Originally published July 13, 2015 in the Boston Globe
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, “Well…How did I get here?”
Talking Heads, Once In A Lifetime
There are plenty of people out there giving advice about how to succeed in businesses and careers. Many of them claim their methods will make their followers a pile of money. Struggling entrepreneurs, small business people and ladder-climbing employees alike are finding that the rules don’t necessarily work for them.
Of course the fundamentals still matter. Having a product or service that people want is foremost. Using various promotional techniques to spread the word is just as important. People skills and management skills come in handy. Etc. But when you have pushed all the right buttons and checked all the right boxes and still haven’t gotten results, then what?
Doug G, a successful engineer and businessman who also had a 200-acre farm was fond of telling his own story to young people who were currently struggling with trying to make something of themselves. His story wasn’t particularly remarkable — especially from his own point of view. He grew up poor, worked his way through high school and college, then took a low-level job to support himself as he pursued his dreams. He worked hard, kept his eye out for opportunities, and eventually found some. But his real lesson coincides with the old Eastern wisdom about the illusion of cause and effect, the idea that you can’t get there from here. “One day it just happens,” he would say, in a statement that presaged the Talking Heads song Once In A Lifetime. “One day you’re where you set out to be and you ask yourself how you got there.”
Our western culture believes in rationalism and empiricism as the two primary ways for acquring knowledge. Rationalism is the belief that reason is the source of all knowledge. Empiricism is the belief that observation is the source of all knowledge. Putting them together results in a further belief in the concept of “causality,” also known as cause-and-effect. We believe through observation and the application of reason that events which are in an approximately linear sequence and which appear to be related often have a cause-and-effect relationship.
It may come as a surprise to learn that rationalism, empiricism and causality are not universally accepted as the way things are. There are lists of fallacies, i.e. known-incorrect arguments. One, the post hoc fallacy, is based on the Latin phrase “post hoc ergo propter hoc” which translates to “after this, therefore because of this” i.e. “since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one.â€ In other words, one event following another doesn’t mean that the first one caused the second.
We are made to believe, for instance, that success is due to hard work. This is based on the observation that many successful people work or have worked very hard. But the post hoc fallacy can easily be applied: Plenty of people work very hard but do not achieve the success they are dreaming of. Nobody works harder than a ditch digger but very few people consider a person who digs ditches to be an example of success. We can apply similar post hoc fallacy reasoning to other aspects of success: Some people think you need enough money to start a successful business, but there are thousands of examples where huge amounts of money are lost by throwing it at a business concept that never takes off. There are those who believe that a business degree will guarantee success. Some people with a business degree do succeed, but again there are thousands who do not.
On the other hand, doing nothing is clearly not the route to success. There is a story about a man who every week prayed that he would win the lottery. One day the man died and met God in heaven. He complained to God that his prayer was never answered. God told him “You could have met me halfway and bought a ticket.”
Doing something seems important to making success magic. Like the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth we must stir the charmed pot to make the potion.
Two great thinkers weighed in on cause-and-effect and its opposite:
Einstein said “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” It’s fairly clear that he stood on the side of everything being miraculous.
1600 years ago St. Augustine said “Miracles occur, not in opposition to nature, but in opposition to what we know of nature.”
So how do we apply the miraculous forces of nature to our quest for success?
We each have a creative energy in us. It manifests first as the spark of life, but it goes much further. It is the power in us that allows us to create our lives, including our financial life, our love life, our possessions and anything else you can think of. Harness that energy, transmute desire into money, as Napoleon Hill put it in his classic book “Think and Grow Rich,” and you can have or be anything you want. And one day you will find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, living in a beautiful house and asking yourself questions.