The Most Likely Reason You Think You’re Unsuccessful and What to Do About It

I would guess you could tell me a few stories about what success looks like. I bet you could tell me how much your favourite Medium writer makes, how much a YouTuber made last year, how your friend got that job and oh my word, the salary was incredible.

It seems like everyone is passing you by. That everyone is smashing life and that you are falling further and further behind. In that, you are losing. Sigh. It’s like getting picked last and nobody wants to be last.

But what if the reason you think you are last is the very reason you are drawn to these stories? It’s the same reason you click that link, read that article or watch that video. What if technology has hacked our brains rendering them no longer efficient in decision making because the game has changed?

Let me explain.

The Great Brain Hack of Life

We learn by doing, there’s no great secret there. We try something, we estimate the reward, we get a reward and we compare it to our estimate and we deduce our success.

But (and it’s a big but) the playing field has been altered slightly. Someone has come along to one end of the pitch and lifted it up. So when you turned up to play you can’t work out why the other team seem to always have the ball and you feel totally out of breath. You can’t see the change because it’s so subtle but you do have some tell-tale signs that things have changed. The game has changed and you had no idea.

How did the game change for all of us? The answer is attention.

We live in an attention economy. Whoever has the attention of the masses has leverage. Attention wins because time is our biggest asset on planet Earth, if you have the privilege of having someone’s time they have already given something to you, their most important asset. You can leverage that because with attention comes traction and with traction comes transaction.

But as society has learnt this over time it’s got better at gaining attention. We’ve realised a few things along the way:

  • Novelty wins — have you ever heard of the saying that there’s no better publicity than a new book? Why? Novelty.
  • Differentiation — when everyone is going right, go left. Why? Because difference sparks curiosity and curiosity leads to attention.
  • Extremism — when everyone is talking about x10 the reward, go bigger, x100. Because it sparks this idea that we’d got it wrong all along.

In essence, we’ve learnt how to attract the human brain to certain things. If you want attention you need to think about differentiation, humour, value, extremism, novelty and many other things.

The short version: we’ve got better at understanding how to gain people’s attention.

But the Students Have Become the Teachers

The big problem with this is the content that you consume forms your bounded rationality. In other words, your brain is playing tricks on you. Well, it’s not a trick, it’s more of a shortcut that was good but now might be hurting you.

The mental shortcut is this —’ if I can recall it easily, it probably has a higher probability of being true.’ It’s called the availability heuristic and someone won a Nobel prize for figuring this out.

For instance, let’s say I said to you,

“Do you think there are more people with blue coats on in your town than people with black coats”

You’d take a mental account of people you’ve seen and probably conclude that on balance there are more people with black coats on than blue and promptly reply ‘black coats’.

And that’s the beauty of the brain and these mental shortcuts. We don’t have to spend hours analysing the data, figuring out at what times more people wear coats, recount all the times you’ve seen people in coats. Nope. All we do is simply and efficiently, take a sample, assess that sample and make a decision.

Tversky and Kahneman detailed this in their 1973 paper:

“Heuristic in which a person evaluates the frequency of classes or the probability of events by availability, i.e., by the ease with which relevant instances come to mind.”


Until it’s not.

Short version: we have a mental shortcut called the availability heuristic that helps us make assessment quickly.

So What Happens When Everyone Has Figured Out the Way to Get Your Attention

But people all over the world are vying for our attention. They are shouting from the rooftops about how someone made ‘$7,000,000 in 7 minutes from this one hack’. Or how ‘23-year-old becomes billionaire from 1 decision’.

So when it comes to you and your success you do exactly what we did above.

If I was to ask you ‘how many people do you think in your age group earn more than you’ you’ll perhaps recall that 23-year-old billionaire, that person that made $7,000,000 and thinks that you are nowhere near up to the standard.

The trouble is, your sample is all wrong. And that’s because people know what it takes to get your attention.

The reality is that that 23-year-old billionaire is an exception and that person that made $7,000,000 in 7 minutes is most likely fabricating some element of their success. Using this data as actually part of the sample becomes completely misleading.

We use samples in our brains to make decisions. Often we take what we can recall easy to be the truth. In other words, if you drown yourself in extreme success stories, you’ll start to think that is the norm. And when you start to figure out where you fit in this world, you’ll feel below average.

When the reality is you’re doing just great.

Short version: you’ll use this availability heuristic to deduce where you fit in the world and that will be much more disappointing if you constantly consume extreme success stories.

A Final Thought and Perhaps a Solution?

This leaves us with two options if we want to change the narrative and get a fairer idea of where we fit in this world:

  1. To be aware of this mental shortcut and override it (if there is such a thing). To consciously ask ourselves when we are beating ourselves up if the sample we’ve used is a fair one.
  2. To stop with the extreme success stories. They might feel motivating in the moment but they can be detrimental in the long term.

People all over the world have figured out how to get your attention, don’t let it be the reason you feel like you haven’t made it. You don’t need more self-help, you just need more time.

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