A few years ago, a college student posted the following question on Quora.
How can I become great like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Elon Musk? One of the people who answered the question was Justine Musk. She’s one of the few people that has had an inside look into what it’s like to be Elon Musk. This is a brief excerpt of what she said:
Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things. Extreme success is different from what I suppose you could just consider ‘success’, so know that you don’t have to be Richard or Elon to be affluent and accomplished and maintain a great lifestyle. Your odds of happiness are better that way.
But if you’re extreme, you must be what you are, which means that happiness is more or less beside the point. These people tend to be freaks and misfits who were forced to experience the world in an unusually challenging way. They developed strategies to survive, and as they grow older they find ways to apply these strategies to other things, and create for themselves a distinct and powerful advantage. They don’t think the way other people think. They see things from angles that unlock new ideas and insights. Other people consider them to be somewhat insane.
Her answer went viral, got picked up by many media outlets, and I interviewed her about the psychology of visionaries on The Unmistakable Creative.
In western culture, we place celebrities on pedestals. Our heroes are billionaires and cultural icons. You can’t pick up a self help book without reading their stories. They have set the standards and values by which we live our lives.
The pseudo celebrity culture of internet fame amplifies this leading to an increasing focus on resume values instead of eulogy values, and the feeling that unless you become the next Steve Jobs, Oprah, or Beyonce, you’ve failed. We read self help books, listen to interviews, and attend workshops in the hopes that we might become one of them.
Unless a million people buy you’re books, listen to your podcast, or read your blog, it’s not worth doing. Social media leads to endless comparison and envy, unrealistic expectations of ourselves and our lives, and a great deal of unhappiness.
Over the last year or two as podcasting has entered a golden age, I hear the same story over and over from various podcasters. A friend and I were talking about a popular podcaster who had the goal to become the next Oprah. When I asked that same friend about her goals for her podcast, she also referenced becoming Oprah. Tim Ferriss gets compared to Oprah.
But Oprah is already taken. With the fragmentation of the media landscape, the millions of options at your fingertips, even the producers of the show have more or less said there will never be another Oprah simply because the system is no longer set up to produce one. You’re not going to become the next Oprah.
The alternative, the one right at your fingertips is to seek out what Seth Godin calls “the smallest viable audience” and become the next best version of yourself.
Average at one thing but Extraordinary at another
At heart of the human potential movement is the underlying message that your potential isn’t limited, you’re not stuck with what you have, and you’re capable of anything. That’s of course complete bullshit. You are limited, incapable of plenty, and are stuck with certain parts of what you have.
In 7th grade, I had the genius idea of joining the football team. I lived in Texas, where football is a religion and 7th graders are the size of grown men. When the linemen did tackling drills, I got pushed back almost 20 yards. It looked like the scene from The Blindside where Michael Ohr pushes a kid right into the end zone and over the fence post.
At the same time, the band director suggested I switched instruments from the trombone to the tuba. He saw something in me, told me that I could make all-state band, and encouraged me to practice. He told me that I could be an average athlete or an extraordinary musician. So I practiced for 3 hours at a time from 7th grade through my junior year in high school. And I did make all-state band.
If I had put that same effort into playing football, it’s unlikely I would have made that kind of progress. I’m a scrawny Indian, who has almost no tolerance for physical pain, and probably wouldn’t last more than one series on a football field.
While telling kids they can be and do anything might be well intended encouragement, it could cause more harm than good. But that doesn’t mean we should tell them they suck. Instead, we should acknowledge natural limitations and encourage their natural strengths.
All of us are average at one thing and extraordinary at another. But when your goal is to become the next Steve Jobs, you might be blinded to whatever it is that makes you extraordinary and spend your life chasing what makes you average.
We Are Not All Created Equal
We come from unique circumstances, environments, and families. We are born with individual strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. Even two kids born in the same family will end up with different results.
My sister and I were both raised with a similar value system. We were encouraged to work hard and get good grades. We both got straight A’s in high school and got into Berkeley.
- She graduated with a high GPA from Berkeley, graduated with honors from medical school, was the chief anesthesiology resident at Yale, and finished a fellowship at UCLA. Needless to say, she’s extremely smart and good at what she does.
- I got terrible grades, couldn’t hold down a job for more than a year, got rejected from every business school I applied to, and ended up at Pepperdine because it was my only option.
Same genetics. Same parents. Same college. Drastically different results. Of course, the idea that we’re not all created equal isn’t that inspiring. It doesn’t help Nike sell more shoes or Kelloggs sell more cereal.
Why Outliers are Terrible Role Models
Every listener who heard Tim Ferriss’ interview with Lebron James could follow his diet and exercise regiment, read the books he’s read, and implement every single piece of advice he shared. It’s possible they might make it the NBA. But it’s not very probable.
