Success Is Not in the Struggle: The Real Story of Wildly Successful People

I’ve been giving a lot of thought this week to what constitutes “American values.” An organization I heard about on the radio was touting itself as an organization that stood for “American values,” and I had to pause and think about what that really meant.

In the context of this radical far-right organization, I don’t think its version of “American values” stood for anything I wanted to associate with, but as I was driving on a dirt road listening to a country song on Sunday, I really tried to put my finger on what it means to be American in the true sense of the word.

Patriotism brought up more than a feeling than anything else: long summer afternoons bleeding into long summer nights. John Deere tractors. Green, green grass. T-shirts and blue jeans. That earthy, muggy smell in the air that brings you back to when you were a kid.

American values are something different. To me, the values we share are freedom, self-determination, individualism, and the sort of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitude.

In our culture, we’ve been taught that life is supposed to be hard. The narrative of the American dream always includes a long period of hard work and struggle and heartbreak before success. We are taught that the struggle is the path to success.

But what if life isn’t meant to be that hard? I’m just testing a hypothesis here. Maybe we spend all this time pushing and forcing and striving and struggling thinking we are on the path to success when really we just haven’t found the path yet.

If you consider the rags-to-riches stories we are so familiar with in our culture, it sounds as though people just kept pushing and struggling until they finally got their big break. We tend to latch on to the parts about homelessness, rejection, abuse, and bankruptcy because it seems unbelievable that the wildly successful stars and businesspeople we know today could have ever experienced that level of adversity.

Everybody talks about how JK Rowling was on welfare; how Oprah suffered sexual and physical abuse as a child; how Jim Carrey lived in a van with his family after his father lost his job; how Steve Jobs slept on the floor of friends’ dorm rooms and returned Coke bottles for the five-cent deposit.

We spend so much time focusing on the struggle part of the American dream that we tend to miss the common themes that emerge over and over again in the stories of successful people:

  1. Many of them were doing what they became famous for from a very young age.
    • Oprah’s grandmother said she used to interview her corncob dolls and the crows on the fence of her family’s property. She began doing the news part time for the local black radio station when she was still in high school.
    • Walt Disney’s father sent him to drawing school at the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design every Saturday when he was a kid.
    • Henry Ford dismantled and reassembled a pocket watch when he was 15.
    • Ralph Lauren used to sell ties to his classmates to earn extra money.
  1. Usually, big breaks came after these stars and moguls made a serendipitous encounter with someone who was more connected or more knowledgeable.
    • Oprah moved from Baltimore to Chicago in 1983 to host a morning show on WLS-TV. Within a few months, the show went from being the station’s lowest rated to the highest-rated talk show in Chicago. Roger Ebert talked Oprah into syndicating the show, which was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” expanded to a full hour, and broadcast nationally.
    • After his first acting job, the vice president of Columbia told Harrison Ford that he didn’t have what it took to be an actor. Ford became a self-taught carpenter and met George Lucas when Lucas hired him to build cabinets in his home. Lucas hired him to read lines for actors he was casting in “Star Wars.” It was then that he decided to cast Ford as Han Solo.
    • Steve Jobs met Steve Wozniak when Jobs was in high school — mostly because he was unpopular and one of his friends introduced the two of them. Later, Jobs made a deal with Wozniak to help him with a project he was working on for Atari. (He actually screwed Wozniak over on the pay-out for this deal.) It was Wozniak who designed and developed the first Apple computer.
  1. Or they succeeded with a “fake it ’til you make it” approach — doing something they loved until they finally saw success. Or they simply refused to take “no” for an answer.
    • In the early days of Saatchi & Saatchi, Maurice and Charles Saatchi were having trouble landing large clients without a proven track record, so they would rent large office space and hire models to pose as staff to impress potential new clients.
    • Steven Spielberg was visiting Universal Studios when he met Chuck Silvers, who invited him to come back and visit sometime. Spielberg showed up the next day and confidently waved his way through security. He showed up every day that summer and hung out with directors — even though he didn’t work in the studio. He started squatting in an empty office and even put himself in the directory.

Now, I’m about to float an idea that’s wildly controversial here: Maybe success is not in the struggle. Maybe it doesn’t come from the pushing and the striving and the forcing. That’s not to say there’s no hard work involved — hard work is the job of wildly successful people. But to those who are doing what they were born to do, I don’t think it really feels like “work.”

In all these stories I read, many of these stars and businesspeople seemed to take the attitude that it was all just a game. They weren’t whining and feeling sorry for themselves. They were willing to do whatever it took to succeed because they knew that they were on the right path and they were determined to do what they loved.

To me, it seems that the struggle came just before these people found the path of least resistance. To Steven Spielberg, the path of least resistance was to just show up to where all the movers and shakers in Hollywood were hanging out. To Steve Jobs, the path of least resistance was to just hook up with someone who had the technical skills he lacked. To Charles and Maurice Saatchi, the easiest way to make potential clients think they were successful was to set the stage to look like success.

I think being in flow points us toward the path of least resistance. If it doesn’t feel like work — if it feels fun and almost effortless at times — then we are on the right path. Flow points us toward where we are aligned. And when we are aligned with the right work at the right time, the path in front of us will be made clear.

If my hypothesis is correct, then the American Dream needs an update. We need to stop focusing on the struggle and start focusing on the certainty — the certainty that this is what we were born to do. The certainty that if we keep moving in the right direction, either we’ll fake it ’til we make it, or we’ll meet someone who can help us advance to that next level.

So lean into what feels right. Let the confidence in who you are and what you were meant to do drive you forward. And don’t balk at doing things in a new way. Doing something that hasn’t been done before may very well be the path of least resistance.

Photo by Ahmet Yalçınkaya

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