, because there’s an oversupply of writers who can write <Five things to do in Singapore when you are feeling bored>.
What I rather focus on is more complex projects that need more specialist knowledge – where there is a limited supply of writers, and yes, they’ll pay more than $50.
The result at the end of the day is that someone who writes ten $50 articles ($500) would earn the same as if I write one $500 article about the pros-and-cons of term vs whole life insurance.
Yes, they worked harder, but we would have earned the same amount of money.
The lesson here is this: skills and knowledge matter. So does out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and resourcefulness.
If you work like everyone, think like everyone, then don’t expect to achieve extraordinary levels of success.
Luck is the wildcard and also the most painful one we have to grapple with, because much like privilege, this is something we have no direct control over.
Extreme example: You can save 100k before 30, buy all the health insurance you need, build various sources of passive forms of income; but still have your life destroyed by a catastrophic car accident (unlikely but possible).
Less extreme example: You can upskill yourself, create the perfect resume, network, have the best ideas…but sometimes success just doesn’t come. And the sad reality is that we have to accept this.
But lest you think we have no way of mitigating luck, I think it’s useful to think of it as throwing dice.
Yes, you cannot control if you roll a six on a dice each time.
But, you can increase the likelihood of you getting a six if you…
- Keep throwing until you get a six (Effort)
- Master the art of throwing dice (Distinction).
- Having many sets of dice given to you at birth (Privilege)
The game of cards you now must play
Life is like a game of cards. Some of us get blessed with privilege. Others are cursed with bad luck. Without condoning or condemning, this is an unfair system we are born into.
It is important to acknowledge it.
It is also important to understand it.
But ultimately, if you want to succeed, understanding the rules is important. Without it, you might put in lots of effort for very little in return. Which is a surefire way to disillusionment.
That said, now you know the cards. It’s time for you to play the game*.
Stay woke, salaryman.
*If you so wish to. This article defines success in conventional terms which is linked to material wealth. Your own definition of success might be different and that is okay, there is no judgement on our part.
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