What does it take to be successful? You probably got it all wrong

My dad always told me when I was in the school that hard work, knowledge and expertise will make me successful in life. Which dad does not want his kids to be successful? I am sure that most dads will have some mantra for success that they tell their kids, like my dad had his mantra, hard work, knowledge and expertise. 

I almost believed him though I was not willing to put in the amount of hard work he wanted me to put in. Which kid wants to put in so much hard work in studies when there are so many other exciting things to do? 

What does it take to be successful?  I ask this question to clients and participants of our Leadership Development Interventions. Mostly I get answers like talent, intelligence, hard work, education and expertise and sometimes people also say it is luck. So nothing much has changed since my dad advising me Forty years ago.  I am sure you have heard the same advice from your parents and probably have given same advice to your children. Managers and leaders say the same thing to their colleagues. 

The underlying unspoken assumption behind these parental and managerial advice and our belief about what creates success, is that success is an individual matter and every person succeed or fail based on his or her individual efforts and abilities. 

Our rags to riches stories are all about sheer individual effort, expertise and action.  And no wonder we loved Ann Rand novels and philosophy, at least I did as a teenager. “To say “I love you” one must know first how to say the “I”.”  When I read Fountain Head by Ann Rand, I loved this quote and it made so much sense to me as a teenager. 

Again the underlying assumption was that success is an individual matter and life is all about independence, self-reliance, self-sufficiency and self-interest. And we also coined the term, “self-made’ man or woman. “Self-made man” is a classic phrase coined around 1842 in United States to describe individuals whose success lay within the individuals themselves, not with outside conditions. A lot of people secretly and sometimes openly believe and admit that they are self-made. This makes perfect sense when the underlying assumption is that success is an individual matter. 

I now believe that Individualism is a myth. Success is social and it depends on our relationship with others. Our strengths, competencies and efforts that we usually link to success is actually a social phenomenon that could be understood from a lens of Social networks we form and social networks we are part of . 

It is our social relationships and networks that really influence our success.  I am sure  that the concept “success is social”  is difficult to accept easily. Then let me ask you a question, how did you get your  current job? Through an advertisement or through your social network? It is  a fact that most people find  a job through personal networks than through any other means. 

In 1992 I met Sharad Gaur in Bhutan when I was doing a short stint with an organisation called Royal Society for Protection of Nature(RSPN), in Thimphu.  Sharad was there on an official visit from WWF(Worldwide Fund for Nature), India, where he headed the Environmental Education Department. He was impressed with the environmental education work I was doing with students and teachers of Bhutan. In 1994, I was in Delhi after leaving Bhutan looking for a job in a city that is literally strange and new to me. When I visited WWF India office in Delhi,  I met Sharad and when he came to know that I am looking for a job he mentioned that he possibly would have an opportunity. Within a month I was working with WWF India in the headquarters in Delhi. 

The  US small business association through several surveys found that 75% of the start-ups gets their funding through informal investing grapevine, the social network of capital seekers and investors.   Actually most of the workplace learning also happens through informal social interactions not through formal training programs. 

Think about the current COVID-19 crisis in India. It is the social networks and relationships, in other words the social capital that is helping people not the formal structure of government. We are reaching out to our network for a hospital bed, oxygen cylinder and medicines. 

Society, and Organizations are not just the sum total of individual expertise and effort but interconnected networked social systems where our network and relationships contribute more to our success than our individual expertise. 

So Individualism is  a myth. Now you might think what are the implications for you and your Organisation then?

First thing is to understand the Organisation and our society from a new lens, the connected and networked social system lens where our  relationships and social fabric contribute to success our success not just individual expertise. The good news is that we can now understand the networked organisation through an Organisational 

Network Analysis(ONA). 

Organisational  network analysis can help both organisations and individuals to understand the social capital- the aggregated value of connections between individuals and the norms of reciprocity developed from the network. 

So we might have really relook and rewrite our rags to riches stories focusing on the social networks and social capital, rather than attributing success to sheer individual ability and efforts . 

Because individualism is a myth . 
So you might want to look at your Organisation as  networked, adaptive system and first step towards understanding your organisation as a network is to do an Organisation Network Analysis

One thought on “What does it take to be successful? You probably got it all wrong

  1. My answer was collaboration to your question. This needs to start in schools where we are always putting students against students and teachers against teachers. Unhealthy competition all the time.
    Enjoyed reading the blog.

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