(In a rush? Jump to the essentials – #5 & 6, The Universal Success Formula)
In an article titled, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance.“ MIT endorsed the dangerous, defeatist pseudoscience of – get this – comparing “talent” to wealth – to see if better skills justify exponential wealth, globally. Spoiler alert: It’s all LUCK, SUCKERS!!! All hope is dead!
This “study” by Sicily’s University of Catania is so insulting and obtuse, the only equally dumb response would be to shut down MIT and poison Catania’s mascot, Lucky Luigi, for plopping this limp turd on the world’s lawn. Then, replace all copies of their report with this Kardashian GIF:
So what’s wrong with their logic? Oh, so, so much… Mainly, it defies the Universal Success Formula.
1. Wealth is NOT Success
Defining success as wealth is like defining sports as water polo. Wealth is one of many desired outcomes “talented” people pursue. Some value personal fulfillment, summers off, control, job security, retirement benefits, flexible hours, perks (like travel, parties or pot edibles), notoriety, ego-inflating titles (“Commander-in-Chief”) and countless others.
2. “Talent” Can’t Be Quantified or Summarized
I don’t care how great your scoring system is, most talent defies quantification. It’s subjective and job-specific.
Empathy might be terrific for a teacher, but marginal for a linebacker.
Calculus is great for Tesla engineers; less useful to sitcom writers.
If my accountant masters teleportation, I don’t see how that maximizes my deductions.
I could do this all day. You get the point.
Plus, how do you measure any of this?? We can barely keep sports fans from pummeling each other over who’s better, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers – despite loads of stats and complete meritocracy in sports. You’re going to tell me Sicily has a system that can measure “talent” for marketing managers and ballerinas, alike?!? I call bullshit.
And let’s say that they did… Lumping them all into some aggregate score makes the entire exercise trivial and meaningless.
There’s also the pesky deployment issue. Many of people’s best talents are used recreationally, not to make money. Some of the funniest people I’ve met make pizza or PowerPoints, not jokes at Comedy Cellar.
3. Wealth and “Intellect” Can Be Mortal Enemies
Many talents are either incompatible with wealth-seeking – or actively detest it.
Ever try to explain marketing tactics to a musician? I have. I’d rather do my own dental work.
Ever finish work late and have to wear a suit and tie to a hip East Village gallery opening? Corporate Commando, meet artistic disdain.
As MIT’s title suggests, let’s take intelligence as a key “talent”. It’s one we could quantify with some combination of IQ, SAT scores, and whether you’ve ever taken the ‘Which Game of Thrones Character Will You Marry?’ Facebook quiz.
The most intelligent will never be the wealthiest. Below are observed and historical reasons why.
Research by the British Psychological Society shows that leaders with an IQ of 120 and higher “demonstrated less transformational and instrumental leadership than leaders with a lower IQ.”
While these researchers had trouble explaining why this is, I know from firsthand experience.
High intelligence can be crippling. It demands evidence, analysis, validation, debate, testing, consensus, risk mitigation, and refinement. The intelligent crave perfection or certainty. It’s exhausting.
Smart techies at startups, who ship, ship, ship half-baked alpha and beta products, are a rare breed. Their equally-smart brethren go straight from MBA’s to endless school-like “group projects” at corporations. Each must be validated and approved by management (e.g. “teachers”). I was surrounded by them for years in corporate. I was one of them!
High intelligence is not entrepreneurial. Nor is it a path towards differential success – unless you can stop thinking and start shipping.
In this video, John Mackey, founder and ex-CEO of Whole Foods explains the historical tension between talent and wealth. “Intellectuals have always disdained commerce,” the main driver of wealth.
“Intellectuals have always disdained Commerce. That’s something that tradesmen did. People that were in a lower class and… minorities, oftentimes. Like you had the Jews in the West. When they became wealthy and successful and rose, they were envied, and then they were persecuted and their wealth confiscated. And many times they (were) run out of country after country. Same thing happened to Chinese in the East. They were great business people, as well. So the intellectuals have always sided with the aristocrats to maintain a society where the business people were kept down. You might say that capitalism was the first time the business people caught a break because of Adam Smith and…The Industrial Revolution began this huge upward surge of prosperity.
