Since an early age, we have all been given advice about how to succeed at life. The most frequently given advice falls into these broad categories: study hard, get a good job, get married, start a family, etc.
School has little to do with students, grades have little to do with learning, employment and income have something to do with quality of life, and marriages all-to-often end in divorce.
What is success, and why do we expend so much energy asking people for advice on how to be successful?
Your Advice, Please?
Advice, as a concrete item that we seek and desire, has progressively become one of the most nebulous, confusing topics in my mind. Walk with me as I describe my thought process.
We should first consider the act of requesting and receiving the advice – the telling of stories. What is understood may not be what is heard, is frequently not what was said, and possibly not what was meant.
As the words that we heard are echoing in our mind, we also need to understand the vantage point of the advice-giver before we let the words crystallize. We frequently do not. Occasionally, we are simply waiting for someone to stop talking so we can say what we are holding in our mind.
The person you are talking to is telling you what they would tell themselves, but from the perspective that is uniquely theirs. Their advice is made of their memories, experiences, and heuristics. Heuristics are a hazard, since we frequently seek advice on complex topics.
(One conclusion about hearing advice that you don't agree with: when someone tells you that you can't do something, they are actually admitting that they cannot do that thing!)
After the advice becomes solid in your mind, you may feel an emotional reaction. Your feelings are out of context, because we are unable to evaluate reality objectively. Your first impression of something is not my first impression of something.
If individual advice about success is too individualized, then what does the group say? Society defines success by results. Despite this, consider that most individuals feel successful when they have overcome some struggle, internal or external.
The gap between internal and external success can be enormous. Someone with little struggle, making many mistakes, may still produce results easily. Someone who struggles constantly due to their circumstances, making no mistakes, may fail to produce results.
As I wrote last weekend, there is an increasing shift toward measurable results and away from feeling; this is a perfect progression for a world of increasing automation that increasingly does not serve individual well-being.
Does it really make sense at all, then, to solicit other people for advice on how to be successful?
But wait; asking for advice has more complexity than just an individual's ideas:
Data science is all the rage in social media, the Internet of Things, smartphone apps, etc. As this connected technology continues to develop, our thoughts and behaviors are manipulated without our knowledge or consent. And as it goes, the advice that you receive will also have been manipulated.
Considering the damage already done and the prospect of success [continually] defined by corporations as throwing people and planet under the bus while pursuing profit at all costs, there should be an emergency brake somewhere. Several countries are already deploying social controls openly, defining what a successful citizen looks like.
We have no such regulatory department or emergency brake over here. Instead, we have big tech lobbying for laws to allow them to exploit first and explain later (but only if they are caught manipulating you). Stateside tech giants have been just as aggressive as those abroad, but they are working covertly.
That “take this quiz to find out which Disney princess you are” on social media is simply the concealed construction of a personality profile for you. It gives big tech more data about you for the purpose of controlling your behavior.
So, let's take them for a spin. Go ahead and search for “the meaning of success” – I'll wait for you to get back here.
Depending on the search engine that you used, you were either given results that were the most popular, or you were given what an algorithm thought that you (and only you) would want to see.
This is behavioral economics applied at a real-time, individualized, and personalized level. If you believe that you are not affected, I would encourage you to unplug from everything for a week or more to notice the difference. By design, we are incapable of perceiving an objective reality. You need to change your reality to see the difference.
The problem is that many of us, at an individual level trying to understand ourselves as individuals, have jobs that require us to be connected constantly.
There is no emergency brake in sight.
Let's go back to step one of the generic advice I recited in the introduction.
If this is bad advice, what alternative could be better? Don't study? Drop out of school? Study less? Strike?
Let's pull apart this advice to understand the activity, the purpose, and the expectation. I like to view life as a realm of probabilities and possibilities, and we can start pinning ideas about each of those three things on those two spectrums.
Studying conveys an act of learning. Nowadays, assessments upon assessments are all the rage, frequently leading to cramming. What mood is most frequently felt during cramming? Anxiety? Fear? Worry? Dazed feelings as a student struggles to stay awake?
Neuroscience has learned that neural connections form the strongest during exposure to stimuli in the presence of a more-or-less precise amount of dopamine, usually corresponding to when skills and challenges are in equal balance. (There are other neurotransmitters at play, but dopamine is the dominating factor as of this writing.) Put simply, the happier you are on an appropriate task, the more your brain physically changes, corresponding to learning and development.
It seems, then, that studying hard is not a key to success in learning. The overarching problem, unfortunately, is a systemic one: school does not value mistakes and flaws. In the correct context, mistakes are extremely valuable and a catalyst for personal growth. However, the system in place has no connection between happiness and mistakes. Mistakes are even frowned upon; why else do we consider 100% the perfect score, with every mistake as a deduction.
Continuing to dissect this, it seems that something even more fundamental is at play. We are lacking happiness as an essential element of learning. On one hand, I can understand this. How to be happy is learned, hard work, and not taught. It is an immeasurable. But on the other hand, it requires an environment that fosters and prizes happiness. Because of these two, it cannot be part of any standard school curriculum.
Well, this is a rather unexpected twist. One conclusion is that it is very likely that being happy, especially about mistakes, is more important to learning than studying hard. The system encourages neither.
Well, dear reader, your homework is to continue my style of analysis as it applies to your life, career, and relationships. Nobody is qualified to give you advice, and a search engine will likely tell you what you want to hear. Your life is for you to discover: it is the process, not the results.
(This blog is focused on education, technology, environment, and humanity. It is not intended to provide career or relationship advice!)
The question posed in the introduction asked why we expend so much energy asking for advice on how to be successful. The answer, quite simply, is that society's definition of success is mismatched with human needs.
We all seek something that cannot be found where we are commonly told to look.
I even wrote about this from a career perspective long ago; if your company has a pyramid structure, their goal is to make you as interchangeable as a cog in a machine.
The divergence between what society is told to prize and what individuals need to feel happy will only continue as technology becomes more invasive. Doctors are prescribing time in nature, disconnected from tech, for good reason.
Do you want my universal advice?
Let me borrow a quote from someone much wiser than me: “Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain.”
See you next week!
Ty is a Founder of Shift Sight, LLC.