The Soul of Success Part 2


Please read the first part before reading this one. What can i say about the comments? Thank you all. Wow! We are blessed to have such a wise community collected here, right? [On a side note, the post brought Kannan Nagarajan, a SAST wingee other than self and Ganesh, to the blog after a long time]  As i said, this question has been jostling in my head for a long time. However, in late Nov 2008, i decided to tweet the question . Within minutes both Priya Raju and Vivekananthan came out with a brilliant response. Ganesh came up with the same brilliant response in the last post – money/fame are just byproducts of success. Having either as goals will highly likely lead us astray.  Although this answer nails an important aspect of goal setting, it didn’t quite nail it for me, which is why i wrote it as a blog post. 

Wisdom of the Community

I decided to analyze the received wisdom from the previous post to show where we as a group stand.


Malcolm Gladwell’s Take on Success

I have tried to read on this subject quite a bit and as we have seen in this blog before, everyone talks about building expertise, being passionate etc. Malcolm Gladwell in his most recent book Outliers  analyzes success in his trademark style – lots of anecdotes. The book is  a good read but comes up  short. If  i were to summarize his book in one line –  you need to spend a lot of focused effort and hope that you are born at the right time. He proves this with anecdote after anecdote.  You can read this summary that captures the essence of Outliers quite well [If you all want to know why i disagree with Gladwell, please comment. i can do a separate post].

Black Swan

Although the book  is not technically about success, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (NNT)’s brilliant book Black Swan  gave me some crucial pointers.  It is a hard to read book, but may well be worth your time. i have already read it twice, but can’t say i have completely grasped it.  In that book, NNT outlines a major insight – the world of work is of 2 types – mediocristan and extremistan.  Mediocristan professions are the routine ones like accounting, medicine etc. Extremistan professions are the non-routine ones like Arts, Media, Professional Sports etc.  He gives lots of mathematical reasoning using Gaussian Curves, Mandelbrotian curves to prove his point. I tried to rephrase his thesis into this:

If what you do for a living has a recipe (a proven How To ), highly likely you are in a Mediocristan profession. On the other hand, if what you are doing does not have a recipe, you are highly likely in an Extremistan profession. 

Goal or Journey ? 

With that context, we are ready to tackle our core topic. To reemphasize, we can’t have money or fame as goals because they are byproducts of success. 

Let me take my famous example of this blog’s goal. By the definition above, blogging is an extremistan profession because the recipe of how to become a top blog on the internet doesn’t exist. Yes, i am aware of  the various How Tos and i have to tell you those don’t cut it, because i have tried following them. 

In an extremistan profession, if you want to rise to the top, you do need an ambitious goal,  and you have to firmly believe in that goal with as much attachment as possible.  Given that the failure rate is very high, you have to have an appetite for high risk, to try extremistan professions. If you succeed, money and/or fame are highly likely to follow. To illustrate, to play for the Indian Cricket XI maybe a great goal, but recognize that several million players are in the fray and only 13 players make it.  The recipe for making it to the Indian XI is not known. It is a high risk high reward scenario. You can’t succeed in cricket, if you are trying to make it a profession, by aspiring to play for the third division league!   

In a mediocristan profession, by contrast, since the recipe is well known, lot of people are in it already.  I would say most people  that serve as an employee of a company are in the mediocristan professions [with some exceptions like startups or executive management]. In these professions, being passionate, focusing on the journey and doing your best may be the best way. Lots of money/fame may not follow, but a reasonable level of success can be achieved.  Generic goals work best in the mediocristan profession.  One should also not be too attached to the goal and perhaps recalibrate over time. 

Where I disagree with NNT is that, all is not lost if you are in Mediocristan. If you are in a mediocristan profession, you can try to develop a new recipe to change the rules of the game.  For instance,  Dr. Christian Barnard developed a procedure to do heart transplants.  He definitely achieved fame (and money i hope).  Steve Jobs changed the rules of the game by introducing design-thinking led products in the Technology marketplace to win big. 


I am not completely convinced with what i have said above.  What do you all think?


  1. Quote

    life is a river, and we are that …

    does the river have the ocean as its goal?

  2. Quote

    Interesting thoughts Sukumar..
    I think the post presupposes that money and fame is what is meant by success. If that is the case, then having audacious goals, being attached to them, being passionate will make a lot of sense in achieving them. It surely requires them to have a lot of passion towards what they are doing because in order to achieve those audacious goals, the will surely have to sacrifice simple things which bring joy and mostly have monomaniacal obsession towards their goal.

