Is there any way to actually guarantee success? In business? In art? In life?
Some say we need to learn from the past. While others say it’s all about looking forward. But one theory suggests that none of that works.
In fact, there is absolutely no way to guarantee success in anything we do.
Back in 1977, Harvard-trained psychologist Keith Simonton developed a theory on the potential impact of any new scientific paper, that suggested:
“The average publication of any particular scientist does not have any statistically different chance of having more of an impact than any other scientist’s average publication.”
In other words, there’s no real way to predict the impact or success of any new piece of work.
Sounds depressing, doesn’t it?
If we all have the same chances, why work so hard?
However, there’s an interesting side effect of Simonton’s theory—one that may be the key to unlocking our creative potential.
If the odds are the same, the only way to ensure any sort of success is just to get busy.
Creating. And creating a lot. Is the only true way to be successful.
Creative ideas show up when you show up
In the face of the Equal Odds Rule, the only thing that matters is persistence and steady work. Meaning there’s a lot of creative karma gained from just getting to it.
Explore almost any creative field and you’ll hear this refrain of ‘just do the work’.
There’s Composer Peter Tchaikovsky:
“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”
And writer Isabel Allende:
“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
Or maybe my favorite from The Legend of Bagger Vance writer Steven Pressfield:
“When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”
In his book The war of art, Pressfield categorizes all of the things that get in the way of us just sitting down and working as the ‘resistance’.
Every time we procrastinate, give up, or quit a project when it gets hard, or even decide to go to a party or watch a show instead of working, that’s ‘resistance’ getting in the way.
To Pressfield, resistance is this almost mythological force with the only goal of keeping things as they currently are.
And our only way to beat resistance? Persistence.
When Simonton started to examine the lives of creative geniuses he found two key personality traits that were pretty much universal for anyone who had created multiple works of impact:
- They take on and immerse themselves in a lot of different projects at the same time
- They work. All the time.
In fact, when it comes to innovation, Simonton found that there was an almost Darwinian quality to coming up with good ideas.
“The quality of creative ideas,” Simonton writes, “is a positive function of quantity“. Or as writer and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman describes it in Scientific American:
“The more ideas creators generate (regardless of the quality of each idea), the greater the chances they would produce an eventual masterpiece.”
For a clear example of this process in action, we have to look no further than the advertising world. In a Reddit post, a former copywriter at advertising giant Ogilvy describes a industrial-level idea generating process they use called ‘scamping’:
“The trick is to think as little as possible, and work as fast as possible. You’ll probably start out with some dumb ideas. That’s fine. The goal is to bounce from one dumb idea, to a less dumb idea, and so on. You’ll soon find nuggets within these dumb ideas, and start building upon them. Personally, I wouldn’t stop until I’d gone through an entire stack, which would take about two hours.
“Once you’re finished, it’s simply a process of elimination. Go back through all your ideas and start sorting them into two piles: good and bad. Once you’ve done that, take the good pile and sort them again by good and better. Keep doing this until you’ve narrowed it down to five ideas.”
When it comes to coming up with good ideas, quantity is often a prerequisite for quality.
Persistence, grit, and actually getting the work done
It’s all well and good to talk about being persistent and working with Herculean effort, but how do we get ourselves to that state of mind? If we have no guarantees, how do we keep ourselves motivated when the work gets tough? (And it always does.)
The problem with the Equal Odds rule is that it destroys any sort of outside motivation. There simply is no way to know that the work you do will have any impact.
So, instead, we need to turn inside.
In order to keep doing the work, our motivation has to be internal.
Consultant-turned-school teacher Angela Duckworth calls this quality grit, and suggests that it’s the number one predictor of future success in anyone.
At 27, Angela left her consultant job to teach middle school math in the New York public school system. While there, she noticed how it was rarely the children with the highest IQ who scored well on tests.
Which left her with one burning question: What if doing well in school and in life depends on more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?
When Angela left her teaching position and returned to grad school to become a psychologist, she tried to answer that question, visiting West Point Military School to try and predict who would drop out. Or visiting the national spelling bee to try and predict who would go furthest. Or even partnering with private companies to see if they could tell which salesperson would go on to sell the most and earn the most money.
What she found was that in all of those varying situations, one characteristic emerged: Grit.
Grit, as Angela describes it, is “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” It’s having stamina and sticking with your vision of the future, day-in, day-out, not just for the week or month, but for years.
She also found that, in order the develop this level of grit, we need to have what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset—one where we believe that learning is a life-long endeavour and, even more importantly, that failure isn’t a permanent condition.
Just like the Darwinian process of creating ideas that Simonton says is necessary for innovation, to make those ideas a reality, we need to be willing to stick with them, even when things don’t go how we’d like.
In author Elizabeth Gilbert‘s latest book, Big Magic: Creative living beyond fear, she talks about the positive and dynamic environment at her publishers, and how it all comes down to a statement their CEO makes before meetings: “You will never get in trouble in this organization for failing, as long as you fail in increasingly interesting ways.”
Failing in interesting ways really just means being open to experimentation—to working on things outside of our comfort zone without fear of repercussions if things don’t pan out.
Or, as Srinivaos Rao, host of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast, explains it, you have to be willing to create garbage.
The freedom to fail is what will eventually make you look like an overnight success.
As Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, explains: success is partially luck…
“but I like to say that timing, perseverance, and 10 years of really hard work will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”
Failure is just a stepping stone on the way to greatness
The best creative minds and innovators don’t just succeed right away. Hell, they don’t even succeed consistently.
All of us face at least the prospect of failure every single day. And time and time again we see that those who succeed are the ones who are willing to toss the coin in the air and let it land where it may (you probably have better odds in a coin toss than in the creative world).
Think about Woody Allen. The acclaimed director, screenwriting, and comedian has made more films than most of us have seen—one a year for the past several decades. But who remembers Hollywood Ending? His 2002 super flop about a blind Hollywood director?
Or Ernest Hemingway, who’s oft-quoted statement of writing “one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” can inspire all of us to create garbage in search of greatness.
Thomas Edison—one of the greatest inventors of all time—had roughly a one-third rejection rate for all the patents he led. Even among the 1,093 patents he did get accepted, most went nowhere. In fact, the number of truly extraordinary creative feats he achieved can probably be counted on one hand.
Then there’s musician Jonathan Mann, who’s written and recorded a song a day for more than 2500 days (that’s a song every day for more than 7 years). And while many are in the garbage realm, his consistency has led to appearances at TED and on CNN and Anderson Cooper Live.
Or Paul Erdos, the eccentric mathematician you’ve probably never heard of who published over 1,500 articles and papers in his career and partnered with more than 500 collaborators.
In everything from music to writing to math, persistence and grit are the only real ways to beat the odds and create something with impact.
So what’s freeing about having no better chance than anyone else at creating something meaningful?
If we’re all starting with the same odds, then the odds are never stacked against us. We all have an equal chance to create something that matters in this world.
If anything, this perspective should be a call to arms to create. To continue to build your body of work and share what you’re created with the world. Good or bad.
Lead image by Thomas Lefebvre on Unsplash.