There are two extreme and opposing views on success.
One the one hand, you have those that think unsuccessful people deserve their sorry state because they are lazy and lack focus; and that the wealthy, famous and happy among us are entitled to their success because they have earned it through pure determination and good work ethic. Not surprisingly, most of those who hold to this view are already successful.
The other view is that family money, dumb luck and connections are the main drivers of success. Again, not surprisingly, that view is particularly popular among the poor and less accomplished members of society.
Thomas Corley’s book, Rich Habits; The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals, has an interesting statistic that summarizes well these opposing worldviews.
When asked whether good habits or luck played a more important role in creating opportunity, 84% of the wealthy believe good habits create opportunity, while only 4% of the poor feel good habits are the determining factors of opportunity.
A classic example of people who preach the work ethic route to success with evangelic zeal is Morgan Freeman. When interviewed by Don Lemon on CNN on the subject of income inequality he was asked whether he thought race had anything to do with inequality. He answered:
“Today? No… You and I, we’re proof. ‘Why would race have anything to do with it?’ he added. ‘Put your mind to what you want to do and go for that. It’s kind of like religion to me—it’s a good excuse for not getting there.’”
I mostly agree with Freeman. After all, the whole purpose of this article is to make a strong case for perseverance and hard work as drivers of success. However, to say that race, gender, the old boy network or being born into money have no effect on income inequality is naïve and disingenuous, and flies in the face of countless studies. But don’t be too hard on Freeman, according to research by social psychologist Paul Piff, narcissism and psychological entitlement are a side effect of being wealthy.
I don’t care if rich and famous people think they are entitled to their success and that everyone could be just like them if only put their mind to it and worked hard. They are not actually hurting anybody and if it makes them feel extra special, so be it.
However, when you believe that success is just a product of blind luck and corruption and that only those with family wealth and connections can be successful you’re not only wrong, you’re also holding on to a belief that is destructive because it breeds complacency and pessimism.
So here is my case for hard work and perseverance as keys to success.
The Odds Are Stacked Against Success
Whether you’re talking about finding the perfect spouse, getting a big role in Hollywood, or starting the next billion-dollar business, the odds of actually achieving your goal are, to put it kindly, slim. So you better be ready to fail plenty of times if you want to have a chance of succeeding.
Take for example venture capital investments. Venture capital companies are run by highly trained, wealthy and well-connected people who make a living from investing money in promising businesses. Yet, according to a recent research by Shikhar Ghosh, a lecturer at Harvard Business School, three out of four startups backed by venture-capital fail. His research was based on 2000 companies that received at least $1 million between 2004 and 2010.
If even venture capitalists, with all their wealth and influence, fail most of the time, perseverance and hard work must be an important factor to success for the less privileged.
Grit as A Predictor For Success
It’s not only big time successes, like becoming a billionaire or a world celebrity, that are difficult to attain. Even modest successes like raising a functional family, keeping a job, staying out of debt, saving enough for a comfortable retirement, just or graduating from high school are challenges that have ridiculously high failure rates. What predicts who will succeed and who will fail?
According to research at the University of Pennsylvania, grit and self-control are the best predictors of success. Researchers performed longitudinal studies on West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee participants, U.S. Special Forces candidates, novice teachers at tough schools, and graduation rates at inner-city Chicago high schools and found that grit and self-control, not IQ, SAT scores or physical fitness, were the best predictors of success. They also found that grit correlates closely with lifetime educational and career achievement.
So what is grit? Grit is the tendency to sustain interest and work hard toward long-term goals. It is strongly linked to self-control, because it often involves controlling your emotions and avoiding behaviors that would provide immediate gratification but would jeopardize your ultimate objective. It’s not surprising that people who are willing to forego short-term benefits for a long-term goal are more successful.
Many successful people, such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jackie Chan and oil magnate T. Boone Pickens, aren’t great fans of inherited wealth because they feel hard work and learning how to struggle and overcome failures are key to achieving true success. That is why they (and many others) don’t plan on leaving much, if anything at all, to their children.
As Jackie Chan famously said to a Channel NewsASIA reporter, “If he [his son] is capable, he can make his own money. If he is not, then he will just be wasting my money.”
Good Habits As Products of Grit and Drivers of Success
Eating healthily, lifelong learning and exercising regularly are just a few examples of good habits that require grit and are good predictors of success. Thomas Corley’s book, Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals lists many good habits that correlate closely with success in business. His research is mainly limited to his clients, he is a little quick to equate correlation with causation, and many of his conclusions are just common sense, but some of the examples do illustrate the importance of perseverance and hard work. Here are my favorites:
– 70% of wealthy eat less than 300 junk food calories per day. 97% of poor people eat more than 300 junk food calories per day.
– 23% of wealthy gamble. 52% of poor people gamble.
– 88% of wealthy read 30 minutes or more each day for education or career reasons vs 2% for poor.
– 86% of wealthy love to read vs. 26% for poor.
– 80% of wealthy are focused on accomplishing some single goal. Only 12% of the poor do this.
– 67% of wealthy watch 1 hour or less of TV every day vs. 23% for poor
– 6% of wealthy watch reality TV vs. 78% for poor.
So there you have it. Just avoid junk food, don’t gamble, exercise and read daily, obsess on a single goal, and avoid watching too much TV – particularly reality TV – and you will be on the road to a life of bliss and success.
The Bottom Line
The rich and privileged have an unfair advantage over the rest of us. Just like those of us who were born in developed countries have a huge and unfair advantage over most of those born in developing nations.
Get over it already. Work hard, expect to fail most of the time, and show some grit. It will not make the world any fairer, but it will go a hell of a long way toward improving your chances of success.