Take Advantage

Michael Phelps Olympics 2008

Michael Phelps recognized and took his advantages. Shouldn’t you?

At Startup School 2012, Jessica Livingston, a partner at Y Combinator, gave a talk on the challenges that founders face. It’s worth reading for anyone interested in or knows someone interested in early stage startups – you can find the full text here.

In the discussion of the talk on Hacker News, there was a rather spiteful comment that suggested Jessica’s success with her book Founders at Work, which helped establish her expertise in startups, was due in large part to her personal relationship to Paul Graham (then a successful entrepreneur featured in the book who eventually became her husband)

The comment was false, rude and was down voted to oblivion as it should have been, but there’s a dangerous suggestion contained in it that I want to address.

The World is Not Fair

Most people believe in the “just world” hypothesis, meaning that people get what they deserve and smart, hardworking and capable people are rewarded for their efforts. In the United States, and especially in technology, this is often the case. While this is a good belief to hold, it can also lead to sniping and cries of “not fair” when people see others move ahead of them for reasons that might feel “non meritocratic”.

The fact is that resources and talent are NOT equally distributed. People born into middle class families in the United States have a incredible social, educational and financial advantage over people born into impoverished families in Sub-Saharan Africa and have way more upwards mobility to boot.

Where you are born and what family you are born to are two factors that have nothing to do with merit, and everything to do with luck. And yet it makes such a big difference. Remember that the next time you complain about someone’s “unfair” advantage.

So what should you do instead of complaining?

Develop and Leverage Your Advantages

No matter who you are, you posses certain qualities and have access to certain resources that make you better positioned to succeed in certain fields than other people. Maybe you have a knack for a good turn of phrase. Maybe your father is well connected in an industry you’re interested in. Maybe you find that people you just met tend to trust you. Maybe you are willing to concentrate for hours to solve complex problems.

These strengths are your competitive advantage. Should you ignore them in the name of “fairness” and only pursue activities where you are more evenly matched against other people? It’d be foolhardy to ignore these advantages.

Instead, you should leverage the hell out of them.

Successful People Win Because They Leverage Their Advantages

  • Michael Phelps’s lanky body and double jointed ankles made him a record-breaking gold medal winning Olympic swimmer. But trust me, that body would have made him terrible gymnast.
  • JK Rowling’s introverted nature and whimsical creativity would have made her a poor candidate for Secretary of State. Similarly, Hillary Clinton probably would have had far less impact on society as a children’s author.
  • Warren Buffett is one of the wealthiest people on the planet and yet he admits he’s part of the “lucky sperm club” and that his analytical abilities would be worth nothing if he was dropped in the middle of Africa.

Know Thyself

This is why I think self-knowledge is so important. Understanding and leveraging your strengths/weaknesses and the resources you have at your disposal allows you to maximize your own effectiveness and impact.

Note: leveraging your advantages does not mean being unethical. I am by no means advocating lying, stealing and cheating – playing by the rules is the only way to go. But I’d bet good money that you’re not fully leveraging the advantages you do have at your disposal.

Paul Graham boils being a good founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful. There is no doubt that people who are relentlessly resourceful make the most out of every advantage they have.

So don’t waste any time complaining about other people’s accomplishments, and focus on creating your own.


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A reader of mine just linked me this -- hadn't seen it before. Terrific piece. Arguing over how worthy someone is of their successes has to be one of the most disastrous wastes of time... the only reasoning for it would be if analyzing and debating how applicable their general strategies are if we wish to emulate those strategies. 

It has a long history, though -- Nietzsche wrote about it. Many people, falling short of where they'd like to be in life, attempt to cut down others on some intangible level rather than excel themselves. What a shame, eh? A good question, then, would be how do we encourage less of this going forwards? It's at worst destructive for the individual doing it and society at large, and at best a tremendous waste of time.

Ray Refundo
Ray Refundo

I would say that ultimately luck is 100% of your fate. Think about it, if it's 50% environment and 50% genetics where else can you credit yourself? Ever since they mapped out the human genome they have already identified genes for personality traits like drive, sense of purpose, desires etc. And environment plays into this too but you don't choose where you are born or who your parents are going to be. The weird part is hard work, perseverance, tenacity, resourcefulness are all still important and can be learned by anyone. Just my 2 cents.  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120516115903.htm 

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