Deconstructing Accomplishment

Accomplishments are usually only achieved when a number of factors all come together. Take, for example, a tennis player. It is unlikely that he will accomplish a lot if he doesn’t have ambitious goals. If he only plays for fun, or to be the best player in his tennis club, it is very unlikely he’ll put in sufficient effort to win a major tournament. So ambition will be an important ingredient in determining his level of success. What’s more, to attain great things in tennis, the player need to start at a certain level of talent. Genetics could prevent him from ever going beyond a certain level of play, as could lack of sufficient coordination attained at a young age. If he doesn’t start with a certain level of skill, he will be unlikely to go far. It will also help a lot if the player has good decision-making skills. His goals may well be undermined if he chooses a bad coach, or doesn’t enter the right tournaments, or uses bad training methods. Time investment is another critical component. He’ll have to devote thousands of hours to practice and match play to get to a professional level. Finally, the player will need the appropriate social and physical resources to achieve his goals. If he doesn’t know people who can recommend good coaches, or have the right people to practice with, his accomplishments may well be limited. And if he doesn’t have the money to take tennis lessons, he’ll never develop strong skills to begin with.

The high level components necessary for accomplishment in tennis are the same as they are in nearly every field. Accomplishment relies on the following factors:

  1. Ambition. While it is possible to accomplish things that you don’t set out to achieve, when that occurs it is usually just due to luck. Setting something as your goal is the first step towards accomplishing it. If we have low ambitions, we are unlikely to achieve great things.
  2. Talent. Most accomplishments require a certain starting level of skills relevant to the accomplishment. To be become a great singer, it helps to have good pitch. To be a great investor, it helps to have a personality that allows you to act calmly when others are afraid. While abilities can be honed with training, your current level of talent represents your starting point in the accomplishment race. If you start too far behind, even really good training may not get you to where you need to be.
  3. Reasoning. The path towards almost every major accomplishment involves making difficult decisions. Which job should you take? Which helpful books should you read? Who should you make an effort to get to know? Which skills should you work to hone? Which training methods should you apply? The superpower of being able to reliably answer these kinds of questions will make your accomplishment much more likely. One very bad decision early on may lead you to failure.
  4. Time. Most big accomplishments require a very large investment of time. You are not going to be able to invent a better type of microchip without first learning a lot about computers, electrical engineering, and materials science. This will take years.
  5. Resources. These can be both physical (e.g. money) or social (e.g. knowing the right people to help you achieve your goal). If you have an incredible business idea, but don’t have the money to fund it, and can’t get in contact with someone who will fund it for you, you’re out of luck. A strong social network can make achievement much easier. It often takes the well-coordinated effort of many people to achieve great things. There may even be a person out there whose advice or help is exactly what you need for success. And sometimes involving others in our projects can make up for our own lack of talent, lack of money, or lack of time.

Any of these five factors can prevent you from accomplishing great things. If your goals are unambitious, your achievement will probably be low. If you are lacking in relevant talent, you’re unlikely to ever achieve great heights of ability. If your reasoning is poor, you’ll be likely to make bad decisions related to how to achieve your goals. If you don’t put enough time into achievement, you’ll probably not accomplish very much. And many goals require some money, or the help of others, and without either of these, your ambitions may not get off the ground.

Flipping this analysis around, we see that we need to make sure that we have these five factors in place if we are going to have the best chance of accomplishing what we hope to. Sure, we might get lucky, and not need them all. Maybe we’ll win the lotto and so won’t need to worry about physical resources anymore, or maybe our bad reasoning will happen to not harm our project. But if we want to maximize our chance of success, we should have sufficient ambition, talent, reasoning skills, time investment, and physical/social resources. Whichever of these is our weakest point is likely what we should focus on improving. We can consider how we can try to affect each of these factors:

  1. Ambition may be hard to change. You simply may not care about accomplishing much. But reflecting on what you would like to complete before your die may make you realize that you do in fact care about achieving certain goals.
  2. Your current level of talent is fixed, but you can make up for a lack of it by involving other people whose talents complement your own, and by reasoning about how to improve your skills and then investing sufficient time into doing so.
  3. Reasoning can be honed with practice.
  4. Time simply needs to be invested. But reasoning can help you make your time more productive and efficient, and involving others in your goals lets you pool your time with theirs. If at your current rate of time investment, your goals may take decades to achieve, you may need to start taking time away from something else.
  5. If you don’t have the money or social network required to complete your goals, that may be solvable with further time investment. You may need to take a job to make the required money, and devote time to building new social contacts that are relevant to what you’d like to achieve. For instance, you can start introducing yourself to more people at places where those who are likely to be helpful are likely to be.

If you want to maximize your chance of accomplishing your goals, figure out which of these five factors is your weakest point, and fix it. Then, if necessary, repeat.

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