Join the other curious and interested readers of my Sunday letters. Sign up
Enjoy this piece? Get more like it every Sunday.Sign up

How to Be Successful at Anything

Seriously. No bullshit. Here’s a clear, concise answer for how life actually works.

How to be successful at anything, in eleven words:

Have enough ability, get an opportunity, and execute. Get some luck.

That's really it. But there's a lot there. Let's unpack it.

1. Have enough ability.

It sounds obvious, but you’ll need to have enough ability at your chosen activity to be capable of success.

Odds are really, really good that you weren't born with enough ability.

What is ability?

Ability = Talent + Skill

Talent is what you were born with. The innate things you're naturally good at.

Skill is what you learn.

These two combine - in a way that’s closer to multiplication than addition - to define your ability.

To be successful, you'll need to have enough.

How much is enough?

There is no sure formula for "enough ability", but there are a couple of useful milestones.

1. 10,000 hours is a pretty solid benchmark for mastery.

If you don't need mastery, the number is lower.

But regardless of the level you need, you're going to have to put in work. A lot of work. Most of it will be thankless, and nobody will ever see it, or understand what you went through.

That's the gig.

2. "Enough" is about your ability to handle variation.

The thing you're trying to improve at is handling the variety of random problems you'll encounter when you take on your opportunities.

Life is huge and really uncertain, and things will almost never go the exact same way twice. Mastery is about having enough breadth and depth of experience to be able to handle entirely new problems, as if you’ve seen them before.

This is why putting the hours counts - more hours mean more variation encountered.

Some of these will be external (someone shouts as you're about to do something.) Some will be internal (focus, handling nerves, confidence.) But there are certain to be common sets of variation in any endeavor.

To make the most of your learning time, spend time building your skill in varied environments. Practice in different locations. Practice when you’re sleepy. Practice when you’re hungry. Practice in every situation you can think of that’s likely to occur.

That way, when your windows of opportunity come, you can handle what comes with them.

2. Get an Opportunity

Opportunities. In order to take that game-winning shot, you need to be on the court at the end of a game. To live life with the person of your dreams, you have to meet them.

You’ll have to have opportunities to be able to succeed. Fortunately, there are two things you can do about them.

Get more opportunities

Opportunities come up randomly. To be successful, you'll have to convert one (and probably a lot more than one.)

So, if they're random, what can you do?

Go to where the opportunities are more common.

If you're a basketball player, spend time on the court, and get yourself into games.

If you're looking for a love life, spend time out where you will meet potential partners. (They’re probably not in your living room.)

In almost all cases, there are places that you can physically go that will provide you with more opportunities, more often.

Go there.

Learn to spot opportunities

Most good opportunities have a narrow time window. Miss them, and they're gone.

In that narrow window, you have to:

  1. Notice the opportunity exists,
  2. Decide to commit to it, and then,
  3. Execute.

If you don’t notice it in time, you’ll still be deciding when it passes. The earlier you can spot opportunities, the better.

Fortunately, the best thing you can do to learn how to spot opportunities early is the same thing as how to get more - just spend time where they’re more common.

Just like your ears adjusting to a noisy room, spending more time where the opportunities live will make it easier for you sift out the noise and spot the good ones early.

3. Commit and Execute

Once an opportunity comes up, you have decide if you're going for it. If you are, commit to it fully, and use all the ability you have to take it on.

This part's actually the simplest. Decide, commit, execute.

That's all you can do.

But even with all your work and putting yourself in the right place, sometimes you'll still fail.

You'll need luck.

4. Get Some Luck.

Ahh, the mythic luck. What is it, anyway?

When you're doing taking on opportunities, you're interacting with the world. The world is big and complex and things always go wrong in random ways.

Enter luck.

Good luck is when things go wrong in ways you can handle.

Bad luck is when they don't.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Adding It Up

Success converting an opportunity, it turns out, is a simple formula.

Skill + Talent + Luck > Difficulty + What randomly goes wrong

This explains lottery winners. No skill, no talent, but also no difficulty. Winners get enough luck to beat the massive random odds of getting non-winning numbers. Sometimes great luck happens. But it’s not reliable enough to bet your life on.

The formula also explains why more skill helps - it’s the only thing you can change, and it improves your margin for error.

But it’s not foolproof.

Sometimes, you just don't get the cards. You lose. You play another day.

But one day, you’ll get your opportunity, execute, and get good luck.

Then, bam. Success.

That’s how everybody - Michael Jordan, Oprah, Gandhi, Steve Jobs - even Beyoncé got there. That’s how it works.

“But hang on,” you say, “that doesn’t sound sexy or magical or anything. It doesn’t even feel like success. That just feels like a lot of work.”

I know.

The Emotional Truth About Success

The truth about success is that once you’ve done all the work, put yourself in the right spot, and tried and tried until you caught your opportunity, it doesn’t feel like triumph or sexy magic. It feels like relief.

See, a funny thing happens when you do all that work to hone your ability. You learn that the list of things that can go wrong is infinitely long and that you have no control over any of them.

By the time you have the enough ability, success stops looking like what went right.

Instead, it’s the list of things that could have gone wrong but didn’t.

You’re not victorious. You’re lucky, and you know it.

This truth doesn't make for good storytelling, and it doesn't help us feel better if our lives aren't where we want.

But it's also amazing, wonderful, and beautiful.

Right there, shining in the middle, is a blueprint for how to be successful.

At anything.

Seriously, that's it.

Believe it or not, that's everything you need to know to be successful.

You can apply this framework to any endeavor, and it will guide you directly to success. There's no magic, no "born with it" and no secret.

Just these steps:

  1. Build up your ability. Focus on variation, and put in the time.
  2. Go to where the opportunities are. Learn what they look like.
  3. Commit and execute when an opportunity pops up.
  4. Get some luck, or try again.

Depending on who you are and where you were born, certain steps are going to be easier than others. If you were born in a remote village and want to be a Wall-Street banker, getting to where the opportunities are is probably the toughest part. If you grew up in a basketball household and want to play pro ball, your biggest challenge is likely finding varied situations.

Each of us has our own easy parts and hard parts.

But for every one of us, the game works the same.

Now you know the rules. What do you want to play for?

Photo by Benjamin Stäudinger.

Nah, I hate curiousity.