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Success tip: Understand that success is a matter of degree; it is not binary

Whether you believe success is binary or a continuum is likely to affect your happiness, your effort, and what you achieve.

Posted 28 December 2016

Many people talk as if life’s outcomes are binary. You either grow up to become “a success” or you become “a failure.”

I believe this perspective is entirely wrong. Quite apart from the fact that people regard different things as constituting success, even if they are measuring the same attribute, success is not all or nothing; it is a matter of degree.

As I explain below, these alternative perspectives affect the way that people behave. In my view, holding the binary perspective damages your prospects.

An example of someone often called a failure

Richard Austen Butler, usually known as “RAB Butler” was an important politician in my youth.

Many years later, I found myself thinking about the fact that he was often referred to as a failure. The reason why he was referred to as a failure is that he did not become Prime Minister.

I focused on the fact that he was at various times UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary. They are three of the four “Great Offices of State” in the UK; the other of course being Prime Minister. After he retired from politics, he was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge which is the largest college in Oxford or Cambridge. Even as a Clare College alumnus, I have to acknowledge that Trinity is the most prestigious Cambridge college.

I said to myself, if RAB Butler was a failure, then there have been very few people who could call themselves successes.

It is like saying that every partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers is a failure, apart from those rarities who become Senior Partner. From 1900 to today, only 23 people have been Prime Minister of the UK. Does that mean every other politician in that time has been a failure?

Why this matters

I consider that your perspective on success will affect your behaviour.

If you believe success is binary

If you think that people are either “failures” or “successes”, it is quite easy to set standards for being “a success” that you do not meet, causing you to classify yourself as “a failure.”

Furthermore, it is then quite easy to conclude that you are not able to achieve the level that becoming “a success” requires. The almost inevitable consequence is that you do not try, instead limiting your efforts to what you need to “get by in life.”

A common consequence of believing yourself to be “a failure” is that you feel unhappy.

If you believe that success is a matter of degree

In my opinion, there are several thought patterns generally associated with believing that success is a matter of degree.

  1. You are likely to believe that you have already achieved a reasonable modicum of success, and therefore feel relatively happy with yourself.
  2. You are likely to believe that more effort (however defined) results in more success.
  3. You are likely to want at least a bit more success than you already have, and to seek ways of improving your performance to achieve this greater success.

Accordingly, in my opinion people who hold this belief about success being a matter of degree are happier than those who hold the binary perspective. However this does not cause them to become complacent. Instead they continue to seek ways to increase their level of success.


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