    I think the best joys are simple… and people who know this and want to be like that will mostly enter to professions where the recipe is known and hence they will derive more satisfaction by focusing on the journey and deriving pleasure in this. This is their success. And surely proactive people in this will make process improvements and thus will shine but that will not be their goal.. it just happened so..

    But there are other kinds of people who have big and passionate dreams, but are stuck in the mediocre jobs.. These people will have a lot of dissatisfaction and it is better for them to quit the job and try living in the first way..

    People in both the categories do have their own problems but people in the first category should be more passionate as they will more obsessed with their work, will have less friends and hence less support when they fail, then only their passion will make them go forward….
    though people in the second category sometime feel that they have not achieved anything meaningful, as they have more balanced life, they will soon forget it and get on with their lives..

    Does it make any sense ;?

  3. Quote
    kumaran said March 15, 2009, 10:12 pm:

    A nice summary of the entire thread.

    But why single out the “mediocristan profession” for recalibrating goals. Even for the other one it might make sense. As the goal could be against nature as this has not been tried and proved by others.

  4. Quote

    I enjoyed the previous post and comments very much. Thanks for making it happen.

    In my view I feel success is feeling good about yourself. You feel good when you have attained what you wanted to. But when you attain what you want, that knowledge will lead you to something else.Since there can not be a destination, its better to derive pleasure in the journey itself. Regarding detachment from success: I feel its necessary to have some pit-stops to prepare yourself for the distance ahead – those pit stops are success. Thats my view about it. Its necessary for an individual to make some pit-stops then and there. If he doesnt get one then and there , its very difficult to have a good attitude for the journey ahead.

    I am leaving the question “What one wants?” unanswered because it differs greatly with individuals.

  5. Quote


    Excellent post and thoughtful one. You are right that Extremistan has no “how tos” in other words no proven way of achieving something, whereas Mediocristan has some proven ways. The point is, do we need to go to a proven, safest way of attaining our goals, or unknown and difficult way of attaining our goals.

    One day in my school final years, a teacher asked us to tell about our goals, what we want to be in our life? Most of us replied “Doctor” or Engineer”, very few replied “Politicians” or “Actor” or something out of ordinary and only one answered “I want to earn Rs one crore” as a 15-16 year kid 1 crore is something higher. Guess what, most of replied “Doctor” or “Engineer” ends up with Science/Art college and Out of ordinary ends up with profession degree and the one said one crore also ended up in professional degree. As per your categorization, we are all in Mediocristan career but the one said one crore is doing really better than others. Because he had a specific goal in mind so pushing high and high himself helping him to achieve his goals, even tough he is in Mediocristan career and he is best friend of mine too.

    So as per my view, Extremistan career and setting an impractical goal is okay as long as we are ready to accept failures and constantly adopting new environments, same times even change to mediocristan career. In mediocristan career, goal setting really important because we achieve our goal easily hence setting bar higher and higher constantly is really important. Don’t settle with initial goals and make ourself push higher and higher is important for mediocritian, i think lot of money/fame people are from Mediocritian career also, because of their constant push.

  6. Quote

    Thanks Sukumar for giving credit.

    I think I can quote this:
    “Education is a real manifestation of oneself” – Swami Vivekananda

    To me profession is a feel of oneself, you know what’s your responsibility and you know what you are and you do what you were supposed to do.

    Reg. Goals Vs Journey:

    It’s real important that both exists and both are co-related, instead of considering both as a single entity, I might call goals as derivative of journey. Yes we all know that setting a goal and the path we took to chase that goal is journey. But that is a plan which is derived from the set of assumptions and from collective set of related information. When you reach your goal and analyze the path taken you know the deviation from the planned and executed, thus the reason I call goals as derivative of journey.

    I don’t know whether I am clear in expressing myself, but it would be understood when you realize.

    Thank Sukumar for making a platform for everyone to share their knowledge.

  7. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 16, 2009, 8:27 pm:

    Thanks Gregory. Yes, you can lead life without any goals, but i think that requires a level of maturity that is difficult to get to.

  8. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 16, 2009, 8:35 pm:

    Thanks Ananth.

