The Foundations of Success
by Ken Arneson
2011-11-18 17:44

One of the things that’s prevented me from blogging more is that I haven’t spelled out the foundations of the arguments I want to make. I find myself first having to explain the foundations, which makes my articles too long and time-consuming for me to complete. So I want to spell out those things that I have come to believe first, so that I can just link to them later. Here’s the first one:

Success, in pretty much any field, is a two-step function:

  1. Understand what quality is
  2. Insist on it

The first is a matter of education and experience. The second is a matter of character and hard work.

If you fail, it’s usually because you fell short on one of these, or both.

Look at Steve Jobs. Jobs obviously embodied this idea. He knew what quality meant to him, and he would insist on it, even if he had to be a jerk in the process.

But quality isn’t just artistic quality. Bill Gates has also been very successful, but heavens knows that understanding artistic quality has never been among his strengths. But I’d argue that Microsoft had a different definition of quality. They defined it in terms of ubiquity. They explicitly said that their goal was to get their products on every desk in the world. And so Microsoft organized itself in such a way to achieve quality as they defined it. Nobody was better than Microsoft at making sure their products were able to get on every desk in the world. I’ve worked in the computer distribution industry and seen them at work. They’re absolute geniuses at distribution.

Understanding quality doesn’t necessarily mean a conscious understanding of quality, though. You don’t have to be able to verbally explain your definition of quality. It can be a “gut feel” of what is good and what isn’t. But if your “gut feel” of quality doesn’t correlate with actual quality, you won’t succeed.

You can also insist on quality without being a jerk like Steve Jobs. I’ll bet that the reason Steve Jobs clashed with so many people is that while he insisted on making quality products, he didn’t bother, like most other people, to insist on behaving like a quality human being. He would probably accept that trade-off. Most of the rest of us probably wouldn’t. That’s probably why there are so few Steve Jobs. Insistence is hard.

There are some things you can’t insist on. If I decided today to become a world-class soccer player, I could maybe come to understand how to do that. But I couldn’t insist on it. I’d have to go back in time to when I was about 7 years old and start practicing. It’s too late for that. When you truly understand quality you will also understand when you are incapable of achieving it.

We can feel free to dismiss or ignore people who can’t or won’t bother to understand quality, or don’t care enough about it to insist on it. I’m not physically capable, at age 45, of becoming a great soccer player. Maybe I was at age 10, but back then, I didn’t care enough about it to insist on it. Therefore, then as now, nobody bothers to write essays about my soccer skills, and nobody should. It’s not worth talking about.

Where things get really interesting are when:

  • Multiple understandings of quality collide
  • An environment is so new that there’s no way to know what quality is, so you have to experiment and figure it out as you go along

That’s the kind of stuff worth talking about.

This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about
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