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The Crucial Thing Commencement Speakers Get Wrong About Success

As one writer sees it, social media and commencement speeches both leave us with grand narratives that can do more harm than good.

[Photo: Flickr user COD Newsroom]

In a speech at Singularity University a few years ago, Google founder Larry Page told a rapt audience that he evaluates prospective companies and entrepreneurs by a single metric: Asking them if what they’re working on is something that could "change the world."

It’s both an inspired way to look at things and a total cliché—which makes it remarkably similar to the type of advice that's passing around this time of year in university commencement speeches. The intention—Page's and most commencement speakers'—is noble: To lead each new generation of graduates to believe that success is out there waiting for them, if only they have a bold vision or some sweeping plan. The personal anecdotes that tend to follow (and fill the pages of just about every business book out there) all seem to vividly illustrate this idea.

The only problem is that these narratives about success are delusional and wrong. Here's why.

Almost No One Sets Out To Change The World, And Does

For starters, it isn't even true for Google. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were two Stanford PhDs working on their dissertations when they first got the idea for Google. It was only a while afterward, and somewhat accidentally, that Google wound up changing the world.

It’s not how YouTube was started, either. Its founders weren’t trying to disrupt or reinvent TV; they were trying to share funny video clips or maybe create a dating website. In fact, trying to "change the world" isn't the mission that most great things or successful people ever set out to fulfill.

It’s only our egos that lead us to craft these stories after the fact. And while they may be inspiring to hear, those narratives blind us to the traits that actually create success.

Less Destiny Than Doing

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has talked about this very temptation. He reminds himself that there was "no aha moment" for his billion­-dollar behemoth, no matter what he might read in his own press clippings. Instead, it was a matter of trying something, and then doubling down when it started to work. Losing sight of this much less sexy truth would actually deprive Amazon of its real power—in exchange for a dose of undeserved confidence in the sheer force of destiny.

In 1979, football coach Bill Walsh took over the San Francisco 49ers. The year before, the team was 2-14. His first season, they lost another 14 games. In just three years, though, Walsh took them to the Super Bowl—an inspiring, world-changing narrative.

Except that Walsh admits he had no plan to actually win this way—he hadn't set up a timetable for winning the Super Bowl, in three years or two or five or 11. The truth, instead, was that Wash had instilled what he's famously called a "standard of performance" for his players, knowing that if they observed it, "the score would take care of itself."

It just so happened that the score took care of itself sooner and more dramatically than anyone had expected, Walsh included—which is why he took such pains afterward to brush aside the "genius" label that the media, fans, and players foisted upon him.

Facing Down The Narrative Fallacy

Crafting stories out of past events and believing them is a very human impulse. Author Nassim Taleb calls it the "narrative fallacy" and explains that "narrativity causes us to see past events as more predictable, more expected, and less random than they actually were." Economist Tyler Cowen has observed that most people describe their lives as stories and journeys. But giving in to this temptation can be dangerous. Narratives often lead to an overly simplistic understanding of events, causes, and effects—and, often, to arrogance. It turns our lives into caricatures—while we still have to live them.

In a world saturated by social media, this is an especially tough idea to shake. Not only does every platform and medium urge you to tell a story, but they offer to weave them all into an exciting, digestible narrative for you (Snapchat stories, Facebook’s Year in Review, etc). They then encourage you to perform those stories for an audience in exchange for validation and a personal brand. As a result of being trained like this—relentlessly and mostly unconsciously—we start to think life should actually look this way, when in reality it’s much more messy.

Even in my own life, as someone who dropped out of college and found success early, I had to fight (both others and myself) against being typecast as a "prodigy" or a "wunderkind"—and against the idea that I was "going places" or on a hot streak. That had real, practical implications for my career; my last book was successful, so should I let my ego tell me that my new one is just the next chapter in an ever accelerating climb? Or should I approach it with humility and hustle and awareness, however comparatively more difficult that might be?

Forget Your Sweeping Vision

Instead of listening to inspiring speeches, aspiring creators and entrepreneurs should listen to investor Paul Graham, who explicitly warns startups against having bold, sweeping visions early on.

Of course, as a capitalist, Graham knows there's big money in changing the world. But he realizes that the "way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things." This squares pretty well with Walsh’s strategy—focus on maintaining a high standard of performance—rather than holding fast to a timetable or an ambitious end goal. Graham’s other famous piece of advice, "Keep your identity small," also fits well here. Make it about the work and the principles behind it—not a grand vision that makes for a good headline.

Ignore the temptation to believe in narratives, your own or other people’s. Because while narratives don’t change the past, they do have the power to impact our future, mostly for the worse. Say what you will about Google's achievements, but the company has now overreached several times in its attempts to "change the world": Google Wave. Google Plus. Google Glass. All huge failures, mostly because they weren’t launched like Google’s truly successful products—slowly, meticulously tested, without rapt public attention and massive amounts of marketing.

The same goes for us, whatever we do. When we're aspiring to anything, we need to resist the impulse to reverse-engineer success from other people’s stories. And then, when we achieve our own, we need to resist the desire to pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we’d planned.

In other words, instead of letting our egos create myths for and about ourselves, we should focus on the execution. Do that with excellence and humility, and you'll be likelier to succeed—even if you don't wind up afterward with a stirring tale to tell about it.


Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Ego Is the Enemy and three other books. His monthly reading recommendations, which go out to 50,000+ subscribers, can be found here.

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