    I thought i explicitly forbade having money/fame as goals. Success does not always mean money or fame. In my view, meeting your goals constitutes success. For instance, One can aspire to play for the Hockey XI of India. It would also be quite arduous, probably not as competitive as cricket because fewer people will try for this one. Clearly it will not allow someone to make a lot of money unlike cricket. But that maybe okay if someone is very passionate about hockey.

    As for what you have said later on in the comment, i agree with you fully. Very interesting observation on the 2 categories’ end game.

    I have a question – is it possible that the second category thinks they have not achieved anything meaningful because they didn’t really set goals, they simply drifted through life?

  9. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 16, 2009, 8:41 pm:

    Thanks. You are right, you may need to recalibrate in the Extremistan professions also. However, that would miss the point of setting ambitious goals and trying to use that to fire up performance. Recalibration should be attempted only after you have given it all, towards your original goal, right?

  10. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 16, 2009, 8:45 pm:

    Thanks. You seem to be of the view that it is the journey that matters? Sure, that is a view that a few have supported already. However, if you subscribe to the view that one needs goals, then you would need to look at what kind of profession you are attempting and decide the goals based on that. This is the essence of my second post.

    Hope that helps?

  11. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 16, 2009, 8:51 pm:

    Thanks Subba.

    Interesting examples from your school days. You are right, if you believe strongly in your goal you will figure out a way to achieve it. The problem is, during school days, those that say Doctor or Engineer are saying that because that is what everyone is saying. They may not believe in it strongly enough to fire themselves up. It appears your friend was fired up by his goal and made it happen.

    Interesting view on setting higher and higher goals in mediocristan profession. When i mentioned recalibrating, i was mostly thinking recalibrating downwards. Your point is very insightful. Perhaps we should be recalibrating the goal higher and higher. Need to think about that some more.

  12. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 16, 2009, 8:55 pm:


    Thanks for your kind words. Your comment is insightful. You are right, the journey may not be exactly along the lines we planned based on the goals. If i read further into what you said, one can look at those deviations from plan as some of the joys of the journey. After all, if everything worked to plan, life would be too boring.

    Is that what you meant?

  13. Quote
    kumaran said March 16, 2009, 9:43 pm:


    Yes you are correct, we can only recaliberate after giving it all. The fight I have with my wife my 100% is never 100% for her. I am accused to taking things easy. I can never win that argument. 🙂 🙂 . The point is “Best” is a moving target, it is upto that individual. After he personally feels he has given his best he can recalibration. Reaclibration should not be used as an escapist tactic.

    Other meaning of recalibration, not to get fixated with goals. some of the famous inventions would have never if the famous inventors were too much focussed on their initial goals. Some examples

    Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming was researching the flu in 1928 when he noticed that a blue-green mold had infected one of his petri dishes – and killed the staphylococcus bacteria growing in it. All hail sloppy lab work!

    Potato chips
    Chef George Crum concocted the perfect sandwich complement in 1853 when – to spite a customer who complained that his fries were cut too thick – he sliced a potato paper-thin and fried it to a crisp. Needless to say, the diner couldn’t eat just one.

    Famous Accidental Discoveries.

  14. Quote

    Nice Post,

    My idea was to choose your journey first and then also your goals. One cannot live in this world if he has no Goals. Atleast he must have a goal to live a careless vagabond life 🙂

    Once you decide on the journey part, it does not matter if it is mediocre or a extreme goal as you have decided your way and methods already. The nature of goal depends on the person’s eagerness and capacity.

    Generally people select extreme goals as it gives them more vigour and help them realize their potential.

  15. Quote

    Regarding your question – I have a question – is it possible that the second category thinks they have not achieved anything meaningful because they didn’t really set goals, they simply drifted through life?

    If they are happy and satisfied, then may be they will never get this question, but if they are not happy about something, then they will surely question themselves… They may do something then or think that it is too late and leave it.. trying to think of examples but cannot recollect any.

  16. Quote

    Exactly, Life has to have some unplanned events where your self is tested. You got me exactly 🙂

  17. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 17, 2009, 10:48 pm:

    Thanks. Wow! Serendipitous discoveries. Interesting angle to the topic. Yeah, i think those that enjoy the journey more are likely to spot such things. You have added some more fodder for me to create a part 3 🙂

  18. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 17, 2009, 10:50 pm:

    thanks. Sorry if i misquoted you. I will fix the graphic soon.

    I am not sure most people would choose extreme goals. In my experience, most people choose relatively low risk goals because risk aversion is quite pervasive. Why do you think most people would set extreme goals?

