Rock stars are all around us. They don't shine in music only. They exist everywhere you look. Their light makes the world glow from the spotlight where they stand. It's from this spotlight we see them. The newspaper, the television and the social media beam lights from this very spotlight. After seeing these rock stars, isn't it easy to feel motivated? You can become one too? When we see a phenomenon, there's almost always more to the picture than meets the eye. When we fail to see the story behind the story, we tend to overestimate the story we actually see.
JK Rowling and Paulo Coelho are two of the biggest authors of our time. Their books sell in the millions. Behind every successful author there are hundreds who will never sell. You'll never notice their books. Behind every author who has published, there are tens of thousands who submitted a manuscript that was never accepted. Behind these authors there are two more groups. The first got their dreams off the ground. They started writing a manuscript, but got lost somewhere in the plot. The second group consists of dreamers. They have a wonderful plot in their mind, but that's where the story starts and that's where it ends. As we focus more and more on Rowling and Coelho, we tend to forget that they are the exceptions, not the rule. Successful people are the best among the set of good. Those who didn't succeed may not have been the best, but were certainly better than the good and the ones beneath them. When we see the best over and over again, we may over-appreciate their success.
Cult figures in one generation became legends in the next. Their stories of success became more and more romanticised. The human race has always had a natural love for success. Denying the agonies of failure, the sweetness of success has always thrilled us. This blind spot in our thinking also leads to another blind spot. Is success a result of hard work and talent or does success depend on luck? Apparently, it's both, but hard work does come first.
In experimental sciences, when many scientists examine the same phenomenon, some of the studies will be statistically significant through sheer coincidence. We tend to see these statistically significant studies more because they tend to draw the attention of the academia and the media. Other equally good studies may escape our attention. However, all the experiments required hard work to execute. A different, but similar bias can occur in another type of science.
Albert Einstein was a celebrated scientist of his time. He would give the impression of a mad genius who was one of the many phantoms who graced the Fine Hall of mathematics at Princeton University. You'd think Einstein knew the answer to every question. Indeed, he did know the answers to questions others struggled at, but finding answers did take time. His two articles on relativity that changed the face of theoretical physics were published in a time span of 11 years, between 1905 and 1916. If you still think Einstein was a genius, you're correct. If you think he emerged overnight, you're not thinking clearly. Success with Einstein and many others was not by coincidence, but from years of 'aradhana'.
A successful image is the one we notice. The ones behind it also repeatedly worked hard. The difference that separates them: some images succeed more than others. The many images that didn't attract our attention weren't failures. They were equally good. Each year the Nobel Committee declares a maximum of three candidates for each of its various genres. Think twice. There were many other bright academics on the short-list who didn't make it. We'll never know them, will we? One thing is clear, though. When you repeatedly do what you do, your act then becomes a habit. When it comes to success, there's always more to the picture than meets the eye.
Source: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. Sceptre Books. 2013.
Asrar Chowdhury teaches economic theory and game theory in the classroom. Outside he listens to music and BBC Radio; follows Test Cricket; and plays the flute. He can be reached at: email@example.com