Tom butler-bowdon
1985 Tom Cruise

At 1985 White House reception

Prerequisites of success


I once read an article about Tom Cruise.

It must have been early on his career when he was still an up-and-comer. The journalist wrote that the actor was "obsessed with success".

The success Cruise was talking about, of course, was his own. He was concerned to achieve it, hang on to it, make an impact.

The idea of personal success rests on the assumption that there are opportunities for upward mobility. But for much of human history, the social order was largely fixed, and one was either lowborn or highborn, dictating one's opportunities in life.

In the Roman Empire there was some mobility for the talented, loyal, or lucky. Cicero and Seneca may have come from well-off or aristocratic families, but there was also scope for an Epictetus to go from slave to philosopher in one lifetime.

Tom Cruise's background was actually pretty humble, but he assumed he would have chances, that his life need not be the same as his parents or grandparents.

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A young Thomas Sowell

In his book Discrimination and Disparities (2019), economist Thomas Sowell presents a theory of success.

It's all about "prerequisites and probabilities".

Out of five prerequisites for success in something, many people will have two or three of them, and a lot will have four. But only about one in eight will have all five.

That sounds good, but means that the chance of failure is seven out of eight i.e. high.

There may be millions of golfers who are superb at one skill, such as driving off the tee, or putting, but professionals need to have a suite of skills much higher than the norm, plus greater than usual tenacity and ambition. Most pro golfers never win a major championship, yet just three (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods) have won 200 among them.

Both on the left and right of politics, Sowell says, people assume levels of success probability that are not realistic. They assume that if you remove social barriers like racism and poverty, people will finally get the opportunity to succeed.

In many cases, this is exactly what happens. Other times, it is not enough.

Tunnel of ducks

Ducks in a row

For centuries, European Jews had to live in ghettos and were restricted to certain jobs like garment making or moneylending; their opportunities were severely limited. But after universities began to admit Jewish people, there was an explosion in their influence in many professions and in academia in Europe.

This was not just because Jews were suddenly "educated". They had been part of a literate culture for a very long time. Rather, they just needed one more prerequisite - formal education qualifications, which provides acceptance into the higher tiers of society - to capitalize.

For groups as for individuals, success means having "all one's ducks lining up in a row". One duck missing, and nothing great happens.

Sowell is fond of KIPP and charter schools in the United States (which impose high standards on children regardless of background). Many look to provide a non-ideological, fact-based approach to improving chances for students.

Most have done well because the teachers and administrators in charge have studied success. They know that just taking away poverty or racism isn't enough - a child needs a list of prerequisites like good grades, respect for elders, curiosity, motivation, help with college entry - to create a successful career and life. And even then, nothing is certain. But at least there is a much higher probability.

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Stephen Covey of "7 Habits" fame, c. 2005

Go deeper

The "success" industry - by which I mean self-help, personal development, motivation - is riddled with what Sowell calls "one-factor causalities". We are told that getting up at 5 a.m., having a growth mindset, not giving a fk, expressing vulnerability, or some other "secret" will vault us to a life of happiness and freedom.

I have more respect for concepts like the "7 habits of highly effective people" which although hardly scientific admit that success is down to many things. For instance if only one of Covey's habits is missing, it's hard to really fulfil one's potential in life and work. Again, an echo of Sowell's "factor" theory - success is rarer and more complicated than most motivational gurus will admit.

When there's more to something than meets the eye, it calls out for careful study to separate myth from fact. Doing this marks is the beginning of a discipline as opposed to an ideology.

This is where I believe we are at in terms of the "success" as an area. It will take years and decades to properly study, but identifying the various theories and philosophies of success - like Thomas Sowell's "factor" theory, are a good start.

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Theories and philosophies of success

I've started to document success theories in the following 10-30 point 'memos'.

They only take a few mins to read but could shift your thinking in some way. Have a look:

In success, this is so much more important than intelligence
- Click to find out this X-factor

Is success possible just by thinking about it?
- The extraordinary power of self-talk

What psychology trait is the strongest predictor of success?
- Quiet achievers, you will like this one

It's THE most important element of success, says a top investor
- The power of a Churchillian sense of destiny

What makes people tick?
- The 'Napoleon factor' i.e. chip on one's shoulder fuels achievement


Ernest Hemingway, camp in Kenya

Write Memos yourself

Anyone can start writing and publishing Memos like the ones above.

You just create an account on Memo'd and away you go.

We also have a Commissioned Program where we pay select writers for:

▪ objective, information-dense Memos that cover a topic or issue well e.g. a good summary of a book or an idea
objective, information-dense Memos that cover a topic or issue well e.g. a good summary of a book or an idea

For example, here's one I commissioned from a creator on a famous Thomas Carlyle book:

How humans are built to worship heroes

I also commission 'expert' or 'insider' insight Memos like this one from a technology investor, who gives his take on the key trends of the next decade:

A near-zero and energy cost and labor future?

I am also open to opinion pieces on current events, or Memos that provide unusual insights into issues and topics.

To apply to write for the Commissioned Program, just reply to this email or send a message to and I will review your pitch and get back.

Please provide:
- Any links to existing articles or work
- Ideas for content you'd be keen to summarize
- Ideas for original Memos
- Your work or career background if keen to write 'expert' Memos

Thank you.

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One person who thought a lot about success, or rather "greatness", was Friedrich Nietzsche.

He was ahead of his time in rejecting the common moral values of his day - he called Christianity a "slave morality" - in favor of a red-blooded individualism.

His masterpiece (well, one among many) is Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

“Zarathustra left his home and the lake of his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude and for ten years he did not tire of it.”

The enlightened Zarathustra chooses to come down from his mountain to engage with humanity. So begins a series of events where he engages with various characters.

Presaging the existentialists, Nietzsche's message is that the only time we have is now, that we should give up our focus on the metaphysical Beyond, and obsession with the future. There may in fact be no "higher" or "better", just a constant recurring of the same events. Therefore acceptance of things as they are is the only way can really live.

Nietzsche's Übermensch or 'Superman' - represented by Zarathustra - is not marked out by his deeds, more by his heroic grasping of the nettle of life, free of delusions.

That's not your usual kind of self-help, and yet lifting the veil of ignorance is surely the start of anything good. As I've argued elsewhere, we can't define success as anything but truth. Someone can seem successful now, but time reveals everything. The role of time in success is underrated and not well understood.

This new edition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which I commissioned as part of the Capstone series, is coming out about now. It includes a great Intro by Nietzsche scholar Dirk Johnson.

Here's the book on Amazon and Amazon UK, or your local bookshop should be able to order it in.

"The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly."
Friedrich Nietzsche

Thank you.

Kind regards,
Tom Butler-Bowdon

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