  19. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 17, 2009, 10:52 pm:

    Thanks Ananth. I think you are right. Not sure what prompts soul searching in people? Maybe the subject of another post, eh 🙂

    Thanks Vivek.

  20. Quote

    Yes Sukumar… It will be topic for another post.. 🙂

  21. Quote

    Yes my opinion is people choose extreme goals only. Its human nature to desire for the toughest ones rather easy.Moreover i said that people “SET” extreme goals but when it comes to achieving or implementing the goal they settle with what they get (Risk aversion comes here ).

    “Extreme” is a relative term and depends on the perspective of the individual. To a city grown lad coming from educated family ground with good financial assistance , becoming a doctor is a mediocre goal, but to a guy from a tribal community in a remote forest area is an extreme goal.

    I guess we can say “proven recipe with insufficient resources to achieve it may still be a extremistan profession or goal”.

  22. Quote

    You have thrown light on a very confusing topic Sukumar. There is no end to this series 🙂 I think I would go with recalibration method or at least, thats what I think I have been following so far…

  23. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 18, 2009, 9:11 pm:

    Thanks Ananth.

    Rajesh, that is brilliant man. The thought of the proven recipe being an extreme goal didn’t occur to me. However, i don’t think most people set extreme goals from what i have observed.

  24. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 18, 2009, 9:11 pm:

    Thanks Vinu. Did you agree with NNT’s classification of mediocristan vs. extremistan?

  25. Quote


    You seem to have a good sense of what life is!!!

    Liked your write up…

  26. Quote


    Very interesting Part II . Read it multiple times, before I decided to comment. I also read a few excerpts & blog posts on Outliers and do not agree with Gladwell. I am sure there are quite few people who are successful not because they were there (or born like Gladwell says) at a particular time & place, but inspite of it. But that’s separate post, right?? (will try to read the book soon)

    On this topic :Taleb’s two broad categories of profession is pretty insightful. While it may be relatively easy to achieve even ambitious goals in Mediocristan profession (for eg. an accountant aspiring to become a , say, CFO), it would be very difficult to even set practical goals in the Extremistan profession. I don’t think this because a proven path to success has not yet been established. I think it has to do with the sheer probability of achieving it( using your cricket example, 11 out of xx million) & the complex nature of the goals in this profession (ex. become a successful film/music director, famous painter….). I think recalibrating(if required) & enjoying the journey would make more sense here.

    To answer your initial question: Yes. I think the nature of our initial goal has a great bearing in our successfully achieving it. Ganesh had mentioned in the previous post that ”enjoying the journey’ could be a “cop out for people who have not attained the level of success they set out to achieve in the first place”. I am beginning to wonder if ‘recalibrating’ is also an escape route:-)


  27. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 21, 2009, 8:19 pm:

    Thanks for your kind words Anil.

  28. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 21, 2009, 8:28 pm:

    Thanks. I agree with your assessment of Outliers. Since this topic we have taken is quite complex, it may be worth writing a full post on Outliers. Would you like to try?

    I may have jumped the gun and written a more conclusive sounding post even though i was not really sure. I think it is a mistake i made because the debate seems to have stopped.

    I think you raise a crucial point about recalibrating your goals. The reason i advocated setting ambitious goals for extremistan professions is because of the well known psychological principle – power of expectations. When you set high expectations of yourself or your team mates, the expectations gets met. Recalibration may be needed after you have given it your all and you still couldn’t make it.

    I also think that you may need to build the capability to enjoy the journey regardless of which profession or what goals you choose. I think it is enjoying the journey that makes life interesting as Vivekananthan has pointed out. It need not necessarily be a cop out.

    What do you think?

  29. Quote

    /** To reemphasize, we can’t have money or fame as goals because they are byproducts of success.

    Sukumar.. i have some serious doubt on the above… Is maximising profitability not an important goal of every enterprise? I am just confused.. whatever innovation, technology or the extremist profession we do, money always seems to be an important criteria.. because if a goal doesnt give returns or leads to loss, there is most probable that it may not be set as goal at all..

  30. Quote
    Ganesh Vaideeswaran said March 22, 2009, 9:24 am:


    Interesting. Like Hema, I had to read the post a couple of times over 2 days before I could comment. Much has been said about enjoying the journey, setting the goals in an abstract manner etc.

