Here are five stories from five different people that reveal the mindsets of the most successful among us.
You Always Have a Choice
Ursula Burns was raised by her single mother in the projects of New York in the 1960s and ‘70s. Back in those days, she was born with three strikes against her: she was black, poor, and female. Life would be hard.
Her mother scrimped and saved and worked extra jobs just to provide for Ursula and her siblings, but more importantly she constantly reminded them that where they were right now didn’t have to define them for the rest of their lives. They always had a choice. They could do the best with what they had.
Ursula worked her ass off. She stayed on top of her studies and got into engineering school at the Brooklyn Polytechnic School, which was, not surprisingly, made up almost entirely of white affluent men. She soon realized she had a lot of catching up to do, both academically and socially. She was an outsider in every sense of the word.
But somehow, she graduated from engineering school and worked her way up to become the CEO of Xerox, managing to turn the once-flailing company back to profitability. She also served as the head of the STEM Education Coalition under President Obama, and has been on the boards of some of the world’s largest companies, including Exxon Mobil, Uber, and VEON, the world’s 10th largest telecom company.
Inspired by her mother’s encouragement, Burns developed early in life what psychologists call a “growth mindset,” which is essentially just the belief that one has a certain degree of personal influence over their life.
Contrast this with a “fixed mindset,” which is the belief that you have little to no control over your life.
The truth is, there are things in life you can control and things you can’t.
You have absolutely no control over where you were born, your biological sex, how rich or poor your family is, what color your skin is, how tall you are, etc. These things do matter and they will obviously impact your life in major ways.
But while you may not be to blame for your situation, you are always responsible for your situation.
It wasn’t Ursula’s fault that she was born into a poor family. But instead of defining herself as poor and being a victim of her own circumstances, she turned that on its head and let her story inspire her life. She owned her scars and wore them openly instead of using them as an excuse to not even try.
Similarly, it’s not your fault if you were born poor or fat or prone to mental illness. But it is your responsibility to figure out how to deal with your situation.
No one else can heal your emotional wounds but you. No one else can fix your toxic relationship with money but you. No one else can lose that weight for you. No one else can make that person fall in love with you.
That isn’t to say you have to do it all by yourself. You should seek out help if you need it, hire a trainer if you can afford it, and get financial help when your luck is down. But for better or worse, at the end of the day, it’s all on you.
You have been/will be handed some real turds in life. You will have some advantages over others, some of which you earned and others you didn’t. Dwelling for too long on either of these will only lead you down the fixed-mindset rabbit hole at some point, and that’s a miserable hole to be in.
Adopt a Bias Towards Action
Chuck Close’s father died when he was eleven-years-old. As a teenager, he was told not to even think about going to college. He had several learning disabilities and couldn’t even add or subtract. His teachers told him trade school would be his only hope since he was pretty good with his hands. But he also suffered from a neuromuscular disorder that limited his mobility, so even that was iffy.
Today, Chuck Close is an internationally-renowned painter and graphic artist whose work hangs on some of the most famous walls in the world.
That would be amazing enough on its own, given his early life hardships, but what’s even more remarkable is that Close continued to produce world-class artwork after a blood clot left him paralyzed in his late 40s.
How the hell does he do it?
Well, he once said, in a note to his younger self, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. Every great idea I’ve ever had grew out of work itself.”
Most people approach work and motivation in the completely opposite way: they wait to be inspired, then they get to work. The problem is that inspiration is a fickle beast. Some people will wait around forever for inspiration to just fall out of the sky or something. Others spend all their time and energy looking for ways to motivate themselves so they can finally get to work. And the irony of that sentence is completely lost on them.
I’ve sometimes experienced this myself when people, who are not writers, come up to me all excited, telling me that I have to meet their friend’s mother, because she has this incredible book idea.
I’ve got millions of book ideas. People who don’t create for a living think that the ideas are the hard part. No, ideas are easy. Everyone has ideas. But few people can execute on the ideas. Few people can deal with the possibility that their ideas might be bad. So their ideas stay ideas.
Successful people don’t sit around and wait for their muse to come and inspire them to change the world. They just show up and get to work.
So, do something.
Let Go of the Need to Be Right
Ray Dalio is one of the richest men you’ve probably never heard of. But before he got rich, he went flat broke because of how right he thought he was.
In the early 1980s, Dalio was on the warpath, warning everyone and their financially unstable uncle that the stock market was about to crash and burn like it was 1929 all over again. Instead, starting in 1982, stocks went on an eight-year bull run and returned one of their best performances in history.
Dalio went completely broke betting against the market. And, more importantly, he had to avoid a lot of Manhattan cocktail parties for a while.
But after wiping the egg off his face, he realized it wasn’t necessarily his bad hypotheses or incorrect economic analyses that made him lose every penny he had. Because, in the end, it turned out he was right. The economy did crash… eight years after he said it would.
No, it was his unrelenting belief in himself that he was right that made him go broke and look like a complete idiot.
Dalio vowed to never let his ego overrun his decision making like this ever again. Today, he constantly analyzes even his most basic assumptions about the world and tries to poke holes in his own theories. He demands his employees—even his interns—give him brutally honest feedback about his views to try to prove him wrong.
