That's Only the Tip of the Iceberg: The Hidden Logic of Success

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"What we do not see is what we might call the hidden logic of success."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

There is you and there is your potential. Your potential is down there, deep in the unknown. When we make attempts to improve and develop as a better human beings, we pull a little bit more of ourselves out of the depths.

When we see the achievements of others, sometimes it can be discouraging. They are living up to what is natural to them. We see what we see and it looks effortless. What we see of ourselves doesn't impress us much. Nothing comes easy to us. There's a mystery to what separates us from those we choose to admire. From those accomplishments that are seemingly works of born brilliance. How are we to ever hope to be like them? To easily accomplish such great undertakings? As if willed into existence. Yet this is only an illusion.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes:

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.

Swedish Scientist K. Anders Ericsson Refers to This as the Iceberg Illusion

(The Iceberg Illusion | Sylvia Duckworth)

(The Iceberg Illusion | Sylvia Duckworth)

In Bounce, journalist and table tennis player Matthew Syed expands on the iceberg illusion:

When we witness extraordinary feats ... we are witnessing the end product of a process measured in years. What is invisible to us — the submerged evidence, as it were — is the countless hours of practice that have gone into the making of the virtuoso performance: the relentless drills, the mastery of technique and form, the solitary concentration that have, literally, altered the anatomical and neurological structures of the master performer. What we do not see is what we might call the hidden logic of success.

The slow incremental build. The hours of improvement. The tedium of practice. And most of all, sacrifice. This is the difference. Bounce demystifies many of our preconceived notions on success:

Child prodigies amaze us because we compare them not with other performers who have practiced for the same length of time, but with children of the same age who have not dedicated their lives in the same way. We delude ourselves into thinking they possess miraculous talents because we assess their skills in a context that misses the essential point. We see their little bodies and cute faces and forget that, hidden within their skulls, their brains have been sculpted — and their knowledge deepened — by practice that few people accumulate until well into adulthood, if then. Had the six-year-old Mozart been compared with musicians who had clocked up 3,500 hours of practice, rather than with other children of the same age, he would not have seemed exceptional at all.

All that stands in our way is discipline and belief. In Bounce:

If we believe that attaining excellence hinges on talent, we are likely to give up if we show insufficient early promise. And this will be perfectly rational, given the premise. If, on the other hand, we believe that talent is not (or is only marginally) implicated in our future achievements, we are likely to persevere. Moreover, we will be inclined to move heaven and earth to get the right opportunities for ourselves and our families: the right teacher, access to decent facilities; the entire coalition of factors that leads to the top. And, if we are right, we will eventually excel. What we decide about the nature of talent, then, could scarcely be more important.

Yet it is this very notion of our capacity that frightens us. What if we're better than we are and we're not living up to it? What if we aren't as good as we think we are? What if we fail? What if we're only surface level? What if there is too much depth to our soul? And what if we were to succeed; then what happens? We fear what we do not know. We fear what is not current moment. For better or worse, we have grown comfortable with our reality.

An Irish proverb that strikes to the heart of this dilemma:

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

There is some logic to this aphorism. After all, the new bad thing may be worse than the old bad thing. Yet what is illogical is the assumption that anything new is automatically the devil.

Being afraid of the unknown is akin to fear of your potential. It keeps one from embracing their true power. You vs. can't, you vs. won't, you vs. should. Make peace with the unknown. The great performers can perform anywhere, in front of everyone, against anyone. Glorious triumphs are for those who dare mighty things. Most of us fear what we don't know. Yet the distinction is as thin and fluid as yes and do.

We have one fundamental job, it's the same job we've had since the womb. It's to develop as a human being. As adults, our subsequent careers have sidetracked and made us forget about our primary vocation. It's what leads us to crisis — lost and disjointed.

We must pick up where we left off and reclaim our responsibilities. That means dragging more of that iceberg onto the surface. It takes a lot of time and effort. It also means more learning, laughter, light, movement, love, and more people to join in your journey. We fear the work. We fear to take the first step because we aren't sure where it'll lead. And then there will come a point where we'll need to leap from the gray into the darkness, with faith that we are more than what we think we are. Only then will we find the light. That we are capable of much more.

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