What's success made of?

On three simple ingredients that seem like a pretty good start

I once heard Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, talking about what he looked for when hiring people earlier in his career: the combination of persistence and curiosity.

(There are probably some caveats in there about the type of work that this applies to. If I were going in for surgery, I’d hope that the person holding the knife was not just a keener with access to Google. That aside…)

Having thought about this a bit, persistence and curiosity together strike me as a pretty powerful recipe for doing just about anything. And if we throw empathy in there as a third pillar, seems to me we have a pretty good framework for how to go about not just accomplishing a lot, but also feeling good about the things you accomplish.

‘Persistence’ accounts for the fact that just about anything worth aspiring to takes effort, and sustained effort at that. The bigger the goal, the better it is to apply yourself steadily over a long period of time than to operate in short bursts of inspiration. Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with dabbling -- only that there’s a tradeoff. You can dabble in many things or you can go deep in fewer; not both. (This one hits close to home. I’d put my graveyard of discarded ambitions up against anyone’s. I swear, though, one of these days I will learn to play the mandolin.)

Persistence is to effort what compounding is to interest. Younger Me struggled to get his head around those mechanics. Career-wise, I’d apply myself in bursts and hold out hope for some sort of tangible reward coming back at me -- a sort of transactional, achievement-oriented mindset. To be persistent is to trade that short-term mindset for the discipline of applying yourself as a matter of principle, and learning to find enjoyment in the process itself. If you can do that, the outcomes take care of themselves. I don’t know if I’ll ever totally figure this out, but I’m better at it now than I used to be.

Curiosity is a superpower when you consider that you can learn anything -- all it takes is the will to do so. Some of my proudest moments as a parent are in watching my kid fail over and over and over again in the process of acquiring a new skill. A child’s brain has many bugs, but this one is a feature: where failing repeatedly causes them to just try again, each time updating their approach and otherwise being fascinated by the puzzle of incremental improvement. We lose this by the time we get to be grownups: our big dumb egos get in the way and we get discouraged if it takes too long to get the hang of something.

Being curious, then, is the ability or the tendency to convert a skill or knowledge gap not into frustration, but into motivation. You want to close the gap -- to know how something works or to build that new skill. At the centre of any challenge is a certain kind of fun. If you can be like the child who can’t help but to try to figure things out, then it’s only a matter of time before you find your way over, under or around whatever challenge comes your way. Especially if you’re persistent.

Finally, empathy feels like an important caveat here to distinguish between a win-at-all-costs mentality and one that’s more likely to allow you to enjoy the ride. I mean -- I’m sure there are people who are persistent and curious in stepping on people’s throats, but that hardly seems optimal (for your own enjoyment or anyone else’s). So let’s throw a general concern for other people in the mix, where instead of “winning at all costs”, you’re looking for win-wins as much as possible.

Persistence, curiosity, empathy. I wonder if the recipe for success needs to be more complicated than that?