The Secret Ingredient to Success

After reading the article that inspired this post on what it takes to be a writer, I was reminded of something I read several years ago on the most important predictor of success.

You might think the secret to being successful is talent or intelligence. Or maybe it’s having a jumpstart with a good education or a big bank account. Or maybe it’s all a matter of luck—you know, being in the right place at the right time or knowing the right people.

According to Paul Graham’s “The Anatomy of Success”, it’s none of those things.

Turns out that success can be largely predicted by a single word and the good news is that it’s largely within your control.

So what’s the one word that predicts success?

Photo Credit: Dana Lookadoo - Yo! Yo! SEO via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Dana Lookadoo – Yo! Yo! SEO via Compfight cc


At the heart of Graham’s piece is the assertion that the level of determination that you bring to a task has a remarkable effect on your ability to do it. Conversely, even the most talented still have to work at things to make the most of their inborn skills.

Although the focus of the piece is on predicting which startups will be successful (and therefore a good investment), I think what Graham has to say can be applied to almost anything. For me, I applied it to a career change and to a personal goal to write.

I first came across this essay back in 2009 when I was at a bit of a professional crossroads, so it was a well-timed discovery. It changed my thinking from “what am I good at?” to “what do I really want to do the most?”. It opened my eyes to the idea that the only thing stopping me from doing what I want was me—or more specifically, how determined I was to do it. This way of thinking has stayed with me ever since.

Since determination is so critical, Graham then breaks it down into components: willfulness, discipline, and ambition.

Willfulness and discipline

Willfulness is the simplest form of determination that tells you that you want something and must have it no matter what. Discipline is what keeps that willfulness from becoming self-indulgent and destructive.

Willfulness and discipline are the yin and yang of determination:

Determination implies your willfulness is balanced by discipline. We can imagine will and discipline as two fingers squeezing a slippery melon seed. The harder they squeeze, the further the seed flies, but they must both squeeze equally or the seed spins off sideways.


Ambition is the desire to achieve something. It implies that you have set a lofty goal for yourself, something that’s not easy to accomplish. After all, if it was easy, it wouldn’t require ambition (or much of anything else) to achieve it.

How it all works together

So here in sum is how determination seems to work: it consists of willfulness balanced with discipline, aimed by ambition. And fortunately at least two of these three qualities can be cultivated. You may be able to increase your strength of will somewhat; you can definitely learn self-discipline; and almost everyone is practically malnourished when it comes to ambition.

What about talent?

Does this mean that talent isn’t important? No, of course not. Talent gives a person a head start and a built-in advantage. But talent alone without determination and ambition does not yield success. As the author says,

In most domains, talent is overrated compared to determination—partly because it makes a better story, partly because it gives onlookers an excuse for being lazy, and partly because after a while determination starts to look like talent.

So, what does this mean for you?

Happily, if you’ve been second-guessing yourself and wondering whether you have the talent to pursue your dreams, whether they’re personal or professional, you now know that success is largely within your control, not randomly determined by a genetic lottery or luck. This can be liberating, but also challenging.

So if you’ve ever given up on something before you’ve really started because you didn’t think you have the [fill in the blank – talent, skills, connections, whatever], try it again. With determination.

The question is, are you strong-willed, disciplined, and ambitious enough to chase your dream?

Photo Credit: symphony of love via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: symphony of love via Compfight cc

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