An Alternative Route To Success

An Alternative Route To Success


Empty conference room in an office

By Alastair Dryburgh
Contributor to Forbes

Here is the current zeitgeist’s recipe for success:

  1. Pick your path (career, profession, business sector…);
  2. Put in your 10,000 hours of practice;
  3. Hope that you end up being in the top few percent of those in your field.

Point 3 is important, because more and more fields are becoming winner-take-all; the people in the top few percent, even if only very slightly better than the next 20%, enjoy the lion’s share of the rewards.

Does this appeal? If it doesn’t, you might consider instead an indirect approach. Here are two examples, from very different fields.

Artist Roy Lichtenstein took one idea, comic-book art with the characteristic “Ben-Day” dots, lifted it across to the field of “serious” art, and became one of the leading artists of his generation.

My aunt Enid graduated in nuclear physics in the mid-1950s, but found career prospects unexciting. The field was overcrowded and short of money. Fortunately, someone told her about the emerging field of biophysics – using physics to answer interesting questions in biology. She moved sideways, and became one of the leading figures in the newly emerging field with a chair at Cambridge and a string of academic honors.

So what is it going to be? Are you going to stake it all on doing the same as everyone else, working very, very hard to be among the top few percent, while hoping not to be derailed by bad luck? Or are you more creative? Is there something out on the edges of your field which you could import to make a real impact?

Possibilities for the second route are almost unlimited, but here are a couple to consider.

Cognitive Psychology

How we assess situations, make decisions, and deal with risk. And why our human-basic psychology is riddled with bugs when it comes to these tasks. This body of knowledge is already well established in fields as disparate as marketing, public policy, and intelligence analysis, but still has a lot to offer in general management, strategy, decision-making, and problem-solving. You could start by reading Daniel Kahneman’s superb book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Military Strategy

The name of Sun Tzu is fairly well known in business schools, and that of Clausewitz not unknown, but you could gain from a study of Basil Liddell Hart and his theory of the indirect approach.

As we work our way towards success, we need inevitably to spend most of our time looking forward. That makes it all the more important to take the occasional moment to look to the sides, for whatever it is we might be missing.