If you live in a more business oriented society like the United States has been, then you have these businesspeople who they don’t judge to be very intelligent or well-educated, having lots of money and they begin to buy political power with it and they rise in the social hierarchy. Whereas the really intelligent people the intellectuals are less important and I don’t think they like that. I think that’s one of the main reasons why the intellectuals have usually disdained Commerce. They haven’t seen it as the dynamic creative force because they measure themselves against these people and they find they think they’re superior and yet in the social hierarchy they’re not seen as more important and I think that drives them crazy.”
– John Mackey, Whole Foods Founder
Present-Day Disdain, Illustrated
4. No GLOBAL Standards
Comparing what drives wealth (or success) across countries is meaningless. Only a handful of educated, wealthy elite can access global opportunities. Even when countries and corporations are “global”, most citizens are extremely local. They’re anchored to opportunities in their language, near their communities, that need their limited skill sets.
Simply being born in the US or the West, puts you in the fortunate 50% of the world’s population. People born in parts of India, China and Africa have little hope of ever escaping unspeakable poverty. To them, success is survival. Wealth is not on the menu.
Other countries retain rigid class structures – or run by generations of oligarchs.
Wealthy family businesses like Samsung and LG dominate commerce in Korea.
And good luck climbing the corporate ladder with a deep cockney accent in the UK or as a Moroccan immigrant in France.
Dreaming of a better life in Japan? Don’t bother getting off the boat. Its doors are shut to outsiders.
Even countries like Russia, a superpower…on Facebook Ads Manager, has virtually nothing to offer brilliant programmers. So they sit around, bottom-feeding, hacking into this or that campaign. Sad!
Forces infinitely more powerful than “talent” drive wealth and success. They demand entirely different measures across countries.
5. The ‘UNIVERSAL Success Formula’ Favors Kardashians, Not Luck
If we limit the conversation to the US, where there’s no ceiling or floor on success or failure, “talent” and “luck” are each minority shareholders in the universal formula for success.
That portfolio has three components:
- 25% Luck
- 25% Talent
Our first bout with luck is at birth. Being born in the US is a head start on half the world, but only exposes a more nuanced spectrum of fortune to misfortune. Your starting point depends on lots of variables you can’t control. Things like childhood disease, height, looks, birth defects, family wealth, intelligence, sexuality, athleticism, gender, type of parents, race, neighborhood, etc.
Though I was born in the “sh*thole country” of Ukraine, it wasn’t long after immigrating here that I realized I’d be stuck with this face, this body, and this hairline. I’d NEVER know what it’s like to get free drinks at the bar – or dunk on Lebron. And you’ll never know what it’s like to write such beautiful prose, crapping on MIT. Those are the breaks.
Even Bill Gates and the recently-departed Stephen Hawking were lottery winners. In many other eras, they would have been meals, not millionaires. They were lucky to be born in a time and place where fertile minds matter more than feeble bodies. (RIP, Stephen)
Talent is an extension of luck, but it must be developed, nurtured. It can be a blessing or a curse.
Sports are littered with underachievers. Athletes so talented, so physically gifted, they dominate every competitor early in life. They can get by on their gifts – until they face others with similar gifts, but also discipline and grit. Then they wither.
It’s not just sports.
Whitney Houston’s voice was a remarkable instrument. Jennifer Lopez can barely croak out a note. But whose life and career would you rather have? Talent withers in neglect…and sometimes, so does its keeper.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Name the three least-talented celebrities you know.
Here’s a secret about all of them: The fact you know their name means their focus and drive is well beyond anyone you’ve met. They persisted and made it against incredible odds – after others have long surrendered. Each one made themselves undeniable.
Even when luck plays a part, they wouldn’t stay famous more than a month without extraordinary effort.
My past articles have a healthy dusting of Kardashian jokes. Kim will be happy to know I’m here to repent.
On the surface, Kardashians’ success looks superficial, excessive and unearned. They don’t sing, dance, act, swallow swords – or do anything that technically qualifies as “entertainment”. They’re attractive, I suppose. But the world is full of hotter, younger women (and men) whose best day is scoring a free Tinder meal or a 40% tip from some hopeful sap.
