Stop with the Idolatry of the Obscenely Successful

You’ll learn more from an everyday hero

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

Does anyone else grow weary of the constant stream of articles that focus on the usual fetishized heroes in entertainment, business, and tech? Let me show you what I mean:

Be honest. Did you feel a momentary twitch of wanting to read those? Do you think you’ll become the next real life Tony Stark if you eat like Elon ate for 30 days?

I’ll save you some time and heartache. You won’t become the next inventor who revolutionizes clean energy if you somehow manage to eat for $1/day. That’s not the secret to his success, and neither is the actual underlying theme of suffering for greatness.

I do think that there are lessons to be learned from others, including the wildly successful folks. But, there are also incredibly valuable lessons to be learned from the much larger list of failures. Unfortunately, we rarely get to hear about those, unless it makes for a great news story because we love to see the mighty fall.

When I mentor people, I encourage them to overlook the obvious front page heroes, and seek out the more humble and realistic successful people who are “hiding” in plain sight. This does require an adjustment. When you try to envision who your career hero might be, the most salient names come to mind.

There are three flaws in our traditional hero worship

  1. Survivorship bias
  2. Hidden advantages
  3. Tunnel vision

Survivorship bias

The first critical flaw in only studying the obscenely successful is survivorship bias. The lessons from the failures rarely rise into view, because we hardly ever hear about them. Instead, our news feeds are saturated with tips and advice gleaned from the lifestyles of the super successful. That saliency misleads us into believing that achieving their success is realistic.

“Survivorship bias also flash-freezes your brain into a state of ignorance from which you believe success is more common than it truly is and therefore you leap to the conclusion that it also must be easier to obtain.” — David McRaney, Survivorship Bias

You rarely learn what not to do, or what to avoid, because these successful people often don’t know. They would like to think that they understand failure, but many are unaware of their own long history of hidden advantages and opportunities (more on this in the next section).

The majority of people who tried and failed aren’t the ones invited to be interviewed. Their stories aren’t published on Forbes, Fast Company, and Fortune. In other words, they haven’t called me yet.

I’m not saying that you should never study the successful. There are always things you can take away from their examples and test for yourself. But, you should take anything you learn from them with a grain of salt.

As with any multivariate real-world situation, you can rarely extract one strategy that will magically lead to success. Unlike a controlled experiment, a lifetime of someone’s experiences that led to success is filled with hidden variables, confounds, and interactions that are impossible to fully understand.

The more distant your celebrity heroes are from you, the less you understand anything about their real past, their day-to-day lives, and who they really are. It’s one reason that I prefer a more realistic “career hero.” Someone you know from your personal life. You are more likely to know the true story of his or her life, and you can learn more about their failures (not just the wins).

Hidden advantages

You’re weighing yourself down with unrealistic expectations and setting yourself up for failure when you chase a hero who has hidden advantages. It happens with our career pursuits, but I’ve also seen this in athletic pursuits. How often have you trained hard, really hard, and felt like you could never catch up to someone you admire in your chosen sport, only to discover later that your hero had a hidden advantage?

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” provides numerous examples across multiple domains (including sports, politics, and business) that “success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages.” These advantages include lucky timing and being given extraordinary opportunities.

He examined the success of people like Bill Joy, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. The popular pablum is that you can achieve similar greatness if you’re smart and driven, like they are (or were).

Unfortunately, Gladwell shows how often these people had numerous hidden advantages and lucky timing that you will never be able to fully replicate. In some cases, the prime of your career simply occurs at the wrong time and place (since you weren’t born between 1954–1956, for example).

This fetishism of the super successful and wealthy also sets us up for misery when we fail to succeed by their measure. Sadly, when we become myopic with how we define success, we tend to overlook the train wreck that many of our heroes’ personal lives have become.

