Success stories. Immediately you think of people like Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King. People who made empires from nothing.
You might also think of people who lost a tonne of weight like Adele, Drew Carry, Chris Pratt, or Rebel Wilson.
Whatever you pursue in life, someone has done it before. Maybe not exactly how you would, but their journey is inspiring nevertheless.
It makes you want to pursue it in earnest. If that person can do it then why not you? It’s overall external motivation to push you forward while you find other reasons. Internal motivation.
But it should come to no surprise that success stories can be dangerous in certain situations. Success stories are designed to inspire people and to inform people to not make the same mistakes.
And yet many of them use it for some twisted methods.
They’re Promote Toxic Positivity
More specifically, they’re used as a method for invalidation. Toxic positivity is all about blatantly denying anything negative. Negativity is a sort of taboo and when it comes to success, there are people who believe that failure isn’t an option.
They use invalidation all the time and success stories happen to be a scapegoat for these tactics.
When you look back to successful people or the people that have done certain achievements, it’s easy for someone to use invalidation to say the following:
So and so was able to do all of this despite their circumstances. What’s your excuse?
While it sounds like a powerful statement, it’s also demoralizing in a sense as well. Not everyone has the same level of privileges or opportunities as others have.
Even though there are successful people or people who achieved what you want to pursue who are people of colour, people just assume the same scenarios can easily play out. A person of colour meeting the right white person who happens to have a lot of influence or that person landing a major role in a film that does well.
The expectation isn’t realistic because we don’t live in an ideal world. Ideally, anyone can succeed at anything. But that’s not the world we live in.
There are several different obstacles that are in our path. And yes while some of them are silly and pointless, it doesn’t change the fact that we consider them as legitimate.
And having one snarkily remind us of excuses while delegitimizing them is dehumanizing and downplaying a negative emotion that we experience.
It can also serve as a painful reminder of our own situations that we’re in. Over time, it is possible to change, but the chances become smaller when you are constantly reminded of your own shortcomings.
And it’s ironic that it stems from a practice where negative emotions are meant to be non-existent.
They Omit Failures
One of my favourite success stories out there is a film that emerged in 2006. It’s called “The Pursuit of Happyness”. It’s about. a 2-hour long film that looks at the success story of Chris Gardner – played by Will Smith.
The story looks at aspects of homelessness and how Chris Gardner overcame them while looking for work and raising a kid.
Why I like this story is that at the very least it shows Chris Gardner struggling. It shows his failures as he climbs his way out of homelessness.
This is one of the glaring issues that we see with success stories: we see people once they’ve made it on top. We’re not fully aware of their struggles and issues and how they overcame them.
Yes, some will share nuggets of information, but they’re not always applicable or appropriate for people. Again, everyone’s circumstances and privileges are different and not everyone has the luxury of pursuing other options.
But the omission of failures – rather the specific details – is bad because it creates an iceberg scenario.
Most people only see the good aspects – the person actually succeeding – and aren’t always familiar with how that person got there.
Similar to an iceberg, you only see the peak and not the massive amount of ice underneath propping it up. What’s underneath provides a tonne of context that gets ignored. People simply like the rise and success and never what it actually took the person to get there.
There Aren’t Tangible Benefits
The final reason is that success stories ultimately glorify the person and share little of the process. Again, some of the stories do alleviate this a little by showing some struggle or present a scenario.
But largely they provide little help for us than just some loose external motivation. Even then it only helps you in actually getting started. Once you start, you need to find more reasons and go through struggles to get the results.
People still don’t realize that “overnight success” happened after working at something for several years or months. And that success story isn’t going to prepare you for the stuff that you’re going to face.
Instead, these stories weave a tale where you can be like that person if all the stars align and you happen to be at the right place at the right time.
It creates an illusion that success is just around the corner or can even be easier to obtain now that this success story shared some generic lessons.
It sets you up for disappointment. If you’re expecting instant success or success in a short period of time, you’ll be disappointed 99% of the time.
So What’s More Effective?
Instead of listening to success stories over and over again, start moving forward. Pay attention to the details and get a process from them. When you have something concrete to work with, you’ll get a better understanding of what to do.
Or you can take my own approach and simply jump in for yourself and learn along the way. Often times you pick up on things along the way and teach yourself to be more self-reliant in the process.
To your growth!
Eric S Burdon