Somehow, they turned a porn tape – something that could shame a family for life – into a massive enterprise.
Before you bust out that Nikon and call Ray-J, let’s dig a little deeper.
Beneath the makeup and booty pics, you’ll find a grueling schedule that would eat most of us alive. Nonstop filming, publicity, business meetings, travel, social media, and the occasional sex change.
Part of their Faustian bargain is surrendering all privacy. (Perhaps their ability to withstand crushing criticism from millions of detractors *is* their talent. It’s a Darwinian mutation that might someday rival the first fish that breathed air and crawled onshore.)
Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, for two years, they were 70+ year old Kardashians – with a work schedule that would devour people half their age. Same goes for countless self-made leaders, entrepreneurs, and creators. It’s why we know their names…and they don’t know ours.
While the goal isn’t always notoriety, it’s a good way to gauge the grueling outer limits of effort.
Superstar comedian and actor Kevin Hart says it best in his Twitter bio:
“My name is Kevin Hart and I WORK HARD!!! That pretty much sums me up!!! Everybody Wants To Be Famous But Nobody Wants To Do The Work”
all most. It can make unlucky, marginal talents soar above timid prodigies.
6. Control…of Luck?!?
What many don’t realize is luck is both an input and an output.
In the Universal Success Formula, luck is what you got; in real life, it’s what you made…up to a point.
Let’s say you KILL IT on your success formula. You make every effort imaginable to succeed, to maximize your luck and talent. Even then, you’ll rarely control more than 20% of what happens to you.
Depressing, right? All that work and you’re still not in charge!
But that 20% has a halo effect.
When others see you doing great work, networking, hustling, going the extra mile, you could influence another 20%.
That might mean a woman who once saw you speak at a conference thinks of you for a job at her firm. Or, Stephen Colbert’s talent booker stumbles onto the podcast you’ve meticulously crafted for years, in obscurity. Or, some rich guy sees your impromptu jam in the park and wants to hire you to play sax at his yacht party.
That second 20% is MANUFACTURED LUCK!! You put yourself out there – when nobody asked you to. You created more opportunities for luck to happen. It’s pure alchemy. It doubles your chances of success.
But the rest? The other 60%? It just happens. Even to the Kardashians.
Of course, there is one thing you can control in that 60% – how you react. Over time, that will be the difference between getting up to fight harder or giving up.
If you do give up, I know a professor in Sicily who’ll gently stroke your hair and whisper, “There, there, Giuseppe, it’s-a not-a your-a fault-a. It was-a just-a bad-a luck-a,” as you weep on his apron.
To put it all together…
7. Wealth is Not Linear
The last reason a talent-to-wealth ratio is ridiculous: it only applies to employees or those who earn money from direct labor.
Let’s say life starts to go your way. You start making enough to invest, acquire capital, hire employees, buy property – your money, people, and stuff make money while you sleep. Suddenly, you’re no longer on a linear curve, where wealth shadows talent, but on an EXPONENTIAL one.
BIG BUTS Cannot Lie
It’s true, that 60% of life is full of systemic challenges…
- Corporate consolidation is happening. That closes the door on most businesses that sell anything available at Amazon or Walmart. BUT plenty of startups have come up with advantages Amazon doesn’t have – delivery methods, complementary value-added services, selection, personalization. The door is not closed.
- Inequality/wealth concentration is real. While there’s more net class mobility, some are moving up the economic ladder, while others are sliding down. This absolutely needs to be addressed, BUT rich guys are dying to do something meaningful with their cash. They are funding all sorts of startups, causes, and businesses. You’d be crazy not to put yourself in a position to take advantage. But you can’t if your heart is full of disdain and resentment.
- Education is expensive, broken…and FREE. The best secondary schools are in prime neighborhoods – full of people who demand a better education system, but would murder you in a second if you suggested sharing their property taxes with poor school districts. College is also a mess. BUT education is FREE. Only certification is not. There are countless podcasts, cheap Udemy courses, how-to articles and YouTube videos that can make you an expert on anything – including getting to the right people. All you need is the discipline to seek it out and apply it.
