On Being Successful

There is a ton of advice out there on how you should magically become “successful.”

There is no formal, globally accepted meaning of success. Everyone has their own purpose and set of values they live by, which often make up their personal definition.

There are no wrong answers. To each his/her own.

Once you have that definition of what success looks like / means to you, things become a lot easier. These things turn into goals and then you can start taking actionable steps to get to them.

Success often coincides with competition. It does not have to. But per many’s definition of success, you have to win to be successful. And winning often involves making other people lose.

Which is fine. Tough world.

The question then becomes how do you win often? How do you become the best?

Is it luck? Hard work? A combination of the two?

I have no idea. Being the best at something is very rare. Very few people in society are really good, let alone “the best” at what they do.

For obvious and redundant reasons, not everyone can be the best. But most people are not the worst either. So what we end up seeing is a normal distribution. Most people end up as average.

And when you are competing among a pool of average, it can be really hard to differentiate. Especially when the people at the top, “the best,” are dominating.

Luckily, there are ways to be different. And being different does not guarantee success, but it allows you to compete for it.

A good quote I heard, from Keith Rabois, is:

You don’t need to aim to be the best at what you do, you just need to be the only one who does what you do.

That quote really stuck with me.

Be the only one who does what you do.

A couple of thoughts on this:

  • You should spend time on things you care about. I think that is first and foremost. Whatever it is you care about, do things that help that. Far too often, we get caught up in competition and start doing things for reasons that do not actually help us get to our definition of success. We do things because other people said to, not because we want to .
  • I do think, however, that this monopolistic approach makes a lot of sense. You might be thinking that differentiating in this way, where you become the only one doing what you do, is impossible. It is hard. But it is far from impossible. All you have to do is do something different from the rest of the crowd. And just do it often.

Ex: I go to Washington University in St. Louis. It is a school of about 8000 or so people. So I’d call it a “good pool of competition.” I’ll generalize and say everyone here wants a job of some sort when they graduate (even if that is not true).

There are sooooo many smart people here. Seriously. Academically, people here are off the charts!

If I tried to be the best at CS, or math, or Finance, or Art History ~ I’d be screwed. I am never going to be the very best at any of those. And that is okay because I am still acquiring skills in them and improving.

I do try my best. I am working hard.

But I thought about that quote and thought..what can I do to be the only one who does what I do? None of this is supposed to be cocky. It is literally what I did.

I could have started running. 10 miles a day. I probably would have been, one of, the only person in the pool of competition who ran 10 miles a day.

For a while, I started “networking” and reaching out to people I was interested in talking to. That is a long story, and it is not all positive. But through that 3 month experiment, I learned a ton. I sent hundreds (maybe thousands) of emails during that time. I had hundreds (actually) of phone calls.

Now for the thought experiment: how many students at WashU have ever sent a cold email? Let’s be generous. 50%. What % send one a week? Let’s be, again, generous. Let’s say 20% of the 50%. (We’re at 2.5% so far). Ok now imagine we ask what % send one a day? I’d venture 10% maximum of that 2.5%. We’re at .025%. Now what if you sent 10 emails a day. You’re looking at 0.0025%. Crazy?!?

That is what I did.

Another one. What percentage of students write blog posts publicly? What about once a month? Once a week? Every single day? Probably none others.

The point here is not that I am the best at any of these things. I am really not the best. I’d like to emphasize that. It’s just the fact that I am really doing things that separates me.

Now I’d also like to emphasize that I thoroughly enjoyed both of those things. I’d call it a real waste to spend any significant amount of time chasing success if it did not make me happy or help other people. That, to me, is really important.

I wish you best of luck! I know you can do it.


Originally published at Jordan Gonen.

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