The One Weird Key to Success

This is kind of not strictly game-related, but whatever.  I've been reading stuff on Quora for a while, and posting a bit, and one thing that comes up again and again, not just on Quora but on almost every site where aspiring entrepreneurs are asking folks things, a question you see again and again and again is:

What is the key to success?

And I find it to be an immensely frustrating question. Because I understand why people ask it. If only there was this one thing that folks didn't know, I can know it, and be assured of success. Or I know that I deserve success, but I'm missing something, and if only I can find that thing, I'll be set.

So let me answer that for you. There is no key to success. There is no sign that someone will be successful. You can make an argument that there are character traits that make someone more or less likely to succeed, but here's a harsh truth about the world:

You can do all the right things and still lose.

You can work harder than everyone else. You can be smarter than everyone else. You can have a brilliant idea at just the right time and fail on execution. You can have a brilliant idea and execute flawlessly at exactly the wrong time. You can be born into privilege and totally blow it. You can work tirelessly to move up the ladder of the American Dream and be stuck at the first rung. Forever.

Failure is not a referendum on character.

Success is not a referendum on character.

Successful people want it to be, because they want their success to mean something. They want to feel like their success came because they were better than other people. But if you're not blinded by your own ego, you already understand the truth. Hard work, brilliant ideas, charisma, preparation - all those things make success more likely if circumstances align. But more often than not, circumstances don't align. And you fail.

And you want to know why. You want to know what you could do differently to make sure that next time is a success. And there's nothing you can do to make sure that next time is a success. The only thing you can ensure is that there is a next time.

One saying that goes around is that winners win because they keep trying until they succeed. It's usually framed as something that sounds more like "losers quit", and I think that's a pretty awful way of framing it. It's a truism anyway. Your keys are always in the last place you look, because when you find your keys you stop looking. Success comes from not quitting because those people didn't quit until they succeeded? That's utterly useless as advice.

Here's the thing. I do have advice. But it's not easy. It's not a key, or a secret, or a one weird trick.

  • Love what you do. If you are lucky enough to be able to work in a field that you are genuinely passionate about, you're going to do better than someone that is dispassionate. Or even someone who is highly motivated, but mercenary. If you love what you do, you will be able to understand it better than everyone else. And you won't quit just because it gets hard. Many people simply aren't able to do something they love to sustain themselves and should not follow this advice. If you're privileged enough to be able to, though, it helps.
  • Build a great team. This does not mean "build a team of exceptional individuals". This means build a great team. A group of people that makes each individual better. Where people are safe to try bold things without fear. Where ideas bounce from person to person and gain energy, instead of being shot down. I believe that this is the number one skill an entrepreneur should have, and one reason that I think it is much easier to be an entrepreneur later, after you've established wonderful working relationships with lots of immensely talented people.
  • Learn to Adapt. You will not be able to not make mistakes. You will not be able to get everything right. Very little of your plan will survive intact. The market will change. The platform will change. People on your team will have emergencies. You will have emergencies. Your personal life will not conveniently do what you want it to while you focus on the work. You cannot control these things, and trying to is stressful and pointless. Instead, you have to learn to adapt. Everything about your business has to be able to react to new information, and move as quickly as possible.
  • Plan for failure. I don't mean that you should want to fail. I mean that you will most likely fail. And if you've blown all your time, or all your money, on trying to get that one release just right, you are dead. So don't be dead. Don't assume you'll get it right. Sure, you've heard of that company that put all their eggs in one basket and hit it out of the park the first time, right? What a great story. But you didn't hear about all the companies that did that and failed. That's why this seems like a good plan. But it's not. If your goal is to survive (and that should be your number one goal, whatever a VC tells you (because they don't actually care about your survival unless you're on track to be a unicorn)), then you must give yourselves room to screw up, and at least at a high level, understand what you're going to do to try again if your plans completely fall apart.

The long and short of it is this; The key to success is to be an expert in a field that you're passionate about, build a team whose dynamic improves the product exponentially over an individual's "vision", create the ability to take risks, make mistakes, and try again. As efficiently (for both time and money) as possible.

Oh. That doesn't sound like a quick and easy fix?

That's correct.