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The secret of success is that there’s no secret

Mar 16, 2014 Success, Sunday Nation

Why are we becoming so interested in ‘richest people’ lists in Kenya? Partly, as I wrote on this page last week, it’s because we have such a slobbering adoration for money as a society. Those who have it are a source of endless fascination for us.

But there’s another reason. Too many of us seem to imagine that we can study these people’s lives, and unearth some ‘secrets’ of success. That’s why we lap up their autobiographies, flock to events where the big dogs will be telling their life stories, and hope to spot something that we can ape. And hence be rich and successful ourselves.

Allow me some observations. First, the only people whose names ever appear on those lists of the wealthy are those with some publicly visible wealth. In an emerging economy, the names of the really rich never make it to any list. Their wealth can’t usually even be located, let alone measured. For reasons we know well.

Second, do you really believe those life stories? They’re always the same, and run something like this: “I grew up in very humble circumstances. I overcame many childhood deprivations. I worked harder than anyone else. I took on conventional wisdom, and won. I invested wisely. I was bold, but simultaneously prudent. I exercised great thrift and saved much of my money. I prayed throughout, and was therefore guided by angels.”

Ahem. A look at some of the richest folk in this land will confirm that there are some episodes missing in these narratives. Such as: “I made a government bigwig my partner, and was allocated some massive, overpriced tenders without having any delivery capacity. I cheated my siblings of their inheritance. I spread the money widely to ensure the playing field tilted in my favour. I never paid a cent in tax or duty. I had friends in high places.”

Who has ever told you that?

That is why I laugh out loud at the words of Don Marquis: “When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: ‘Whose?’” In fact, I look forward to meeting the first rich person who doesn’t tell me it was all due to hard work.

The problem with these stories is that they make people think that they, too, can be obscenely rich. All it takes is effort, prayer, perseverance and common sense, after all. The truth is something else altogether: If there’s a secret to being rich, you can rest assured you will never be told it.

Now, let’s not be too unkind. Many people, even in these parts, do make it through legitimate effort, after all. They do work very hard, do have great insights, do chart a path of distinction. And they do deserve their success.

The problem is when the rest of the adoring flock thinks the success can be copied. Does no one stop to think: what is it exactly you will copy? Their work habits? Their dressing style? Their upbringing? What if I told you this: billionaires brush their teeth up and down, not sideways. Try it. You’ll make billions too. Ready to believe me?

The truth is, every life is unique. You can only be Steve Jobs if you can be reborn as him and live out his life, exactly as it happened. Successful people are shaped by a complex combination of forces, and they respond to them with their distinctive personalities and aptitudes. The chances of you mimicking your way to success are extremely dim. Those who populate the admiring throng usually stay there.

It is way better to use your scarce time to understand yourself and your own distinctive strengths deeply, study the world and its unmet needs carefully, and combine the two uniquely. Then you’re giving yourself a fighting chance of making it.

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