We come up with many ideas on why human beings succeed or don’t. Here are two such popular ideas.

  1. Smarts

The idea here is that certain people can succeed at will because of their inherent intellectual abilities. But is this really true? If certain people can succeed at will, why do we lack success with many prevalent and persistent problems like conflict, crime, poverty, social unrest, ill health and disease, and ongoing harm to earth’s delicate ecosystems?

  1. Working hard

The idea here is that if a person works really hard until she can’t anymore, then she is guaranteed success. Many of us find this idea appealing because it makes us feel in control. Some of us like the idea of being self-made. But I think deep down, most of us know that the concept of hard work as a guarantee to success doesn’t hold true for probably most people on the planet. Billions of human beings work hard in abysmal conditions and can barely make ends meet. Not only that, but reciprocally, quite a number of human beings do very well with little or no work.

In light of the fact that popular ideas about success fail to explain much of the existing data, I think it would serve us well to consider a more accurate explanation for “success” or the lack of it. What we want here is a robust, but accessible explanation of all the roughly 7.2 billion data points. In other words, how do we explain the level of success for each person on the planet?

Equation for success:

Success = Actions × Opportunities – Deviations

The above equation is currently the most accurate explanation for success of which I am aware. It says that an individual’s success depends on three factors:


Actions refer to all the things that an individual can do to influence his outcomes of success. Individuals have conscious and voluntary control over these actions.


In this context, I use the term “opportunity” to describe a random variable that is not within a person’s control. Thus, opportunity, as a random variable, acknowledges the understanding that human beings are neither omnipotent nor omniscient. That is, human beings are unable to succeed at will with complete disregard to circumstances. Instead, they require favorable conditions in order to succeed.

More precisely, the opportunity term in the equation captures the idea that two different people taking the same set of actions will not necessarily achieve the same level of success. For instance, one person tries to raise money for a new business from five of his closest friends. He succeeds in raising $2,000. Another person goes to five of his closest friends and succeeds in raising $150,000. Each person has taken essentially the same actions, but they obtain different results. Hence, we can say that the second person has more opportunity, in this case because of relatively wealthy friends.


Deviation is the negative of opportunity. Just like opportunity, it is a random variable that is defined to be outside an individual’s control. Examples include having an accident, ill health, being a victim of the actions of others, layoffs, bad weather, natural disasters, traffic jams, setbacks, and the like. Deviations, like it says, force us to deviate from our plans for success. Once again, as a random variable, deviations acknowledge the non-omniscience and non-omnipotence of human beings. We are subject to nature.

In conclusion


We can see that overall, the equation for success can produce random results because it depends on two random variables. Ultimately, this randomness stems from the non-omnipotence of human beings. I think it makes sense then not to hinge our emotional wellbeing on our current levels of success. Otherwise, our emotional health will also become a random variable.

Importantly, considering that each individual is exposed to a unique set of opportunities and deviations, one must be wary of those who give advice on how to succeed. Many such people fail to take into account the unique circumstances that each individual faces.

Finally, we can observe from the equation that opportunities amplify our actions and thus the extent of our success. A subtle distinction that has a powerful consequence follows from this observation: we can maximize the probability of great outcomes of success if we disregard merely good opportunities and instead focus our time and energy on great opportunities. By choosing great opportunities, we increase inspiration and minimize the amount of work (actions) required for success.