Everywhere in our culture, people exalt success. We elevate people who achieve even the smallest things to the top echelons of politics, arts, business and sport. Those in the midst of failure struggle in obscurity regardless of how important their contributions to overall progress. After all, failure is the best teacher.
Though it makes tons of sense for us to reward and celebrate success, it is actually counter-productive to the goal of progress. The central message of the success-reward cycle is that only achievement matters. For many reasons this is both untrue and terrible policy for society, culture and our kids. Together, I call these factors the Tyranny of Success:
Intrinsic Motivation – Extinguishment
High-achievers are generally very intrinsically motivated. This means they do what they do because they find it pleasurable and rewarding without compensation. Therefore, in pure economic terms, it is irrational to invest the spoils of success so greatly in the winners when they would likely do what they did regardless.
Of course, everyone likes receiving tangible benefits (and successful people deserve compensation for their risks), but this kind of extrinsic reward comes with some consequences. Research has shown that if you take someone with strong intrinsic motivation and begin to give them extrinsic rewards for that action, eventually the extrinsic incentives crowd out the internal motivation. Then, if the extrinsic rewards suddenly disappear, people who were once intrinsically motivated have a tendency to stop doing what they love.
This is called Extinguishment and it significantly retards our ability to innovate at all levels of society. If instead, the bulk of the rewards were spread out among all the “losers”, you would be using extrinsic rewards in the correct way: to incentivize desirable behavior that would otherwise cease happening. This is anathema to the US view of capitalism, but it nonetheless should be understood and acknowledged.
The Four Stages of Competence in a given skill are generally on a scale from unconscious incompetence (you’re not good at something but don’t know why) to unconscious competence (you are good at something but don’t need to actively think about how to do it). This management theory states that as people progress, they get better and better at the skill, develop “muscle memory” and can free up higher-order thinking for other tasks.
The downside of this dynamic is that people at the upper echelons of ability – the unconsciously competent – often have difficulty accepting new information, tend to make mistakes and are bad teachers because they are no longer able to access the path they took to achievement.
By over-emphasizing those who are most successful as role models, we lose collective knowledge of the process required to get to success. Those at the top echelons of their craft often rely on motivational pablum like “you just have to keep trying” as a cover for their lack of ability to access the true process they took to get there. Instead, we should be learning from those still working through their competence so we can share more of the real process.
In Capitalism the Prize is Baked In
Our economic model fundamentally bakes in a number of compensatory rewards for success and achievement. Concepts like Intellectual Property Rights, Rents, Annuities and Options each address a specific area of the economy’s connection to risk-reward. Especially as our economy becomes more “financialized”, and the expertise for creating new financial models is democratized, you can bet that those responsible for funding risk will ensure they are compensated.
But by adding an over-emphasis on success to every other aspect of the economy (media, social justice, planning, etc) we tend to add additional, unnecessary compensation to the winners at the expense of those still battling it out in the trenches.
Let’s use Kylie Jenner as an example. She parlayed her role on a successful reality show into a product, marketing and financial empire. The vehicle that enabled that progression is the media’s focus on the successful – a process that tends to feed itself. As a result, a relatively smaller and smaller number of people acquire a disproportionate amount of attention and wealth from an initial achievement that may have been entirely based on luck.
So much of our society’s emphasis is placed on getting to the finish line. This often robs people of the joy of the journey itself. Moreover, it contributes to a very serious mental health issue that has major negative consequences for many high-achieving people: the Arrival Fallacy.
This is the idea that happiness comes when you finally accomplish the things you set out to do. Research has shown that people who rely on achievement for their happiness are often even more unhappy than before. There are a number of potential reasons for this, including:
- Extrinsic rewards can be easily lost, as opposed to internal happiness which is less capricious
- If you vest an external force with your happiness and it doesn’t then produce the desired result, it’s easy to lose hope
- High-achieving people frequently move the goalposts
In the documentary about the finale of Game of Thrones (The Last Watch), Kit Harington (John Snow) is shown crying when the series wraps, asking himself “what will I be without this.” Days after the final episode aired, Harrington checked himself into rehab. Here is a person at the absolute top of their craft, the lead actor in a global phenomenon, who friends describe as having been “hit hard” by the ending.
Again, this highlights why an over-reliance on the outcomes over the process has negative consequences.
Pattern Recognition and Network Effects Exacerbate Inequality
Lastly, an overemphasis on success contributes strongly to inequality in our society. I believe this occurs for two reasons: pattern recognition and network effects – both of which work together to limit potential high-achievers.
When all you ever see in media is those who have succeeded, it can be hard for people of different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds or gender/sexual identities to see themselves in the example. This is a motivator for some, but a huge demotivator for the majority.
I remember speaking at a games industry event around 2005 and having a young guy come up to me who said “You don’t know me, but you are the reason I became a game developer.” He went on to tell me that as a teen he saw me on a panel as a young, openly gay videogame industry guy, and it left the lasting impression that “he too could follow his dreams.” We often call this paying it forward, but it also serves as a kind of network effect. If one person of a particular group or identity succeeds, they have a tendency to pull from their social circles and lift others like them, up.
Unfortunately, this same phenomenon has been used mostly to advance white male hegemony across a wide spectrum of endeavors. Rich white dudes tend to know other rich white dudes, and when they get the platform that successful people are given, they all too often lift up others like them. Breaking this cycle means also reconsidering how we think about achievement.
This is not a call to underachieve or a manifesto for making bad people feel better about themselves. Rather, I’ve compiled these concepts to show that in a culture where success is valued above everything – including the process of getting there, shared knowledge, equity and our mental health – success itself becomes a tool of oppression.
This applies to both high-achievers and less motivated folks. I believe that counteracting this with a positive Failosophy can produce huge dividends to humanity.