Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Can You Reverse-Engineer Success?

The plethora of self-help books and success tomes demonstrate that the topic of success and how to achieve it is something that most of us are intensely interested in. However you happen to define success, chances are, you would like to find ways to increase it.

I was having a conversation a few days ago with my mother, and we were talking about goals and achieving them. Well, she mentioned this young girl from Thailand, who came from very difficult circumstances, but ended up with a scholarship to study abroad, and fulfill her dream of making a difference in the field of education, by being asked to participate in creating new education policy for her country. This is an impressive achievement, and of course, one tends to ask the question – what lessons can we learn from this? What did she do to achieve her success?
Well, since I haven’t met or spoken to this girl, I can only make vague conjectures. And this post isn’t about how to achieve what she did, or something similar. Instead, I am wondering if it is possible to reverse-engineer big goals? Sure, you can read any one of hundreds of books on how to become more successful, and they are mostly filled with very useful advice, such as increasing your skills, learning to speak in public, or learning how to be a more effective leader. Reading such books can help to become generally more successful, but would they help in achieving specific success?
This is a topic I think about a lot, as I am trying to pursue certain specific goals. And despite reading a lot about them, and acquiring a wide range of advice, I feel stymied and can show somewhat uncertain and dubious progress. This is also the case for some other people I know. On the other hand, plenty of people are obviously successful in many endeavors, so is it that my execution is simply poor? It is entirely possible of course. But I also think maybe there is something else to it as well.
Some years ago I read The Click Moment by Franz Johansson, and it made this point that even those who achieved incredible, once-in-a-lifetime success were many times unable to repeat their feats. That sometimes something just clicks, and we can't know in advance what that will be. His point was, just do a lot of stuff, keep throwing spaghetti at the wall, and something will stick. Take a lot of action, make a lot of art or start a lot of businesses, and you have a greater chance of one of those projects clicking.
For a while I was really obsessed by this idea. That we have no control over what will be successful. You have to admit that it's a more appealing idea than work for 10,000 hours, on one specific skill or set of skills, and then you will become a genius. If you abandon your skill, or need to change careers or whatever, too bad, you simply need to start over. Its compelling to think that there is no way to guarantee success, so it's not on me if I fail, it's not because I failed to put in my 10,000 hours. However, even though we cannot guarantee success with a formula, there is no doubt that the more you practice, the sharper your skill set, the more you bring to the table with each new project or opportunity that you are a part of. You make it that much easier for yourself to be successful. That's why, while I still appreciate the message of Johansson's book, I wouldn’t set too much store by it.
In my own career so far, with all its twists and turns and lack of meteoric upward mobility, one thing I have seen is that the combination of factors works well. You try to get good at whatever you are working on, and yet you don’t assume that skill alone will automatically guarantee the reception of your work. Some of the most amazing work-related experiences I have had, arose not from the fact that I was the best person for the job, but because a confluence of factors happened to move me towards a particular opportunity. While working on transitional justice and traditional human rights issues, I happened to help out a stressed-out and overworked colleague on a project she was involved with, in an area completely new to me. I read up on it, and helped her out with a tiny sliver of the project. That led to me being included in the project, getting to undertake the bulk of the research for it, and even write a small portion. I gained expertise in an entirely new field. This isn’t something that I could have predicted, or reverse-engineered. Sure, you might think (cynically) that that was my ulterior motive in offering help to my colleague in the first place. Although it wasn’t, there have been previous instances where I offered to help and either wasn’t taken up on the offer, or that assistance didn’t lead to anything further. In fact, in that same organization, this happened a few times. So I couldn’t really have predicted this.
This pattern has played out in many of the items in my CV that I am most proud of. Conferences that I attended, internships, published papers – most of this happened as a result of a chance comment, or a fleeting idea that I acted on. None of them were the result of a concerted plan of action, goals that I wrote down, or achievements that I actively pursued.
What lesson can you draw from this? The lesson that I learn from this is that it isn’t easy to pick a goal and figure out exactly how you will get there. Sure, if your goal involves you and no one else, that might be possible – such as deciding to write a book or run a marathon. You figure out the steps involved, and then execute them till you have completed the book or crossed the finish line. But where other people are involved, I don’t think it is as easy to predict outcomes. We can do our best to set goals, make plans and carry them out, but we don’t know how it will truly play out.
So if you're reading this, and hoping for a takeaway, what should you do? I suggest that you continue to make plans and take action as usual. However, don’t be completely wedded to those specific outcomes. Be willing to let the universe take you in a different direction. Be open to possibilities. And encourage those possibilities by trying new things, doing more projects, reaching out to more people. If you get a whimsical idea, follow it up if it can be done in a reasonable time frame. Talk about your dreams with someone who is the last person you ever thought could help you achieve them; you never know, they might be just the one with the right contacts. Remember that the world is complex and beautiful, and it continues to surprise us every single day with its wealth of possibility and richness. Watch out for serendipity, and you never know what might happen!

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