The Psychology of Success


If you’ve ever seen the movie, RUDY(with an excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith!) … you will see something of the “Psychology of Success” in action. As Henry Hartman said: “Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity.” 

Is that True?  Always? Let’s find out.

What does it mean to be “prepared?”

By now, I’m sure that most of you have heard about the 10,000-hour rule. What do Mozart, Bill Gates, and the best of professional athletes have in common?  Time.  By putting in a minimum, but required 10,000 hours of work, they have willfully forged the synapses of their brains to acquire the physical networking necessary to not only “succeed” at what they do, but literally pass the wiring on to their offspring.  But it’s much deeper than that.

 As heroes of our own story, we very much want to either consciously or subconsciously follow the archetypical, often Hollywood, often Joseph Campbell-like script of the “rite of passage.”  It goes like this:  “Incredibly impoverished youngster, growing up in duress, works relentlessly, and beats all of the outrageous slings and arrows cast by misfortune. The hero triumphs over the forces of the external, and by finding within the once submerged skills and merits of the dragon-slayer, produces a final and lasting success!”

 If only it were that easy.  Our “heroism” though is not just the product of our immediate family and experience… but rather, the entire culture from which we have come.  It is not our parents, but our great-great-great grandparents and all of their hardships and triumphs that helped shape our psyches and ultimately the center from which we would respond to the world that stimulates us at present.  We begin by already owing so much.  We owe to the History of the world and all that was sacrificed up to this very moment. And we owe to our own personal, family history.  So… some of our preparation began even before we were born.

We begin to work and hopefully love the work by learning from the actions of our parents.  If we work, especially through some adversity, something good will come of it.  That’s something you learn, and the work prepares you.  For what?

The Beatles were “prepared” to become The Beatles as history records them because they took a grueling job in Hamburg, Germany, playing 7 nights a week.  They didn’t shrug off the opportunity as “stars,” but instead embraced the chance to A: Log in a big portion of those 10,000 hours, and B: Work, work, work, (eight-days a week!).  When they had their first breakthrough moment they had already performed 1200 times on stage. Twelve-hundred times.

I remember my first gung-fu Teacher speaking about 12-years of training before “beginning to get it,” and one could hardly imagine a truly accomplished and pioneering Musician without at least 10,000 hours, or maybe 10-years of dedicated work in back of them. And I certainly wouldn’t want a heart-surgeon operating on someone in my family who did not spend many years in preparation.

So, let’s say that you log in your many hours.  You diligently do the work.  You are prepared. Then what?  Does opportunity… “knock?”

What does it mean to be “meet opportunity?”

Let me try to put 2 different ideas into a 2-part invention for you.  A kind of fugue where one line plays off the other.  In my college Educational Psychology course, I was often an outspoken counter-voice for the “black-box” theory.  It basically states that we are born into the world as empty slates, waiting for environment to fill us with all that we are to become.  That philosophy of psychology was often connected to Behaviorism and methods of dealing with… what in my case would be… Music students, in a way that seemed to disregard the undeniable “soul” that I sensed within myself and saw in others.  The soul I am speaking of is the one brought on by generation after generation of pre-wiring culture, joined with our God-given uniqueness, and then further forged throughout our Lifetimes via our work-ethic, our chosen 10,000 hours (then much more), and our opportunities.

The 2nd line of this fugue is interesting. Over some of it we have control… but over all of it, we are ultimately creatures of luck.  Now how the heck can I say that and where is this going?  Is our Life ultimately a throw of the dice?

We can stack the deck of probable outcomes by putting ourselves in the right place while hoping for the right time and outcome.  Example:  A 12-year-old boy once hit a hole-in-one on hole #2 during his first game of golf on caddy’s day!  His fellow caddy said, “Man.. you are the luckiest SOB I have ever known!”  The first caddy turned and said, “What do you mean luck?  That’s where I was aiming.”

 If you want to be a contender for the Heavy-weight championship of the world, it would help immensely to be putting in your 10,000 hours in the right gym, being seen by the right people who can guide you on the journey throughout the years.  It’s the same in every field… from Symphony Conductors to boxers to doctors.  Back in high school, Dorothy Hamill was a skater who probably logged in much more than 10,000 hours by the time she was 15!  She maximized her skill set by training in places where she could be properly observed and groomed for the Olympics.  Preparation met opportunity and indeed Dorothy went on to earn the Gold Medal.

It seems to fit the success-story paradigm perfectly; the young girl grows up to womanhood, working hard and with great focus.  But if you keep reading, I will posit the easily debatable notion that gold medal or not, her name recognized or not, Dorothy Hamill was and is a success.

I was at a graduation party recently where the father of a very smart, very gifted and polite young graduate introduced his daughter to the Supervisor at a top Medical Center.  “This is Lei, my daughter and she has just been accepted into such-and-such college as Pre-med.”  Within minutes the Supervisor was inviting Lei to visit her and was already recommending good medical schools at which the Supervisor had contacts. She even began preparing Lei for her INTERVIEW at the Medical Center some 8 years from now!

Lei is very bright, very hard-working.  She’s got much of those 10,000 hours in and will soon become even more focused and dedicated… but can you appreciate the opportunity afforded to her by a graduation party and a savvy father?

If success is something defined as meeting luck, then perhaps we should change the definition.  Luck is too… well, “chancy!”  You may leave the world unknown to the masses, and the best network-wiring you’ve ever done may not be in Facebook or Twitter… but within your own brain and then the possible lives of your offspring.  You may have taken your 10,000 starter hours and helped to craft a person who is the product not only of his/her own hard work, but also that of the many generations that sacrificed and preceded you.  In my case the goat-herders and the apple farmers of Calabria and Abruzzo in Italia. (And yes, I will have really incredible stories or you as this site develops…)

When it comes to this “luck” we are speaking of, we really don’t have as much control of it as we would like to have, that is, luck coming to us. But… but… if you are an Educator, or you are in a position to understand the many variables of the students who come into your care, then you can take charge and create some of that “luck” for them.  First teach them the inherent virtue of hard and dedicated and focused work.  Start them in their noble 10,000-hour quest.  Then, whenever you can, and using everything at your disposal, give them every opportunity you can… be it a job in Hamburg, Germany, or access to a laptop, or your garage-turned-gym, or the 2nd hole on a golf course.

We cannot control the ebbs and flow of Time, when and where we are born, but we can help those who follow us… as best we can.  Look forward, my friend.  Not every great success is known.  The tiny stone you drop into a still lake may one day produce a great wave.  Take heart and do not let luck define your success. Instead, and as Roberto Clemente said, “If you have the chance to do something good for someone, and you don’t, you are wasting your time in this world.”

Let us then do unto those who follow us as we would have wished someone might have done for us… had they only known.  Be the best that you can be given the variables that have culminated in you alone.  Work hard.  Then, with faith and good will, pass your success like the sword Excalibur.  Who knows, maybe some of your students, maybe your own kids will one day meet the opportunity that just missed you.

Godspeed! S

© Stephen Melillo 2012

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