There is no formula for success.
Do you remember the telephone game? Somewhere around Kindergarten, many American children experience one of their first introductions to high-minded communications theory. The teacher leans down and whispers into the first student's ear a word or phrase. That student then whispers it into the ear of the next, and so on. The last student recites aloud what he heard for all to hear, and everyone learns that it bears no resemblance to the teacher's initial quote.
The standard takeaway from the above exercise is that people misunderstand, misconstrue and/or misquote information. Thus, as it travels through more conduits, the distortion to the original message is amplified.
That's one interpretation. The other is that each student accurately hears, accurately construes, and accurately quotes ACCORDING to his understanding. And, of course, each student's understanding is entirely unique, built upon his idiosyncratic experience. Maybe the final product is better than the original because it has been subjected to greater perspective.
That leaves us at a philosophical impasse. Some say that the human experience is similar enough from person to person that we can share truths, axioms, and even advice. Others, like Antoine Roquentin, argue that you cannot even get a solid understanding of your own individual reality.
Bill Gates while at Concordia College several weeks back fielded a question about dealing with success. To paraphrase, he said something along the lines of "you have to understand more than the next guy, and still be in the right place at the right time, and still wager your risk while others are somehow thwarted in their wagering of potentially the exact same risk." Frankly, it doesn't matter what exactly he said; because he's Bill Gates and his experience has nothing to do with yours. But isn't it interesting that one of the most capable, wealthiest, knowledgeable people ever still recognizes the nebulous X factor in its contribution toward success?
Sadly, X is a variable, not a constant. No matter what other constants we may find, agree upon, theorize about or determine as law, one variable throws the whole equation into variability. So, again, there is no formula for success. No reliable one anyway.
Your guru would say otherwise. That's what gurus do. They also accumulate followers based on a formula which is supposedly repeatable. The only problem is that no one has ever identically repeated a breakthrough. "Of course not," your guru might argue, "new breakthroughs will come from certain formulaic practices or talents." Those practices become the formula.
Ok. Consider practices or characteristics that gurus promise will make you rich in spirit or rich in pocketbook.
Ingenuity? There is nothing new under the sun. Hard work? No one worked harder than slaves. Determination? Fails in the face of catastrophe, even though it pridefully soldiers on against adversity.
Every hour another "how to be the best" article pops up on social media and major business forums and entrepreneurial websites. They aren't worth the paper they're printed on.
No one has a predictable model. There are great stories, in hindsight, about people like Thomas Edison or Mark Mathabane. But what if Edison never found a working filament? His stubborn faith in finding a working solution did get him there. But what if it hadn't? Edison is just one guy, who maybe simply lucked out, and that's why we tell his story. We haven't codified an Edison manual for success that predictably brings the follower irrevocably to eureka. Even the compelling story of Mark Mathabane doesn't provide a primer on pulling oneself up by his bootstraps. Mathabane's harrowing story is a beautiful and brilliant triumph of the human spirit. One human spirit.
Access was a prerequisite for all examples. If the examples didn't have access to certain information, materials, insights, technology or people, nothing else mattered. Imagine a Mark Zuckerberg two decades earlier. Unremarkable. Imagine a Steve Jobs in feudal Japan. Fallen on his sword in a rice field. Isaac Newton captured this concept in his immortal quote: If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Ready for a mind-bender? Newton did not come up with the metaphor within that quote.
Gurus and their devotees will consolidate success down to generalized essences, arguing that a Mark Zuckerberg would've simply created the Facebook equivalent in any environment. Not true. And what's the point of the argument anyway? If the definition of success is too explicit, it is easily disproven. If too general, it lacks importance. Either way, we're still without a guarantee or predictive model, which is the whole hope and value which drives our ears to a guru.
Gurus don't hold the keys to your success. They held the keys to a success. Theirs. Which has no resemblance to your life circumstances, your access, your resolve, your available tools. You do it on your terms.
