the genuine path to success

The Hard Truth

This is not going to be one of those comforting, let’s-all-be-happy posts. Fair warning. If you’re already having a rough day, this is not the post to read. Probably a better idea to have a cup of sage-peppermint-barley tea, steeped for three hours on a north-facing window ledge while yellow-throated warblers chirp in the early morning sunshine.

What? You don’t have a north-facing window ledge? Then I’m afraid you’re doomed to depression for today, my friend, because it’s well known that when Gayle Rubin – who literally invented the book on happiness – was feeling depressed on March 22, 2012 after her grocer delivered the wrong kind of bread, she used exactly this technique to cheer her up.

Sage-peppermint-barley tea. That’s the ticket.

Or, you know, not.

Narrative Fallacy

Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story , a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness. – Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan

There are a lot of versions of the “narrative fallacy” out there, ranging from skeptics to cult followers, but most of us fit somewhere in the middle. Sometimes the narrative fallacy is in the form of some kind of talisman or token – I wear the watch I wear because it was a gift from my partner and because it makes me feel stylish. Of course, I still love my partner even without the watch, and it’s honestly not actually that stylish as watches go – it’s just quite shiny. What I’m really doing is a combination of narrative fallacy plus placebo effect to make my life better.

Frankly, I hope you can think of something in your life – maybe on your person, near you at this moment – that does the same thing. These are ways our brains have managed to evolve and cope with the hard, hard reality of an uncaring universe – “shield us from its randomness, as Taleb wrote.

The problem is that it can be taken too far.

It's better to be genuine you than a real something else.
No matter how long you wait, the Blue Fairy ain’t coming.

You Are Not Pinocchio

Remember the hearty little puppet who wanted nothing more than to be a “real boy”? Possibly the most horrific part of the fairy tale is the moment when the Blue Fairy dips her wand down and actually changes him into flesh-and-blood. There is some idea that he has proven his worth, that his bravery, learned honesty, and loyalty entitles him to “real” existence.

Nothing wrong with boys. Nor with bravery, learned honesty, or loyalty. There is, however, a problem with the idea that the two are connected. Why is an animated puppet that is brave, honest, and loyal not also worthy of respect, existence, acknowledgement?

But he wanted to be a real boy, Gray.

Yes, and did you ever think of why that was? Was it because he would be able to play more, or because he wanted to grow into a man? No, he wanted to be a real boy because then he thought his father would love him. All due respect to Gepetto, but if he loved his creation he needed to work on communicating unconditional love, because Pinocchio sure wasn’t feeling it.

This applies to our personal stories as well. If I have a better job, If I get that degree, When I fit back in those jeans, When I get that new iPhone, that’s when we’ll finally have arrived. It’s that land of milk and honey that’s just around the bend that keeps us going, striving, persevering. All of those are good things – this is a whole blog about personal development, after all – but there’s a problem with not realizing that who we are has worth too.

Everybody’s Faking It

It would be nice if Twyla Tharp’s creative habits were a magic bullet to choreographic fame. Or if following Ben Franklin’s schedule turned me into a noble statesman and philosopher. But there’s a problem with these kinds of shortcuts: they don’t work. Sure, they were part of what these people did or experienced on their road to their successes. But it’s important to remember two things:

  1. They likely didn’t realize when they did it that it would get them where they ended up.
  2. Even if they did, it’s likely that luck played more of a role in their success than any other factor.

Most of all, it’s important to remember that imitating them will not replicate their results. I recall a piano teacher who stressed how much practicing Mozart had done as a child whenever I would complain about practicing. Obviously, since I didn’t play as much, that’s why I’m not a world famous musician, yes? On the other hand, it also might be because I didn’t drink enough or frequent enough bordellos in my twenties. Or perhaps I didn’t put enough arsenic in my wig, or make enough friends among royalty…

Honestly, I think the truth is simply this: I’m not Mozart.It’s fine to be inspired by your heroes, to try things out to see how they work, but in the end you have to carve your own path to your own destiny. It may be similar to others, but you have to make it yours.

Sorry to burst the bubble of the Road to Success. It’s more a tangled path, I’m afraid. And there’s no guarantee that you or anyone else will make it further than you are already. Then again…if you’re reading this, odds are your life is filled with more opportunities and resources than most people in the world. Might I make a suggestion?

Don’t try to be real. You’re already there. So concentrate on being genuine, instead. Odds are that’s the real reason your hero succeeded – because they didn’t try to be anyone else.

It’s hard, sure. But it’s also fun.

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