He realized that he’d rather be challenged and proven wrong about his beliefs than cling to them in a desperate attempt to show the world he was “right.”
He’s now been an investor for over 50 years and has amassed a fortune in the tens of billions of dollars. Dalio’s company, Bridgewater Associates, is one of the world’s largest hedge funds and has consistently beat the market in good times and bad for decades now.
Anyone can survive a bad idea, a stupid mistake, or dumb risk or twelve as long as you don’t cling to the need to be right about your beliefs.
The fact is, you, me, and everyone on the planet are almost certainly wrong about… well, pretty much everything. And we can never be 100% sure we’re right about anything.
We can only learn from our observations and hopefully be a little less wrong.
I see this ability to be wrong as so central to living a good life that I dedicate a whole course to it in The Subtle Art School. The Challenge Your Own Beliefs Course will help you question everything you believe so you can hold your beliefs more lightly and don’t keep making the same mistakes in life. You’re welcome.
See the World for What It Is, Not for What You Wish It Could Be
Dr. Patrick Brown is a vegan. He gave up meat a long time ago for his own ethical reasons.
And while he believes his moral standards of veganism are “right” and true and compassionate, he understands something a lot of people don’t: that you can’t change other people’s behavior by appealing to their moral code.
In fact, he knows that exactly the opposite will happen when you try to persuade someone this way: they’ll double down and call you a fuckface and won’t invite you to their birthday party.
So instead of proselytizing to the world about the moral and environmental impacts of eating meat or protesting outside of a major meat production facilities with a smug sense of moral superiority, he decided to appeal to something much more fundamental to human nature: their taste buds.
Brown’s goal is to replace all animal-based meat production by 2035. To do that, he is trying to create food that 1) tastes/looks/smells/feels as good or better than real meat and 2) is at least the same price, if not cheaper.
Dr. Brown started a company, Impossible Foods, the creators of the meat-free, plant-based Impossible Burger. His goal with the Impossible Burger is to create something that mimics ground beef in every way—appearance, texture, smell, and, of course, how it tastes—using no animal products whatsoever.
And the Impossible Burger 2.0 appears to have come pretty damn close to doing just that.
By appealing to human nature rather than railing against it, Brown has already made an incredible impact on the world, and he appears to just be getting started.
Had he been like most zealots in the environmental and animal rights world and prattled on and on about how unethical it is to eat meat in the modern world, reigning down his judgment on everyone else with indignant fury—well, no one would have listened to him.
And more importantly, he would have had virtually zero impact on the way we think about food production.
Define Success Internally, Not Externally
Amada Rosa Pérez was one of Colombia’s most famous supermodels. She worked on shoots in some of the most beautiful places in the world and was used to being lavished with attention and fame and money.
Her career seemed to be on a trajectory that 99.9% of aspiring models only wish they could achieve.
Then, in 2005, at the height of her career, Pérez inexplicably disappeared from the public eye.
People suspected the worst—this was Colombia after all—kidnappings, ransoms, murder, etc. But the truth, as usual, was much stranger than fiction. Perez surfaced five years later and announced that she’d been born again. And she was retiring from modeling to work with the poor communities of Colombia.
She remarked on how her definition of a successful model had changed—drastically so:
“Being a model means being a benchmark, someone whose beliefs are worthy of being imitated, and I grew tired of being a model of superficiality. I grew tired of a world of lies, appearances, falsity, hypocrisy, and deception, a society full of anti-values that exalts violence, adultery, drugs, alcohol, fighting, and a world that exalts riches, pleasure, sexual immorality and fraud. I want to be a model that promotes the true dignity of women instead of being used for commercial purposes.”
Prior to her religious conversion, she said she was always stressed, always in a hurry, always so easily upset over the tiniest of things. “Now I live in peace,” she said. “The world doesn’t appeal to me. I enjoy every moment God gives me.”
I’m not a religious person by any means, and Pérez and I probably don’t share a lot of values about things like sexuality. But I totally get Pérez’s need for real meaning in her life—for something more than the superficialities of comfort and pleasure. It’s a main theme of pretty much all of my writing.
I’ve railed against the all-too-common, toxic ideas in modern culture that more is better and that we can “have it all”. Because I don’t think happiness is something you should pursue for its own sake. In fact, happiness isn’t really the point to begin with, and trying to “feel good” all the time will only make you a miserable mess of a human being.
In all of the stories told here, if you look a little closer, you’ll notice that each person—all of them successful by typical measures of success—had a higher purpose that transcended the typical measures of success.
Even Ray Dalio, a multi-fucking-billionaire, has made it his life purpose to educate the world—for free—about what he calls his “principles” of life.
My new book, Everything Is F*cked: A Book about Hope, is a deep dive into how we find hope and meaning in the world—and how finding hope and meaning in the world can really fuck us if we’re not careful.
In almost every material aspect, the world is a better place than it ever has been. But instead of rejoicing in that fact, we’re living through a crisis of hope and meaning that threatens to reverse a lot of the progress we’ve made over the past two centuries or so.
But Amada Rosa Pérez showed us that we can define success in a way that lifts others up, gives us a little peace, and maybe leaves the world a little less fucked than it was when we showed up.