Essays on Technology and Culture

The Magic Elixir of Success

The world is loaded with stories of people’s successes, either autobiographical or second-hand, and the supply barely keeps pace with demand. People are addicted to hearing success stories and endlessly study them for things they can do to ensure they succeed at some endeavor. Of course, a lot of people only see the easy tricks, and avoid the difficult ones. Hemingway wrote 500 words a day, but he also drank like a fish. The latter is the easier option, though you can quaff all the Papa Dobles you want, it won’t produce A Farewell to Arms unless you sit at the typewriter. Sober.

Technology companies, small and large, do the same thing. It’s easy to keep an eye on the competition and just duplicate the hot new feature, web design technique or monetization strategy that the hot new product on the market is using. “If it worked for them it will work for us” seems to be the line of thought. How many people think the potential costs of implementation through? When you’re chasing the right new feature or monetization technique, it can often become a distraction from the real, core product that people were interested in from the start.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in knowing what helped other people to succeed, but so many of the lessons boil down to simple, repeatable axioms: “Write every day,” “Cultivate multiple revenue streams,” “Focus on your key strengths.” These are all fine and dandy, but the key is in how you implement them. Success doesn’t come from just plucking other people’s good ideas out of context and mixing them into some sort of magic elixir that will guarantee you profitability. The piecemeal approach ignores the external factors that were the real reason something succeeded. It’s pure magical thinking to assume that what worked for Ernest Hemingway, or for Facebook will work for you.

It also ignores the countless failures that litter the path around us. There’s plenty more that we can learn from those who came before us, stumbled, and fell. Odds are, you’ll come up against the same problems. Knowing what happened can tell you what not to do, or at least prepare you for the inevitable choices you’ll have to make. Of course, the current environment doesn’t encourage stopping to poke around the corpses lying along the path. When the mantra is growth and profit at all costs, taking the time to figure out the right strategy costs time, and time is money—often someone else’s money in the tech world.

The people out there who are selling the reagents we mix into our magical elixirs of success are often the only ones who come out ahead. Better for us, as a whole, to stop worshipping the cult of emulating other people’s successes, and focus instead on improving the strategies we use to do the things that we want to be successful at. It takes trial and error. There are no shortcuts. It just takes a willingness to commit, be comfortable in the face of the unknown, and the confidence that the right decision will trump the fast decision.