What is it with everybody becoming famous all of a sudden? Is it me or is it that every time I turn on the TV there’s some celebrity on it and I have no idea who they are?
I’m fascinated by it, I mean – just who are these people?
Never before have we been able to see such meteoric rises of nobodies to somebodies who are able to attain significant wealth and status on the way.
Take Zoe Sugg aka Zoella. Zoella is a 25 year old YouTube vBlogger who started her channel 6 years ago and has over 7 million followers. As of 2015 her net worth is thought to stand at an incredible £3 million.
Or the boy band ‘One Direction’, just some guys that entered a singing contest and who are now officially the richest boy band in history – each of them worth £15 million!
I’ve flown fast jets now for 17 years but I don’t consider myself a success – maybe if I was an astronaut I might be?
Although it must be said that a lot of astronauts don’t think they’re successful either – it’s all about how you define success to yourself.
The truth is that we are constantly being told that it’s a level playing field out there and that, in this meritocratic society in which we live, if you have some bright ideas, maybe some tech skills – you could be insanely famous and wealthy.
But there is an issue with meritocracy, it doesn’t really exist. Philosopher Alain de Botton says that, for a meritocratic society to be real you have to believe that your position in life is deserved and caused by your actions alone.
‘The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.’ – Alain de Botton
It all sounds rather depressing to be honest…
Even those people who seem to shun the idea of wanting to be successful are only thinking about the sort of success they see in magazines or on the TV. If you ask these people if they desire success they will probably say no but will then finish the sentence by saying that they just want to be a great mum.
Each person has their own definition of what success means to them.
‘Success – The favourable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavours; the accomplishment of one’s goals.’
Now, whether the success you crave is material, financial, spiritual or maternal you do have to absolutely define what success means to you because it’s all too easy to just listen to other people’s versions.
‘And the thing about a successful life is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own.’ – Alain de Botton.
But as long as we tread carefully and build up slowly we can attain the success we deserve – we just need to watch out for some ‘gotchas’ on the way!
Recently, Russell Brand was on an Australian TV show where he said this about his own success.
‘We are told in our culture that it would be really good to be famous and rich and it is compared to being really, really poor – don’t get me wrong, I’m not hoping that someone is going to sling me back into Essex working in a factory, I don’t want to do that but the glistening spectacle, we know this now, does not nourish us in a real way so I was getting the things I thought I wanted as a kid and I was thinking… ‘this doesn’t work, why is this not working!’
But sometimes our innate desire to succeed can have disastrous consequences.
Just because it hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it won’t.
On 23 January 2003, a NASA flight director sent a message to the crew of the space shuttle Columbia stating that some foam had separated from the fuel tank on launch and had hit the shuttle’s wing.
‘We have seen this same phenomenon on several other flights and there is absolutely no concern for re-entry.’
Nine days later the shuttle disintegrated on its return to earth, the cause – super-heated air that had entered through the damaged wing.
For NASA, the decisions that day led to the deaths of 7 astronauts. How could an organisation, full of immensely successful people that had seen the problem many times before, have not paid due attention to it?
The phenomenon that caused the decisions that led to this disaster is called outcome bias.
As humans we have a tendency to ignore problems as long as things are going well. We are biased towards a positive successful outcome, especially if we’ve never encountered any problems before.
‘A decision based on the outcome of previous events without regard to how the past events developed.’ – Outcome Bias.
Any person in any walk of life can fall foul of this problem. In the NHS surgeons and senior consultants can allow themselves to make mistakes as they often fail to forecast potential failure points in advance. In military operating theatres in Afghanistan, often another surgeon would be required to be in attendance for an operation. This second surgeon would deal with the overview of the op as the lead surgeon was deemed to be too engaged with the detail of the surgery to do both.
So why is it that we tend to ignore the possibility of a poor or unsuccessful outcome and what does this have to do with our own success?
In 2012 Tali Sharot, of University College London, found a correlation between our tendencies towards unrealistic optimism and the dopamine levels in our brains. Sharot says that it has probably been advantageous from an evolutionary sense as it enhances motivation. ‘If you think you are more likely to succeed, you’re more likely to explore.’ She says.
‘Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.’ – Bill Gates
Another problem that might compound the issue is our ingrained tendency to conform.
There is a part of the brain called the ventromedical prefrontal cortex and it belongs to the reward centre, the part of the brain that lights up when we find something we want.
It also functions when we are told what others think.
The more that this part of the brain responds to information about a group’s opinion, the more someone will adjust their opinion in-line with the group’s.
