Greatness

What is it that best predicts success in life?  What makes a select few achieve that greatness that eludes most.

I’m reading this book Grit currently. It got me thinking about greatness. We see it in people (legends) around us. Steve Jobs had it. Walt Disney. Benjamin Franklin. Richard Branson. Darwin.. And the more you really study the innovators, the giftedthe greats, the more you get to see the truth – the immense discipline, will, perseverance, resilience, hard work, and grit that these achievers had/practiced, and the lower the innate talent/intelligence figures in the whole scheme of things. It’s worth talking about really.

One of the most important, and longest studies conducted has been the Stanford Marshmallow Study – it’s reasonably well known and widely published. In 1972, over 600 4-6 year olds were brought into a room free of distractions except for a marshmallow. They were told that they could eat the marshmallow right then but if they waited 15 minutes, they would be rewarded with 2 marshmallows. Roughly one-thirds of children were able to wait for the whole 15 minutes (most were able to wait for some part). Now here’s the interesting part. All these kids were tracked down years later. And guess what: the kids who had shown the best self-regulation ended up remarkably better in a multitude of factors including SAT scores (average of 210 points higher), better professional growth, lower reported problems with drug/alcohol abuse. Will power basically.

But having a strong will is simply not enough. As Paul Graham, in his excellent essay The Anatomy of Determination (I’d highly recommend to read this if you haven’t already), says:

Being strong-willed is not enough, however. You also have to be hard on yourself. Someone who was strong-willed but self-indulgent would not be called determined. Determination implies your willfulness is balanced by discipline.

What’s equally important? Having a growth mindset versus having a fixed mindset. But to really understand the concept of growth mindset, it is imperative to first understand the concept of compounding. One of the wisest legends of our times, Warren Buffett says:

“My wealth has come from a combination of living in America, some lucky genes, and compound interest.” 

It’s one of the most beautiful concepts around. Einstein called it the eighth wonder of the world. It’s worth looking into in case you’re not familiar with it, but in short even small differences over a stretched period of time when compounded produce outsized results. Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity. It’s there for everyone to see in financial markets – in the best funds which perform consistently (Berkshire Hathaway!). But compounding doesn’t stop at finance. It’s everywhere! More than ever – in our lives. Small changes in our routine, consistently and measurably, create outsized returns. This is the essence of growth mindset. There are people who believe that they can make themselves better through consistent efforts, and – more importantly – have the will and discipline to implement these in their routine taste far more success than others. You know who would the biggest proponent of growth mindset? Benjamin Franklin! He is remembered as a genius, a literary figure, an astute businessman, a scientist, inventor..(list goes on). But from pretty early on, he kept a daily diary which accounted for areas which needed improvement in his life, and – more importantly – kept a track of his progress in a very clear way. Growth mindset with awareness. Raw talent is always appreciated, but it hardly – if ever – takes one far. Also, it’s not intuitive (or maybe it is) but if you truly understand compounding, you’d also appreciate a long term vision rather than a short term fix/break (beautiful consistency over temporary spikes).

Strong will, determination, growth mindset and awareness will make you reasonably successful. The key word, though, is reasonably here. These traits are enough to make one good, but not enough to make one great. What separates mortals from the invincibles? It’s the perseverance to succeed, despite all odds. It’s the ability to understand how probability is all stacked against you, and still go ahead. It’s grit, basically. It’s funny, statistically speaking, 90% of startups fail, and so if you were a rational person, you would realize that starting up is almost always an irrational decision. And over a short-enough time horizon, it can always be proven to be true. Except that the greats don’t believe in a short-enough time horizon. Their resilience and perseverance doesn’t let them quite. Apple almost went down before it was brought back to where it is today. Amazon was written off at the start. Tesla was almost bankrupt and was saved by only a few hours. Every single startup that succeeds almost fails before it comes back. For a startup that becomes a behemoth – this cycle is amplified many times over. (Something to be noted here though – perseverance for the vision, and not for a particular strategy, as Bezos says, is key).

There’s a Japanese proverb that sums it best:

Fall seven times, stand up eight. 

Note: Ambition is, of course, a necessary but not a sufficient condition. 
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