How to Improve Your Odds of Success in Life
Qi Lu grew up in extreme poverty in a remote village outside of Shanghai, China. Roaming the streets as a child, he became used to seeing people suffering from severe deformities due to malnutrition. There were three hundred schoolchildren for every teacher in his school. The most ambitious of his childhood friends hoped to get jobs as shipbuilders, earning the princely sum of seven dollars a month.
By his early 20’s, the hardworking Qi was earning decent money compared to his peers. However, he had bigger dreams in life. He wanted to pursue a postgraduate degree in the United States and make a better life for himself and his family.
The first step would be to get his graduate degree at his local university. The challenge would be how to keep earning enough to survive and help his family while pursuing his dream of further education. There simply didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to do both.
So Qi decided to hack his sleep.
He went to the library and studied the sleep hacking techniques of Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and other famously productive, successful people. And he began experimenting on himself.
Over the course of a few months, he gradually reduced the number of hours he slept every night from eight down to four. He found that was the minimum amount of sleep he needed in order to still function at his full capacity. By hacking his sleep, he was able to add two extra months of productivity a year to his life. And he put this extra time to excellent use, studying and writing research papers on a number of topics, including one of his passions, computer science.
On one Sunday, when he was planning on leaving his university campus to visit his parents, a fellow student asked him for a favor. He had helped organize for a Carnegie Mellon professor to lecture at the university that day, however, there was a really low turnout due to bad weather. It would be great if Qi could attend the lecture, to help fill out the hall.
Being the friendly, helpful person that he is, Qi agreed to attend the lecture. As it turned out, the professor was lecturing on a topic Qi was deeply interested in, computer science. So he asked a number of intelligent questions during the lecture and impressed the professor enough that he asked Qi to come to speak to him at the end of the lecture.
“How do you know so much about this subject?”, asked the professor. In his understated manner, Qi mentioned that he had written five research papers on it in his spare time. The professor asked to read them. Qi sprinted to his dorm room, grabbed the papers, and brought them to the professor.
Suitably impressed by Qi’s work, the professor asked him- “have you ever considered studying in the United States?”. Qi mentioned that it would be a dream for him, however, he couldn’t even afford to pay for the exam that would allow him to apply for scholarships in the United States. The professor offered to pay for his entrance exam on the spot.
Qi took the entrance exam. And a few months later, he received a letter in the post. It was a full-ride scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University.
Fast forward a few years later, and Qi Lu is one of the most successful and well-respected Presidents at a little company you may have heard of- Microsoft Corporation.
Reading Qi’s story, you may be tempted to marvel at how that one lucky break, meeting the Carnegie Mellon professor at his local university, completely changed his life. However, consider this- did luck write those five research papers for Qi? Did luck teach him how to squeeze more out of his day so he could study while his peers slept?
The answer, of course, is no.
Recently Qi was interviewed by Alex Banayan for his book ‘The Third Door’, which explores alternative routes to success. Asked about the role of luck in his success, Qi imparted this wisdom:
“Luck is like a bus. If you miss one, there will always be the next one. But if you aren’t prepared, you won’t be able to get on.”
Scott Adams is a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw very well.
If you’re not familiar with him, he is the creator of Dilbert, one of the most successful comics of all time. By all measures, Adams has enjoyed extraordinary success in life. He has earned millions through royalties on his comic strip, shrewd investments, business ventures, speaking engagements, as well as a very successful career as an author.
Yet he credits his success to ‘the power of leveraging multiple mediocre skills’.
By his own admission, he isn’t a great artist. In social gatherings, he doesn’t consider himself to be the funniest person in the room. His writing skills are good, not great. But what he recognized early on was that he has something that most cartoonists don’t have- years of experience working in the corporate world, as well as an MBA from Berkeley.
His corporate experience served as fodder for his Dilbert cartoons. He cleverly adopted a drawing style that was so basic that it became part of the joke. And as Dilbert gathered a cult following, he found that the business skills he acquired through his MBA were essential in elevating it to a household name.
My combined mediocre skills are worth far more than the sum of the parts. If you think extraordinary talent and a maniacal pursuit of excellence are necessary for success, I say that’s just one approach, and probably the hardest. When it comes to skills, quantity often beats quality.
- Scott Adams
Adams’ point, of course, isn’t that you shouldn’t strive for excellence in whatever skill you’re looking to acquire. The key is not to overwhelm yourself with the unrealistic expectation that you will be the best at every single thing that you do. You can be incredibly successful by simply combining a large number of skills that you’re pretty good at, in creative ways.
Here’s how Adams summarizes his ‘Formula for Success’:
Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success
Obviously, this is Adams using pseudo-maths to make a point, rather than a precise calculation. However, it’s useful pseudo-maths if it convinces you of the importance of acquiring complementary skills that can combine to unlock opportunities for you in life.
Here are just some of the skills that Adams recommends everyone should develop to a decent level:
- Public speaking & Communication
- Psychology & Persuasion
- Business Writing
- Design (the basics)
In an age when Medium, Substack, YouTube, and various other publishing platforms provide every individual with an opportunity to build an online audience, I would argue that nonfiction writing and video editing should be on that list.
The good news is that skill acquisition has never been more accessible. Platforms such as Skillshare and Udemy let you access guided learning from experts on just about any skill you want to acquire, for the price of a good book.
I know things are rough right now and many of us are down on our luck. We may be ruing the lack of opportunities in the world, or worse yet, opportunities that we have wasted in our lives.
However, as Qi Lu’s story shows, it’s not about obsessing over when you’re going to get your big break, or stressing over whether you’ve already missed your chance.
While luck plays an important role in success, what is even more important is that we prepare ourselves to take advantage of whenever opportunities appear in our lives.
And they do appear, over and over again.
Scott Adams’ approach to combining a large number of ‘mediocre’ skills in novel, creative ways, is a practical way of preparing for success. It is probably a much more realistic path for the majority of people reading this article, rather than pursuing world-class status in one chosen field.
As long as you do your bit and prepare, you have a ticket to get on the bus. And that bus will come to the stop, over and over again in your lifetime.
Sooner or later, you’ll be able to hop on.