End of December last year, I was flying from Nigeria to South Africa. While waiting in line at the Emigration terminal to be stamped and ‘checked out’, an idea struck me and I did something that had just recently become a habit – I took notes on my blackberry. I do that a lot, sometimes ideas hit me and I have to capture them somewhere…the blackberry is handy for this. Sometimes I sit and meditate and the insights that come to me would end up going into ‘my notes’ on the phone. I go through those many notes now and again to revisit ideas, thoughts, plans, and to check the list of people who owe me money.

Anyway, this specific evening I wrote this:

The Success recipe (for lack of a better title :Skill, idea, luck (environment), network, passion, flexibility, money skill, leadership, management, execution…

This note would eventually inspire me writing the Success Potion piece in January. I think it’s a great piece, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, but that’s just me. Anyway, my point is the thing about success…

Actually success is not a good enough term because success is subjective. It’s most objective and its simplest meaning would be the achievement of predefined goals/objectives. But success is subjective because everyone has to define what success means to them. For the purpose of this blog post, I’m focusing on outstanding success, with large scale social significance. I’m equating being successful to doing something big and impactful. Things like building the most popular and game changing social network, or attaining worldwide fame as an artiste, or maybe gracing the pages of magazines as a hero, entrepreneur, model, or “insert your fantasy here”. I am talking about outlier success.

I think about outlier success a lot, I fantasize about it, I want it. I read about it, I study it. I plot it. As a society, we love to study success, or at least admire it. Our books and magazines herald the stories of mavericks, innovators, world champions in every facet of life. The assumption for most of us is if we can understand and glean some of the tricks, insights and actions of this people, we can replicate this success in our own lives. But over the past 16 months, I learnt a few things about outlier success. The thing about outlier success…is that so much of it is outside your control.

You can have all the ingredients, you can be hardworking, visionary, driven, passionate, determined, skilled with all resources at hand, and yet 75% of it is really dumb luck. The earliest and most basic level we observe luck is birth. Birth is the ultimate lottery. We didn’t choose to be born and be conscious at a certain time, at a certain place (at least we don’t remember choosing). One day we just burst into self awareness to find we are a little boy born to architect parents in Benin City, Nigeria in the late 80s. The ‘prize’ in the lottery of birth is not privilege and wealth (although those are nice). It’s the right set of circumstance. The environment we grow into, the people that influence us, the occurrences that shape our psyche, our interests and eventually our actions.

I’ve been reading the book, ‘The Facebook Effect’ by David Kirkpatrick. It gives a lot of perspective to an almost magical product/company. Mark Zuckerberg had been fascinated with computers and programming since childhood. He is extremely intelligent; he had been creating mini ‘social’ projects at Harvard which eventually sparked up the idea for what we know now as Facebook. He was born at the right time, to the right people, he was in a perfect situation – in a densely packed environment of incredibly talented, intelligent, driven individuals at Harvard. He was in a school where social vanity and prominence was important to people. He started developing an idea in an age where broadband internet, digital cameras were freely accessible – key ingredients for success. He had help from other entrepreneurs and people with networks in Silicon Valley. Mark had plenty talent, put in a lot of work, but he was also very lucky. His wasn’t the first social network by a long shot. But Facebook had the very crucial set of circumstances surrounded it that took it from a dorm room project to a global multibillion dollar business.

The book, ‘Outlier’ by Malcom Gladwell investigates outlier success and argues how environment, and nurture plays a huge role in fostering such success, from Bill Gates to why Asians are so good at math. At the end of the day, it all boils down to statistics, there are infinite possibilities, outliers are bound to precipitate.

So what now, for those of us hoping to be superstars, world famous entrepreneurs, inventors, world changers and so on. Do we just twiddle our thumbs waiting for lady luck to smile on us? Do we work our asses off and try to create our luck…you know the quote – ‘the harder I worked, the luckier I got’. I don’t really know, but I do have some ideas on how to bend the odds in our favour:

  1. Follow your passion: I’ve written about this a few times, everyone talks about it. It’s sound advice though. Follow your passion, work hard at it, put in your 10 000 hours and the possibility of you changing the world exponentially increases.
  2. Be you, Do you: Everyone else is taken. You can admire people and learn from them, but you cannot be them. Don’t try to be the next anybody…just be you. Love yourself, develop yourself, be honest to yourself, be the best you, you can be. Play your role.
  3. Know your values: Know what your values are. What rings truest to you. What is most important to you, and align your life to that. If your highest values are relationships and family, don’t go chasing 80 hour work weeks and career mania. Create the life that has the most meaning for you, not a life with the most toys or accolades.
  4. Know thyself/change thyself: Analyse yourself, observe yourself as objectively and critically as you can. Know why you behave the way you do, trace your beliefs, identify your life patterns, insolate the things that hold you back. Then let them go. Change, evolve, become better. Be the best you.
  5. Know your environment: What is your story? Where do you come from? Look at your background, your family, your present state. Look at the age you are in. What opportunities are hidden in plain view? Exploit them.
  6. Study successful people not success stories: I find it more useful to study the person behind the success as opposed to the story of how they succeeded. We tend to use success stories as templates to define our plans of actions towards outlier success. Justin Bieber was scouted off YouTube, so I’m going to post videos of myself singing on YouTube…that sort of thing. Understanding the psyche of the person behind the success gives us deep insight into how to be the kind of person that succeeds. And being trumps doing anytime. You can take the lessons you learn and make them personal.
  7. Expose yourself to as much randomness as possible: Like I said earlier, it’s a statistics game, the more randomness you expose yourself to, the more people you meet, the more things you try, something great is bound to crop up at some point. Somewhere the stars will align.
  8. Fail as much as you can: and then study your failure. Failure is great, and you need to rack up as much as you possibly can. Use the feedback from your failures to tweak your strategies and plans until you do succeed. Fail as much as you can.
  9. Do it for you and do it for them: Whatever you are passionate about, do it for the sheer pleasure of it first. Sing, design, build companies because it makes you happy, not to impress anyone. Do it so that if no one ever acknowledged your efforts, it would make no difference to you. But also do it to benefit someone else. Provide value in your work.
  10. Stay clear eyed. Be paranoid, be critical, be contemptuous. Understand that success always has a dark side. And when you get what you seek, it will cost you something. You can trade free time for camera time, friends and family for fake yes men and groupies. Be prepared for it, know what you are getting yourself into or abandon your quest all together.

“It goes without saying what an empty misguided emotion jealousy can be. But it’s a little more difficult to consider that we’ve been aspiring to wrap ourselves up in chains. That we seem to think that achieving more and moving higher is to take a step towards freedom instead of what it really is: a different, but likely smaller cage.”


–          Ryan Holiday (The ties that bind)

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