Three Keys to Success

This isn’t a normal physics post. In fact, I don’t think there will be any physics in this at all. Instead, I am writing a note for my oldest daughter. She is getting close to college-age so there are some important things she should understand. Maybe this will be useful for others, so here it is.

You are getting ready for next step in learning—going to college. But where should you go? What should you study? Really, I have no idea about that. What I do want to address is the following statement from you.

I got a letter from University of ABC, and I think that’s pretty cool. However, I’m not sure I could be successful there. It seems out of my league.

Hopefully you noticed that I made up the name of the university—I don’t want to offend anyone for not mentioning their favorite institution. Ok, but I want to address the issue of success. Although that can be something difficult to measure, you still want to be successful. Here are the three things that really matter when you start something new.

1. Your Starting Point

This is a little sad, but unfortunately true. The best way to be successful is to start off as successful. Sure, we don’t want it to be this way. We want this to be the land of opportunity where everyone has a chance to do great things. But that’s just not true. If you don’t have access to affordable higher education, what will you do? What if you have to work at a full time job at the same time you are taking classes? Do you think you will learn as much as someone that focusses just on the class? Finally, what if you go to an exclusive university and make some connections with very influential people?

I’m not saying that we have to change this system, but it’s important to know what you are dealing with. You need to know the rules of the game. You also need to know that some people are successful for reasons that are out of your control. You can’t do anything about where you start in this game, you just have to start.

2. Luck

Sometimes in sports the ball will take a lucky (or unlucky) bounce and this can be the deciding factor in a crucial game. It happens—ok, there are some sports that don’t have balls, but you know what I mean. Luck can be both good or bad, but it’s there.

Luck can be a big part of your success—and the best thing is to acknowledge the luck-factor. How about an example? I really enjoyed my time as the science advisor for MythBusters. It was a great opportunity and I think I made significant contributions. The same is true for my science role in MacGyver. But is it possible that someone else could have done this job and maybe even been better at it than me? Absolutely. The truth is that there was an element of luck that got my into both of these projects—and that’s ok to admit.

There will undoubtedly be cases in the future that don’t end up in your favor. That’s also ok. Don’t worry about it. Just keep moving on and doing what you do. You can’t control luck—if you could it would be called something else.

3. Talent

Now we are at the part that most people think of that leads to success. But what is talent? Let me give a few examples:

  • Playing a piano or some other musical instrument.
  • Writing.
  • Mathematical talent.
  • Computer programming.
  • Fixing things.
  • Athletic abilities.
  • Determination.

Of course you could come up with some more (like nunchuck skills) if your favorite talent isn’t listed. Also, you might argue that some of these talents are really just luck based on the way your were born. Ok, that also might be true but I am not going to say that. If it was only about luck, what would be the point of trying?

But I don’t want to talk about how your talents make you successful. I know that you have talents, there is no question about that. However, there will be times when you don’t succeed in spite of being talented—and that’s ok. Really, the problem is with people who have never failed. Without failing, we don’t grow as humans. So yes, failure sucks—but it’s not the end (well, not usually).

Perhaps the most important thing to take from this is to be brave. Don’t worry too much about the future—it’s going to happen whether you want it to or not (unless one of your talents is the ability to control time). Don’t be afraid to try new things and don’t stop something for fear of failure. Just keep moving forward. It’s what we humans do.

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