Wish, Try, Achieve. Why it is false, but good to believe, anyway.

I can’t remember how many times people have joked with Paulo Coelio’s quote:

And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.

And I can’t also count how many people hold it high up in their belief system, even if they have never heard of Coelio at all.

Motivational speakers and startup mentors routinely attribute success to relentless effort. And effort to strong will. To an unbending spirit. To a fighter’s mentality. To an internal locus of control. To a growth mindset.

No wonder. This belief is so rooted in our culture that can be traced back to religion:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7.7)

Unfortunately, like many common beliefs, it is not true¹. It is not true because there is this menacing element in life, called luck, that gets in the way. Or, to put it more scientifically, one is bound to encounter variability, randomness and unpredictability, regardless of his intentions or efforts.

When counting for whatever quality we have, we fall somewhere on a bell curve that measures this particular quality for the human population. We might be above or below average. So, if, say one is endowed by mother nature with qualities that fall in the lower quartiles of the distribution, he is destined to achieve less than one falling on the higher quartiles, given the same amount of effort and all other thing being equal. Doesn’t sound fair, but not preposterous either.

But there is a more chilling statistic. Because chance gets in the way, those in the higher quartiles do not achieve what they were destined to. Counting for effort too, the disparity is greater. And there is a dynamic that helps those who start earlier and reap benefits earlier: they take a boost and leapfrog their equals and more. As a result, whenever we measure outcomes like success, riches, fame or power, we are confronted with an entirely “unjust” distribution, the Pareto distribution, where the proverbial 10% has 90% of whatever is counted. Just look at all those articles complaining about how the 1% of the ultra-rich controls half of the worlds wealth.

As I was heading back home from work today, I was listening to an audio book: Robert Sapolsky’s “Why Zebra’s don’t get ulcers”.

I must admit this kind of content is hard to grasp in audio form. The book has a lot of endocrinology and neurochemistry references that don’t come down easily without visual aids. Nevertheless, somewhere around chapter 17, I heard a piece of information that elucidated the subject of this post.

Sapolksy’s book is about stress and it’s effects. And it has a wealth of information about what stress can do to our bodies and minds (mostly bad things).

In Chapter 17 though, there were some good news about how to cope with stress, or, better, what can make our reaction to stressful situations less pronounced, even non existent, at all.

One prominent such factor is being, or, at least, feeling, in control. Surprisingly, it does make a difference.

Life is stressful, modern life more so. Aiming higher than the average is even more stressful. And if you want to make it to the top, the stress is almost unbearable. So it is paramount to get any help you can on the way. And such a help is a deeply held belief that the outcome is depended only on your efforts. That you are in control of your life, of your happiness, of your destiny. Or, to put it more realistically, you feel that you are in control. Down goes the stress.

With less stress, any effort has better chances of a more benevolent outcome. So if luck is blind to our efforts, we can get blind to its obstacles. We might not reach our destination, but we will get closer, and we will have a much more pleasant journey.


  1. It is also a, so called, metaphysical claim, a term the epistemologists use for sentences that cannot be proved wrong. Why it can’t be proved wrong? Simply, because if you try as hard as you can and come to no end, you do not disprove the proposition, as one can always tell you: “You didn’t try enough”.

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