Do nice people really finish last in the race for success?

  • Living
  • Sunday, 23 Oct 2016


Sometimes, as a largely unsuccessful person, I contemplate the nature of success.

Let me clarify this: I consider myself somewhat successful in that I can pay my bills, put food on the table and keep a roof over my head; but in large part, the greater goals I’ve tried to achieve have eluded me – and in that sense I don’t consider myself more or less successful than the average person.

But what is the nature of success?

That’s something people have been asking a long time.

Apple’s Steve Jobs has come into the spotlight through a plethora of films and books on his life, and the picture they paint isn’t pretty. A man who stepped on his best friend to get ahead, who stubbornly imposed his will whenever it suited his needs – at one point in one of the films, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak tells Jobs, “You can be successful and still be decent”.

But can you?

A lot has been said about being positive and well adjusted.

Indeed, growing up as an only child I would hate it, absolutely hate it, when my father beat me at chess, so much so that he eventually started to just let me win. Yes, I was spoiled. I needed to learn to accept loss and not cry about it like a little baby. I was not well adjusted. I was a brat.

I needed to mature and learn that failure was part of life. Losing was something that happened, and you needed to deal with it with grace.

And so I grew up. And matured. At least a little bit. And I accepted losing. And not being number one.

Then I watched a bunch of films on Jobs. A guy who refused to lose, even when he had, by all accounts, suffered tremendous losses. He wasn’t well adjusted. He may have been a genius with marketing and technology but he wasn’t very mature in other areas. Though he wore a black turtleneck and cultivated a sort of artsy hippy image, he was a staunch capitalist who didn’t see the need to support charities. And yet, people lit candles outside of Apple stores when he died from cancer in 2011.

Because like him or not, Jobs changed how we view technology and he was able to do that precisely because he didn’t accept losing, because he wasn’t well adjusted enough to shrug off defeats and say, oh well, and have a drink.

A professor from New York University says that being positive – which I’m connecting to being well adjusted – may actually hurt your ability to succeed. Professor of psychology Gabriele Oettinger states that a person’s energy actually drops when he or she generates positive fantasies of the future, like getting a job or, let’s say, creating the world’s first smartphone.

Oettinger says that when people fantasise about achieving their goals, their blood pressure and energy levels drop and they are more likely to not achieve anything. In her study, university students who fantasied about getting jobs were more likely to be unemployed than university students who were filled with “doubt and worry”.

The students more likely to be unemployed felt more accomplished and relaxed than their stressed out but ultimately more successful alumni. They’re more well adjusted. More mature. Not as successful but more well adjusted.

Back to my past: I became good at baseball precisely because I was awful at it. Then I refused to be bad any longer. In my typical spoiled, only-child manner, I got my father to take me out every day for years and throw baseballs at me so I could learn how to hit them. And I got better until I was making all-star teams and playing competitively.

So is the key to success being completely negative and neurotic?

That’s not so either.

It’s estimated that 80% of people – regardless of what culture or which country they live in – have an optimism bias. That is, they believe things will be better in the future than they have been in the past. Humans are an optimistic bunch, it seems.

And this optimism, this being well adjusted enough to be optimistic, is what helps people start out on the road to success. It has also been found that optimistic people live longer, perhaps because of a self-fulfilling prophecy – they believe they’ll live longer and take steps to be healthier. And because of that optimism they may find the strength to succeed in extremely dire circumstances.

It seems the key to being successful is being well adjusted enough to believe in yourself but also selfish and immature enough to want what you want no matter what happens.

I guess that’s what makes success so hard.

Catch Jason Godfrey on The LINK on Life Inspired (Astro B.yond Ch 728).

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