When Success Blinds You to Failure

I’m not quite sure how else to describe this phenomenon, but I’ve seen it pop up at multiple times in my life. I’ve had experiences talking to people who are very successful in their industry. My hope had been to ask them for advice for how I could go about being as successful. But what I discovered in those conversations is that something happens to people in the process of becoming successful. They are no longer able to accurately see what it was like before they were successful: when they were just failures.

I don’t mean to write about “failures” like it’s a bad thing. For this post, consider “failure” the state of being “not fabulously successful.” So in that sense, almost all of us are failures. (Wow. This is starting off on a very bleak note. Sorry about that.) I also don’t mean to be critical of the people who are successful. They’re trying to give good, solid advice. It’s just that they no longer have the necessary frame of reference to be able to do that.

A good example that illustrates what I’m getting at comes from Arrested Development:

Lucille has become so separated from the day to day operations of her normal life that she can no longer accurately relate to problems too far removed from her. And yes, in this case, she’s a cold hearted wretch of a person, but the “$10 banana” issue comes up again and again.

Take this article from CNN today, where Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wonders why in the world furloughed government employees don’t just take out loans to cover their short term debts. There was an earlier anecdote about a White House official who wanted to look at the furlough like a long, paid vacation.

Yes, these people are tone deaf. But I also would like to believe they’re trying to see the world as accurately as they can. It’s just their frame of reference is so widely skewed from the reality of the people they’re trying to offer suggestions to that their suggestions come off as completely unhelpful.

If someone were to come to me today and ask for advice about how best to get started as a librarian, I don’t think I’d be the best person to give advice. I’d definitely do my best, but I’m now 12 years out from that time of my life. I’m a library director, and the things I have to focus on now are very different than what I needed to do when I was first applying for jobs. I think in this case that I’d still be able to give some good advice, but at the same time, I think the people who are trying to give advice in the examples above think they’re doing the same thing . . .

The fact is, success changes you. It changes the way you relate to money. Changes to how you relate to co-workers. Changes the way to how you relate to normal problems that crop up every day. And often all of those normal problems are the things that need to be tackled right off when you haven’t reached that “successful” level yet. Which is why advice from successful people can be really off.

Do I want to know what Bill Gates thinks about how to get ahead in life? Should I go to George Clooney to talk about how to get a break in the movie business? If you’re looking for practical advice, I’d suggest finding someone just a few rungs above you on the ladder. Someone who can give you concrete advice on how to navigate the next few steps.

Worry about getting to the top when it’s just a rung or two away.


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