    As in Steve Jobs’s example, whatever the profession is – mediocristan or extremistan, you can be mediocre or ‘extremely’ successful. And here, mediocre and successful is what society typically terms it as such. However, someone’s success in life may not be defined by their career success. Career may just be the means or journey to their end – being a good son, parent, spouse etc. and providing for his her/family.

    Too often, professional success is equated as ‘life’ success. Professional success is probably very important to be happy and provide for one’s family, but does not have to define one self.

    Or is this is just a cop out for folks who are not extremely successful (as defined by society) in their chosen profession 🙂

  31. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 22, 2009, 9:39 pm:

    That is the central question which started this series. The problem is when we chase money or fame, it doesn’t come to us, possibly because our focus shifts from doing something valuable to making money or obtaining fame. It is quite counter-intuitive. That makes it hard to understand and agree.

    As i said above, my goal could be to play for the Indian Hockey Team. If i succeed i may not make as much money or gain as much fame compared to playing for the Indian Cricket XI. But it is a worthwhile goal to chase all the same.

    Here is what Henry Ford said “Wealth, like happiness, is never attained when sought after directly. It comes as a by-product of providing a useful service. ”

    Hope that helps?

  32. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 22, 2009, 9:45 pm:

    Thanks. In my view, the society’s view of success is limited to the money you have or the fame you have attained ( i could be wrong?). I think this is also the reason why people chase money and fame in order to look good to others. It turns out (there is no proof for this yet, but plenty of anecdotal evidence), that if we chase money and/or fame it doesn’t come to us.

    I think we should measure success on our own terms and feel happy about what has been accomplished. This applies to any success. It has got to de defined by us not by the society. Don’t you think?

    I also think that NNT’s naming convention may not be that appropriate. there is nothing mediocre about Mediocristan professions. He has given that name more based on mathematical concepts, i think.

  33. Quote
    Ganesh Vaideeswaran said March 24, 2009, 12:13 am:

    I agree that we have to define what success means to us. Personally, sometimes I think if that is just for the more enlightened ones than me. I still feel that I get caught up with the mob mentality and society’s definition of success. Am not there yet!!


  34. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 24, 2009, 7:58 pm:

    I think it is a bit difficult which is why it eludes many people. I am not sure i have completely internalized it yet. It is a work in progress.

  35. Quote

    I’m a bit late to comment, again! Interesting connections you have here…with Outliers and the Black Swan! With re. to Outliers and its theme, if it is true that we humans adapt ourselves to the circumstances we happen to be in, then it must be true that the kind and scale of creativity and success we achieve will depend on these circumstances! An electric car is invented because of the shortage of other types of conventional fuel. A person who invents an electric car when the world is struggling to cope with fuel shortage is likely to be more celebrated than one who invents it when people never dreamed of running out of oil. But success can be achieved anytime….provided we flow along with the world’s current challenges and problems. It’s within us to react and respond to the world’s requirements. Deviating slightly, a musical prodigy is celebrated irrespective of when he is born.

    As for the debate on the ideas that NNT proposes via Black Swan, yes….I agree with you. Even a person who is in a ‘common’ job can get highly successful if she deviates from conventional approaches and invents something radically different. In fact, such a person could perhaps end up being more successful – from the perspective of society at large – than a person who adopts an unconventional profession and charts a brand new path altogether. It takes more courage to break the conventional approaches in a known area than adopt a brand new path altogether. Because there will be more resistance in the former situation than in the latter. People who take brand new paths are, arguably, likely to be ignored. People who try to change approaches that have been used for centuries, on the other hand, are seen as a threat. If they succeed in overcoming the threat and go ahead to prove another – better – way of doing something, they will perhaps be seen as braver and stronger than many other people.

    Thank you, once again, for a thought-provoking post!

  36. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said March 28, 2009, 5:50 pm:

    Thanks. You are right, there is always the notion of “idea whose time has come”. But is that completely due to luck or being in the right place at the right time? This is what Outliers seems to be saying. I hope to cover it in the next post on luck.

    Interesting. Yes, changing the prevalent approach or status quo takes a lot of courage. However, i am not able to agree that that is more difficult than Extremistan professions. In Extremistan, you don’t have any recipe which makes it exponentially harder. Whereas, in Mediocristan, the recipe is known. yes people attempting to change the recipe do need to have a lot of courage but i would argue that it is less risky than the Extremistan professions.

  37. Quote

    I agree, Sukumar, on the classification. I think I am in the moderate group.

  38. Quote

    Thanks Vinu.

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