This is called ‘group think’ and can be found in many everyday situations as well as in more dynamic ones.
Ever waited to cross the road in a crowd of people but you stood still, even when there was no traffic, just because everyone else remained still?
You were doing what the group was doing because you thought that those people couldn’t all be wrong. In unfamiliar situations group think can be advantageous to us such as when driving abroad or learning foreign customs – here we find it best to just ‘follow the crowd’.
But sometimes group think gets people killed.
Studies have shown that 70 percent of victims of a maritime accident are bewildered and have impaired reasoning, 15 percent exhibit irrational behaviours and only 15 percent stay calm and alert.
Many people die in shipping incidents because they just do not attempt to leave the ship – they stay with the crowd falsely believing that it is the safest place to be.
Paul Barney was a passenger who survived the sinking of the MS Estonia, a ferry which was crossing the Baltic Sea, en route from Estonia to Stockholm on 28 September 1994.
853 of his fellow passengers died.
‘People were either stunned around me, they didn’t move, they sat and didn’t move, or they evacuated and ran into the ship. Now, I knew that the middle of the ship, if there was any sort of degree of panic, would be the wrong place to go. And also, I didn’t know the way to lifeboats or anything like that. But it was obvious to me to work your way up the ship.’ – Paul Barney, survivor of the MS Estonia disaster.
There were many other factors that led to those passengers losing their lives but group think and ‘primal freeze’ were amongst them.
The problem that humans have when faced with a dangerous situation is that the stress hormone cortisol is released from our adrenal glands into the blood. This is a good thing as it gives our muscles energy in the form of glucose so that we can run away from Sabre-Toothed Tigers and other such baddies.
But it isn’t very good for our brains, in fact it takes away our working memory, the part that recalls how to do things – like remembering the abandonment drill on a ship, for example.
To be honest, in today’s world we probably don’t need to be able to run away from hungry tigers but we do need to remember complicated instructions – mental dexterity now being more important than physical prowess.
Cortisol doesn’t inhibit functional tasks like undoing a seatbelt or opening a car door, though – these tasks are ingrained, it’s the learned skills that it blocks out.
It is why pilots go through periodic emergency simulator training or special forces teams use ‘kill houses’ to practise hostage rescue. This training enables them to perform whilst their thought processes are in a heavily compromised and handicapped state.
So, group think is bad in dangerous situations but it can also hamper your efforts on the road to success and that is because…
The group is normally wrong.
This rule is based on the following criterion. If nine people all agree with something then it is a strong indication that they are probably right. The tenth person will dare not disagree with them unless he is completely sure that he is right.
Maybe the nine people are all subject experts, this is even more reason for the tenth person to have to be sure of themselves if they are to disagree. The more people agree and the more of an authority they are, the less likely you’ll find someone to disagree with them.
If you do, that person is either an idiot or is totally certain that he is right.
If the majority was right then Taylor Swift would be president by now!
But this majority rule can be used to your advantage in your quest for success and total world domination.
If you do what is normal in your industry or job, you’ll be doing what everybody is doing and you will get the same results as everybody else – average results.
Innovation, on the other hand, is where you get exceptional results.
‘If you do everything like common people then you will become only a common person, so the only thing is to become different and use a strange way to do things. Then you will succeed. I understand all the common people but I will try my best and do my utmost to exceed and surpass them.’ – Chinese business tycoon, Yuan Yafei.
Yuan Yafei, who owns Hamleys, House of Fraser and is worth £3.8bn, knows only too well that if you do what others do then you’ll get what others get – and for most people that is fine.
But not you.
‘The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.’ – Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Harmony is therefore overrated. So, when you hear the word ‘consensus,’ look at it as an opportunity to shake things up a little bit and do things differently.
So, our well planned attempts at becoming successful can be beset by problems. For a start we can be blinded by the success of others and find it hard to genuinely define what success truly means to us as an individual.
We often believe that everything will work out OK because we haven’t been exposed to failure yet. Without anticipating potential failure points or even just the fact that you will have setbacks you will be sailing into unchartered waters.
Be very careful of group think, especially in dangerous situations, but understand that if you do what everyone else does, you’ll get what everyone else gets.
Being different is called ‘innovating’.
So, if you are truly sure that you want to be as successful as you can be then you have to watch out for other people telling you it can’t be done; remember that the success you desire has to be the success that YOU want and not somebody else’s.
Define what success looks like to you, go out there and get it.