Tunnel vision

We do love our flawed heroes, and there is nothing wrong with being human. In fact, I highly encourage that you find heroes who aren’t afraid of being imperfect. However, if you choose people as your career/life heroes for what they have achieved and ignore the fact that they burned the rest of their life to the ground in the process, you’re going down a dark path.

Fame and fortune are tantalizing carrots. Our society dangles them in front of us at every turn. But, as so many supposedly successful people have discovered, achieving wealth isn’t the nirvana you think it will be.

So many of the obvious idols aren’t really happy or emotionally whole. Have you read about the personal lives of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk? They seem like they must have it all, but their lives are falling apart behind the scenes. Tony Robbins once mentioned in a podcast that he knows plenty of successful, wealthy people who simply aren’t happy. “Money makes you more of who you are… it doesn’t change people.”

Don’t get tunnel vision when you focus on an unrealistic hero based only on what they have achieved. You want a hero who has achieved meaningful success and fulfillment in balance with their life, relationships, health, and wellbeing. Don’t seek to simply gain what they have. Instead, understand how they live their life each and every day, and then ask yourself if that is the journey you want to be on as well.

Success means nothing if you are alone at the end of that journey. Wealth means nothing if you sacrifice your health, relationships, and happiness to achieve it.

No superhero required

There are three big takeaways that I’ve learned from setting goals in my life and career. You don’t need a superhero to serve as some unrealistic finish line. But, a real-world network of ambitious peers and mentors does help you create stretch goals and accomplish great things along the way.

  1. Set an audacious goal, but create a series of achievable milestones along the way. There is nothing wrong with setting big goals, and even goals that you may never actually achieve (more on that in the next point). But, it should never be a goal to achieve the wealth and success of someone else. That’s a hollow and meaningless pursuit. Your goal should be something meaningful, relevant, and truly aligned with your talent, capabilities, and calling. You should also celebrate every milestone along the way.
  2. The journey to that goal needs to support a life that is rewarding in some way, each and every day. You can’t put enjoyment, happiness, and fulfillment on hold in your life until you reach that ultimate goal. Life is short, and there are no promises of what tomorrow holds. Live well now. Research confirms that real happiness in life isn’t in the achieving of goals, it is in always having a goal and striving for something more. Enjoy the challenge and continuous progress!
  3. Surround yourself with a circle of people who support you, challenge you, and encourage you to always want to be the best version of yourself. Live in an environment that nurtures you. James Altucher calls this “your scene.” Choose career and life heroes who are real, not some superstar who had hidden advantages or extraordinary opportunities that you will never be able to replicate. These should be people who are approachable, helpful, and may even be willing to mentor you. You should be able to look at your heroes and say, “I realistically see how I can accomplish what they have done, but in my own way and on my own terms.”

Your new heroes

We’re all better off with identifying a realistic career hero. Take a look around you over the next few weeks. Find someone who has been successful on a path that you can reasonably follow. Ignore the paths that require obscene amounts of good luck, miraculous timing, and a lifetime of advantages.

I’m not going to tell you that wild success is impossible. Clearly it can happen, and there are some examples of people who accomplished amazing things despite their disadvantages.

But, you need to be realistic about your chances. Are you even playing in the same ballpark as your hero? If you truly are, then keep training hard and swinging for the fences. I’ll cheer for you when you hit that home run.

But, guess what? Success in life isn’t an all or nothing game. You don’t have to be the next Elon Musk or Oprah Winfrey to be happy and successful.

Take a break from external influences. Get away by yourself for a day or two. Cleanse your mental palate. Without the bullsh*t ruler that our society has held up for you, what would success feel like? What do you really want in life? What makes you happy? What makes you feel fulfilled?

If you take the crazy superhero outliers out of the equation and look around, who is living a life that you admire? Who is doing the kind of work you want to do every day? Who truly seems happy and whole?

Learn more about your new heroes. Get to the bottom of their true career path. Reach out and make yourself known. The good thing about a hero like this is that he or she is much more likely to sit down for a chat with you. You may just discover your next mentor.

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