How the Hell do Some People do so Much in Life?

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Reading time: 4 minutes

And how can you become one of them?

The auditorium was packed. People from all across the country had come to hear the answer. The presenter spent half an hour introducing the speaker, listing his accolades, priming the audience for hours of discussions.

Finally, William James appeared on stage. “They’ve asked me to talk about the last hundred years of psychological research.” He then took a deep breath and said, It can be summed up in this statement:

People by and large become what they think of themselves.

Read that again. William James had just summarized the essence of personal development in ten words. After that he said, Thank you, Good night, and left the conference.

How come some people do so much more than others?

This question has been on my mind for months. Last year, I got an email from a reader asking me: What is truly holding us all back? Why do the majority of us not fully realize our potential & live a full life?

History is defined by outliers. By people who have influenced generations, shaping the world we live in. Single individuals that have impacted societies, for good or bad.

Over a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche realized the same thing:

When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences — their insignificant, everyday experiences — or that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others — and how many there are! — are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much.

Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m fascinated by such people. What makes them tick? How did they become this way? And how can some of that rub off on the rest of us?

The answer is a lot simpler than you expect.

There’s an old story about two boys who’s father was an alcoholic. As they grew into young men, one of them became an alcoholic

“What choice did I have?”, he said. “I watched my father”.

The other son became a successful businessman and never touched a drop of alcohol. “How could I?”, he said. “I saw what it did to my father.”

It’s not the experiences of our lives that shape us. It’s what we make of those experiences. How we choose to interpret them and react to them.

And that, my friend, is always up to you.

The internet is full of such stories. James Stockdale thriving after seven years in a POW camp in Vietnam. Viktor Frankl founding a school of psychology and publishing 39 books after surviving several Nazi concentration camps. Or Epictetus, the granddaddy of all success stories. He was born a slave, became a free man, and taught lessons that influence people even 2000 years after his death.

But what if you don’t have someone trying to cause you as much suffering as humanly possible? Or eradicate you and your whole family? What if you’re a normal person who would like to become an overachiever?

Then pay attention, cause the next bit is for you.

Compounding Confidence

Start by viewing yourself as an overachiever. How do you define an overachiever? I’m not sure there’s a textbook definition. But someone appearing on Broadway while in high school, graduating from Harvard, and winning an Oscar — all before turning 30 — pretty much fits the bill. So if you don’t trust me on this one, trust her.

My complete ignorance as to my own limitations looked like confidence and got me into the director’s chair. My belief that I could handle these things, contrary to all evidence of my ability to do so, was half the battle.

Natalie Portman

I don’t care if you write it 500 times in your journal, post it on your monitor at work, or scream in front of your bathroom mirror. You have to start viewing yourself as an overachiever. Even if it seems fake.

Once you view yourself as an overachiever, you will act as one. You will aim high and spare no effort in trying to achieve those heights. You will often fail. To be honest, you will probably fail most of the time. But that’s unimportant. The important part is that sometimes you will achieve hard things.

And once you do, three magical things happen.

First, you become more confident. Which gives you the courage to attempt greater things and the motivation to work even harder on achieving them.

Next, people around you will notice your achievements and start labeling you as a high achiever. Keep this going for long enough and it will become a part of your identity.

In time, no task will scare you. You have built a solid foundation of tough experiences, a list of hard things you have mastered. Looking back, you can confidently say that this hard thing in front of you is tiny compared to the mountain of hardships behind you.

Finally, you enter the loop of compounding confidence: the more you have of it, the more you will get.

More confidence => more attempts at hard things => more success at harder tasks. And the wheel just keeps turning in your favor.
Here’s another guy who believed in the effect of compounding confidence and applied it like no other:

The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs

Thinking you can change the world is the sexy half of the story. The one who sells iPhones and dreams and makes millions in the process. The unsexy half comes next.

The Missing Ingredient

Here’s what most people get wrong: seeing yourself as an overachiever is necessary, but not sufficient. You still need to put in the work.

Vision boards, The Secret, Think and Grow Rich… they all work. But they only tell one half of the story. Here’s the other half.

You have to start with one hard thing. With emphasis on you have to start. Don’t just read books and articles, telling yourself stories about what you could do.

Pick one hard thing. Then stick with it for a long time. Even if you don’t achieve your initial goal, the rewards will be worth it.

How am I so sure? I won’t bore you with my achievements. Suffice to say I’ve been called an overachiever often enough to start believing it. And the results have been greater than my wildest dreams.

Follow the recipe and you might realize your dreams weren’t big enough.

PS: thanks Arun for making me think about this.

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