- Healthcare is broken. BUT Stephen Hawking.
OK, enough. You get the idea. We can spend all day on excuses and systemic problems.
Everything is hard and always harder for some than for others. BUT focusing on that – and not on what you can control – IS DEFEAT. You’ll be long dead waiting for Bernie Sanders or some #hashtaghero to save you.
You can fight to change the system and use the system in your favor – at the same time. In fact, you’d be in a better position to help others with a safety net, record of accomplishments, and better connections. It’s why in an emergency, airlines have you put your mask on first – before helping your precious bambino. You’re useless to that cute little munchkin, if you’re dead. Ditto for your cause.
“What next, Smartass? How Do I Get Rich? I’m Brilliant!”
I don’t want to make a list.
I don’t want to make a list.
I don’t want to make a list.
I don’t want to make a list.
I made a f#$%^&* list:
- Define your success. What are your values, skills and aspirations? Where all three meet is your purpose. Then set a goal that matches. Whether it’s becoming the next Mother Theresa or Stormy Daniels, just be honest with yourself. I spent too many years chasing my parents’ dream. Don’t make the same mistake.
- Focus. Give your mission the attention it deserves. Eliminate everything else that doesn’t fit. It’s a distraction. I’ve learned those lessons the hard way. I bet you have, too.
- Whatever you choose – even if it involves a yach, Bacardi and a stupid amount of gold – you better help, entertain, or solve a problem for somebody else. That’s what will sustain your mission.
- You better KILL IT on the 20% you can directly control. Luck will follow.
- Take one step towards your goal each day. As Adam Carolla says, “If I told you to eat this phone book, you’d say you couldn’t. If I mixed a page in your smoothie each morning, eventually, you’d sh** out a phone book.”
- Keep getting up. The more kicks you take, the more goals you’ll score, even with a gimpy leg. As Zuck says, never stop shipping.
- When things don’t go your way, be honest with yourself. Before blaming others, bad luck, or all the invisible forms of victimhood for sale these days, first look within. Never stop asking yourself, “Did I do everything I could to make ____ a success?” and “What more could I have done?” Then make adjustments.
- Defeat defeatism. No matter what that loser with the sign says, 62% of American millionaires are self-made. Yes, there are obstacles. Yes, there are forces working against you, but never sit around focusing on them.
- Loser-ectomy. Immediately cut defeatists and haters out of your life. They’ll drag you down into their misery. (Yes, even I have to lay off the Kardashians.) Trying to cut successful people down, instead of raising yourself (and others) up, is nothing more than our personal shame externalized, a thin disguise for our failures and feelings of powerlessness. That fleeting, hollow moment of superiority isn’t worth it…or earned.
- Find people you trust, ones who are successful and perceptive. Get their feedback, advice and mentorship. Be in their circles. Success is more infectious than misery.
- Share this article! Let’s face it, if you got this far, you found this valuable, others will too.
A last word on luck…
As I reflect on my life, many things I once viewed as advantages, aren’t.
As a poor immigrant from the Soviet Union, I’d envy friends who had the latest video games or could buy Big Macs whenever they wanted. Today, I’d never trade my experience for theirs. I had to work that much harder to outrun poverty and awful hand-me-downs. They had no reason to run. Nothing to generate escape velocity. Now, I regularly cross paths with lots of rich people’s kids. Unless their parents instilled discipline and grit, many are aimless, do drugs, or simply dull and bored.
It’s pressure that makes diamonds, not a gentle breeze.
As tech makes life easier, we’ll have to work that much harder to make diamonds. You see that with successive generations after immigration. The fire in the belly gets extinguished. Though we should make sure people have basic needs covered, my youthful hunger feels a lot like luck today.
MIT and Sicily owe me an apology. They wasted a whole lot of my time writing this.
They ended their piece with “Clearly, more work is needed here. What are we waiting for?” 1) No there isn’t. And, 2) nothing.
Now, hand me the keys to your buildings, MIT. And one of those Elon Musk flamethrowers.