Maybe it's talent? No.
Someone very close to me independently invented a "gearless"transmission in my high school physics class. He submitted the idea, without schematics, and prior to patent, as a bid simultaneously to GM and Ford. He never received a response. A few years later so-called continuously variable transmissions appeared in various models of cars. His first thought was that intellectual theft occurred. Later, he came to find out the concept had been around for at least 100 years. It was odd though, since major production vehicles never had CVTs until after his invention.
That same mind around the age of eight had come up with a working model of car brakes that recharge batteries during deceleration. Almost fifteen years later hybrid vehicles began using the technology. Since the public doesn't know about his ideas and he never collected a penny in royalties, do we tell his story as a success, failure or something else?
Another someone close to me was the quintessential entrepreneur, but tragic, not triumphant. We partnered in 2008 to begin a fitness franchise. He had built the obvious momentum for major success in many, many enterprises. With several viable multi-million dollar launches at the ready, a year ago he died of a spontaneous pulmonary embolism. An Ivy League college dropout, he constantly had his finger on the pulse of innovation in business, fitness and technology. A self-taught chemist who had built a laboratory where he created new polymers, he had his success story blotted out. After all, life is sort of the ultimate access.
The point is clear. There are uncontrollable variables in success. Innovation, brilliance, persistence and determination do not dictate the outcome. We have to let them be.
Moving on, what are the controllable constants?
Simon Sinek argues persuasively that THE constant is "the why." His Tedtalk includes strong illustrations to gird his theory; and honestly the presentation has some great points. Look at successful people, companies, movements, organizations and you will find a common thread of inside-out communication, Sinek claims. His juxtapositions appear to prove it true. When people begin with a strong, clear, genuine belief, their actions result in great results.
But, when testing it against other stories, the theory doesn't hold up. The prosecution submits into evidence Andrew Carnegie. Heck, consider every warlord who ever walked the earth. Their results came from "what" and "how" perhaps more often than "why."
Even success isn't success.
Shawn Achor's presentation of positive psychology challenges the debate at a different level. He argues that the answer lies in inverting the equation. That is, seek first fulfillment, and success will rain down. Battling for success will result in only impermanent enjoyment, because, after all, fulfillment for that accomplishment will be not much longer lived than the moment you made it. Achor points out that you always are stuck having to move on to the next challenge, putting happiness "beyond the cognitive horizon." That's a losing proposition. Instead, he says, seek fulfillment in and of itself, then success becomes automatic.
Achor is slick; but the keen eye will find he merely repackaged "instant success is wanting what you already have." If there's utility in it, then use it. But we're still without a template to get from A to B with endeavors for accomplishments.
Ultimately, your life experiences are 100% unique. This is why no one can just come along and sweep aside your deepest understandings about life, happiness, religion, ethics and death. No one can sweep your whole life aside. Professional debaters attempt to. They zero in on provisionally agreed-upon axioms, then disassemble in an attempt to drive you toward their interpretation or conclusions. But you can just always switch the axioms, because, after all, your experience is singularly your own.
Gurus are up against the same road block as the debaters. Their experiences and insights add very little to your experience, because you're only going to hear what you can hear, construe as you can construe and repeat as you can repeat. Thank your whole life for that.
None of this is meant to be a downer - just a wake up call that there exists no checklist to get you from where you are to where you want to be. Certainly, widen your access. Expand your tools. There are inspirational models of excellence, like "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." But carve your own path. Do not become the tribute band of your favorite guru.
That then just brings us back to the beginning: there is no formula for success. There isn't because there can't be. Each success is at least as unique as there are people who've ever lived. There is no way to condense or codify infinite uniqueness. It's a statistical paradox where your chances are 0% until you succeed, at which point your chance of success became 100%. When you hit a home run, look back and describe in hindsight. But remember that no one predicted it just so.
There is no formula for success; and that is why your guru sucks.