One of the dangers of our obsession with celebrities and outliers is that it causes us to make decisions based on false hope and unlikely possibilities. One of the most eye opening conversations I’ve had about this on The Unmistakable Creative was with an old mentor. The section below is from our conversation. You can listen to our full interview here.
When anyone talked to Tiger Woods, it was inevitable he was going to become Tiger Woods. This exists with people like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Mother Theresa and Oprah. They are born that way.
These people are going to be successful and what happens is that they become the role models. I believe that’s dangerous because while they are models of success, they are not models of reality. They are role models for the majority of society, but what happens is that our view of success gets distorted.
Firstly, our idea of how to achieve success gets distorted and secondly, the ways in which we tell their stories by and large do not include the inherent abilities that they have. One example: Michael Phelps wins eight gold medals in a single Olympics. Why? Because he was born Michael Phelps.
They were born in a way that they are just going to win no matter what, so those people are not good models to follow for the rest of us.
What we should be doing is creating a safe environment in which we can be as vulnerable as we need to be, so that we can not only hold on to the possible, but increase our chances of achieving the probable.
We don’t create those environments for ourselves as a society, as governments, as businesses, or as a culture in America. We tend not to create vulnerable environments that allow us to be safe enough to be exposed and actually increase our probabilities of success. What we do instead is look at all these examples of people that don’t need that and we try to live like them.
What happens next is that we fail and we experience unnecessary suffering. We are unable to find the safe places to explore our vulnerabilities and our flaws, allowing ourselves to realize the fact that it’s not probable for us to be like them.
So what we do is we go to the safe places:
- The safe places are the motivational events ,the places where everyone else is pretending to be happy.
- The safe places are the internet, television, happy commercials, and all the things that allow us to avoid looking at the things that are not increasing our probability of success.
Because it’s very vulnerable and hard to expose what we don’t have. It’s only happening in the recesses of our own mind and that’s a very lonely place to be.
When you focus entirely on what’s possible, without considering what’s probable, we do ourselves a great disservice and chase pipe dreams. As David Heinemeier Hansson said, “You’re probably not going to make it to the top, so why put so much time into a fool’s errand?”
The Age of Perfectionism
Scroll through your Facebook newsfeed and you’ll get a highlight reel from people’s lives.
- The author whose books has done so well, it’s being translated into 10 languages.
- The travel blogger who is moving to another country.
- The fitness junkie whose ass looks amazing in yoga pants with advice on how yours can too.
Out of the above, the only on that’s not based on a real example is the third. But I wouldn’t have to look too hard to find a real example like this. I found these after looking for only 10 minutes, and most people use social media for far more than 10 minutes a day. And we wonder why social media makes us feel terrible. It is like getting completely shitfaced, smoking a pack of cigarettes, and snorting a line of blow and wondering why we woke up with a hangover.
Social media fuels envy, comparison, and anxiety in an age of perfectionism where you’re not just trying to keep up with Joneses, but strangers on the internet whose lives appears more interesting and glamorous than ours. We see the highlight reels of people’s lives and mistake the trailer for the movie. The trailer might have gotten people into the theaters, but it doesn’t change the fact that Waterworld was a terrible movie.
A Rigged Game and a Fool’s Errand
You can play a game in which you keep score, measure your life according to other people’s expectations and vanity metrics like fans and followers. You can measure your self esteem with metrics like bank balance, book sales, downloads and traffic to your web site. But this game is rigged for one simple reason: you’re always behind somebody else. The other alternative is to create and contribute out of the spotlight, for an audience of one, which might just cause you to reach an audience of millions.
When celebrities and billionaires are the primary role models in our culture, when internet fame is a career goal, and we measure our value in the dollars we earn, books we sell, and meaningless vanity metrics designed to keep us addicted to social networks, it’s worth asking ourselves a few things. We should ponder if we’ve lost our way, if our compass has led us astray from the eulogy values that matter towards the resume values that won’t when we’re gone.
I recently finished reading Robin Williams biography. By all accounts, he was a comedic genius. He accomplished more than most of us could dream of doing in a lifetime. He was rich, famous, and successful. And yet, he suffered a darkness that stood in stark contrast to the man who could make us laugh until we cry.
After his death, his friends and his family members didn’t talk about the awards he won, the movies he was in, or his prolific career. They spoke about his character, his heart, and the joy that he brought to all of us with his brilliance.
Do you want be remembered for the joy you brought, or the bullet points on your resume? The metrics you increased or the meaning you created? The size of your bank account or the size of your heart?
You’re not going to be the next Steve Jobs, Beyonce, or Oprah. Nor should you want to be. If your goal is to become the next version of someone else, you’re denying the world your unique gifts, and the next best version of yourself.