Success stories have been a regular part of our culture and society since time immemorial. Though the term is relatively new, still I would count everything from heroic tales of David and Goliath, and Hercules to successful war campaign stories of Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon in this context.
Coming back to the modern times, we grew up listening to and reading about success stories of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, JK Rowling… and the list goes on and on. On one hand, it is absolutely natural to feel encouraged and motivated by the stories of people who, despite failures and unfavorable circumstances, catapulted their careers into success.
On the other hand though, comparing these stories with your own situation with a mindset of “if they can, so can I” may not work for you. Some of you may be wondering, “I don’t see the connection”. Well, to answer that, I have composed some of the most important reasons why you shouldn’t completely trust success stories. Let’s go through them one by one.
Every single person on earth has different circumstances than the other person. I have often heard students, who flunk in a subject or two, claim that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were college drop-outs, and still made a fortune for themselves.
What they forget to mention is that they were dropped out of Harvard, one of the most prestigious institutes of the world and that even to get in Harvard, you need to be a genius. Also, these people dropped college because they wanted to focus on their projects i.e. Microsoft and Facebook, respectively, and NOT because they lacked the ability to pursue a degree.
It’s not just these two guys, there are thousands of accomplished people who make the central character in a success story but they come from different educational, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds, factors that have high influence on their achievements.
Take JK Rowling for instance. She had a bad start in life, a single mom living out on the streets and ending up with suicidal thoughts. But then she tried her luck and became the creator of one of the most amazing and an all-time best seller children’s fantasy book. However, it doesn’t mean that if you are a single mom living shabbily and decide to write a book, you too will be successful, just because you have this one similar factor with the famous writer.
Of course, you can, and you MUST, take inspiration from her encouraging story. But to make it work, you need to work with your own circumstances. Rowling had several rejections from 12 different publishers until one finally decided to give her work a go. Who knows, maybe in your case your dad knows someone working in publishing house and your work gets picked up more quickly than that of Rowling’s.
The yardstick of success
Success is a relative term, meaning that if for one person establishing a company is a success, for you, it may be about selling all your brownies within an hour. However, the effect famous success stories often have on the readers is that it alters their yardstick of success into something almost too unrealistic.
Another idea that success stories unconsciously plant in the reader’s mind is that being the pioneer or trailblazer is the best approach to do things. Words like, “the first”, “the foremost”, “the youngest” or “the fastest” imply nothing but an invisible pressure of not just doing things but to do them more quickly than others so you may also make it to such a list.
It is difficult to know when to call your effort a success because the danger lies in its many definitions. People who adopt a misleading definition are at risk of working very hard to win the wrong race.
The prequel and the sequel
There are many elements of a success story that a reader tends to overlook. Whether it is about a successful individual or an enterprise, there is always a background story and a follow-up associated with it.
What I mean by sequel is quite aptly explained by Steven Johnson in the introductory video of his book Where Good Ideas Come From. He describes that successful ideas and endeavors don’t get created overnight, and that the product we see at the end is just the tip of a humongous iceberg of hunches, failed efforts, and collaborations.
He gives the example of Tim Burners Lee, the father of World Wide Web, who worked on this project for ten whole years, without any vision of what he is going to create, scrapping a number of ideas along the way, and collaborating his initial ideas with that of his peers.
Similarly, there is also a prequel or follow up story to every account of success, things that would tell the reader what happened to people or companies AFTER they achieved a great goal. For instance, in the world of entrepreneurship, securing hefty funding is considered to be a great success. However, a lot can happen to a company after it gets its first funding. Like if the founder and his team get booted out by their VC, would this still be considered an entrepreneurial success story?
Likewise, when a company makes it to Inc. magazine‘s list of 5000 fastest growing companies, it inevitably becomes a success story. However, according to The Kauffman Foundation’s report, only about 63% of Inc. 5000 companies continue to be in business five or more years after making it onto the list.
You can see now that adding the missing pieces to a success story can make it sound not so successful, but rather more realistic and relatable for the reader.
So, should we not trust success stories at all?
Success stories have the ability to inspire us, but perhaps are less able to guide our everyday actions. However, this does not mean that we cover our ears every time there is a success story being told. You need to be more vigilant and wise about what kind of impact you take from a certain success story.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not the first or the fastest in doing what you’re doing, what matters is that you do it the best way you can, and mark your own finish line on the path to success.
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