If There Were A Formula For Success, What Would It Look Like?

Usually, a title like the one above would put me off immediately. I generally have apprehension about the idea of any type of formula, especially one that is found in the domain of behaviour and titled so boldly as “formula for success.”

Ironically, I love social science. I often refer to thought-provoking experiments in my work and conversations. But even then, I hold them loosely, knowing that as a species we constantly learn more about ourselves. We can’t get too attached to a single idea, because new science might alter that idea. But when it comes to success, is it a different matter? Is there a formula for it as many self-help books would imply? Oh, and on that note… what is success?    

Adam Grant’s Formula For Success

Many years ago, I came across an interesting formula by Adam Grant in his book, Give and Take. This formula resonated with me. It challenged my thinking and rose more questions than answers. On the surface, it’s not controversial. But beneath, it’s potentially loaded and challenging. Let’s look at each part of this formula for success in detail. 

Success/Achievement = Talent + Discipline (Hard work) + Opportunity (Luck) + Reciprocity style (The nature and quality of your relationships) 


Many of us would probably be familiar with this formula, except for the reciprocity addition. We often overlook the role relationships play in achievement. But when we intentionally develop strong and trustful bonds (which include the ability to create boundaries), then success, whatever its definition, is enhanced. Simply put, when opportunity allows, people will punish the jerk. When you are a jerk, maintaining success becomes hard work. 

Opportunity And Luck

The word ‘luck’ in the formula above, would probably have caused a negative interpretation to many readers. We don’t like that word and probably prefer the softer word ‘opportunity’. After all, if we have achieved, we like to think it’s because of our talent and discipline. We gravitate towards quotes on luck which say, ‘luck favours the prepared mind’ and ‘the harder I work the luckier I get.’ I agree with these quotes. But if we look at our success in honest retrospect, there’s always some form of undeserved favour. Success and achievement invariably have a good dose of privilege that allows opportunity, and a sequence of events where we are plain and simply ‘fortunate/blessed’ – whatever the word.  

If There Were A Formula For Success, What Would It Look Like?


Discipline, opportunity, and reciprocity are generally underrated. Talent, on the other hand, is overrated. 

So, let’s provide a little more substance to the above. To chase a goal, the formula is very enlightening. To succeed, focus on your strengths, be prepared to do the hard work, look for and find opportunities, and enlist the help of others. All four of these ingredients are vital.  

Don’t conclude, and don’t overestimate talent. 

Talent opens the door for achievement. The problem with talent is, who decides if you are talented? And once a verdict of talent is made, does that mean that talent cannot be developed? 

The very first time I volunteered to give a speech was in High School, and I became the laughingstock of the debate evening. I displayed so much nervous energy while speaking, that I got a special mention by the adjudicator at the end of the evening. I was the young fellow who ‘hypnotized’ the audience through my constant rocking. while at the same time, happened to offend the school Principal, in remarking that mathematicians were “old fuddy daddies.” He was my math teacher. 

Truth be told, I had no idea what I was saying in that impromptu speech, as I was a wreck. And yet for the past 18 years, my profession lies in public speaking, and making others feel safe through the beautiful art of facilitation. That night should have killed any desire of mine for public speaking. But fortunately, it did not become the verdict on whether or not I was talented. 

There are so many stories like mine out there. Renowned artist Jackson Pollock was considered by early teachers to have no skill. And yet he became Jackson Pollock. 

Discipline And Hard Work

A second consideration around talent is that if I consider myself to be talented, I might not do the second part of the equation – the hard work. Talent can be seductively deceptive, making us believe that we are better than others. In his brilliant book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell refers to a nineties experiment by psychologist Norden Erickson, who did research at a top music school in Berlin. The musicians were divided into three groups. Group 1 were those who had the potential to be great musicians. Group 2, had the potential to be good musicians. And Group 3 were those that based on demonstration, were more likely to become teachers and not performers.  

They tracked the musician’s past and how much they had practised. Most started at age 5, and for a few years, their levels of practice were the same. But as they grew older, the intensity of practise began to differ. Those in Group 1 ramped up their dedication, practising much more than those who were in Group 2, and much, much more than those in Group 3 who would become teachers.

The bottom line? Once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard they work. Talent, whilst important, is often overrated in success. All it does is open the door. 

Success Is Not Accidental

Author John Maxwell says, “nobody ever talks about accidental success.” I think he’s right. Whenever there’s success, somebody has worked hard to attain it. They have put in the hours, reckoned with the hard part, and persevered. They have done the ‘reps’ even when it was boring and totally sacrificial. Read any good biography on achievement and you’ll find this ingredient. 

Focused energy on the ‘hard part’ is often the separator between good and great, a powerful principle made in Jim Collins’ epic book called Good to Great. We cannot say enough about this simple principle, and I don’t know people who disagree with the notion that discipline and hard work are critical to achievement. I definitely think discipline deserves to be in the formula for success.

If There Were A Formula For Success, What Would It Look Like?

The Problem With Work Ethic

People who work hard deserve the success that comes their way. There is a challenge though. The ‘hard work ethic’ can become a self-righteous entitlement, where I deserve what I have because of my hard work. Whereas those who don’t have my accolades have what they have because they did not work hard like me. I have had endless conversations with friends and acquaintances on this topic and it does get emotional. A friend said to me, “I took the risk and worked hard and that is why I have succeeded”. My response was, yes you did and well done. However, your privilege allowed you to take risks until you succeeded.

Now in no way is such an answer meant to diminish his success.

It’s simply challenging the notion that hard work alone, did not bring success. Other factors enabled or rewarded the at appropriate times. This is the essence of Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Our ability to succeed is powerfully bound to where we’re from and often includes undeserved or favourable outcomes that were not in our control. 

A great exercise to do is to think of one of your achievements. Then pat yourself on the back for the hard work and effort applied. Then move into the place of gratitude and name those things that came your way not because you deserved them, but because they were given to you. 

Oh, and by the way, when an opportunity came your way and you seized it, well done. Don’t be ashamed of your opportunity or privilege. But use this for good, to make the world better, acknowledging the grace that you received. 

Be A Person Who Others Want To Succeed

Lastly, we often underestimate the role of others in the formula for success. Sometimes people succeed at the cost of others. There are unfortunately too many examples of this. But this kind of success comes with huge ramifications and ultimately, regret. To sustain an achievement that is the story of legacy, develop strong circles of trust and collaboration.

In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant highlights that this is the domain of Givers, who achieve through and with others. They are distinguished from Takers and Matchers, who often have early but less sustainable success. The achieving giver, who values virtues of trust and accountability, develops networks that support long-term achievement. 

Become intentional about networking and relationships. Invite people into your corner. Cherish and value them. Try and move away from the notion of achievement being an individualistic game – one that is all too common in our world.  Learn to say, ‘thank you,’ and ‘I need you’, and ‘what matters to you?’  

We are always a student of life. And being a student of life demonstrates a willingness to embrace difficult concepts. Be curious and if need be, become open to changing your mind.
Maybe there is more than one formula for success. Maybe this one works for you, maybe it doesn’t. Regardless, it packs a punch of truths that are applicable and impactful in all we do. 

So, may we continue to hold these formulas lightly, to hold success lightly, and when it comes to success and achievement, may we never stop being the student. 

If There Were A Formula For Success, What Would It Look Like?

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