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

You are like an iceberg. There is you, the tip we see, then there is your potential, deep in the unknown. But like the morning moon, just because we can't see it does not mean it does not exist. Who you are now is what makes you comfortable, but if you're willing to dive into discomfort to improve and develop as a better human being, you'll pull a little bit more of yourself out of the depths and onto the surface.

When we see the achievements of others, sometimes it can be discouraging. They're 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 for us. There's a mystery to what separates us from those we admire—from those accomplishments that are seemingly born out of brilliance. How are we to ever hope to be like them? To accomplish easily such great undertakings? As if willed into existence. Yet that 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. Syed writes:

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.

In speaking to a "prodigy" at Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I asked him how he got his black belt so quickly. "If you look at the years I've trained," he said, "it seems like I'm gifted. But if you look at the number of hours I've trained and compare me to other people who've trained that long, I'm pretty average." We look at years instead of hours, and that's the illusion. We think it's talent when often it's the extra work they put in. All that we lack is discipline and belief. Syed writes:

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 idea of our unrealized capacity that frightens us. What if we're better than we are and we're not living up to it? Were we wasting our lives? Or what if we aren't as good as we think we are? What if we fail? What if there is too much depth to our soul? What if all we are is already on the surface? And what if we were to succeed, then what happens? We fear what we do not know. We fear what is not the status quo. For better or worse, we have grown comfortable with our reality.

There is an Irish proverb that goes, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know." There's 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 the fear of your potential, the fear of embracing your own power. It's you vs. can't, you vs. won't, you vs. should, you vs. you. Make peace with the unknown. Biologically, there is almost no difference between you and the great performers. What is different between great and average is how the great ones deal with discomfort. Great performers can perform anywhere, in front of anyone, against anyone, any time.

Once a great fighter told me that he wasn't the best guy in the training room. As far as pure skill or talent, he said his opponents were often better. But he said when it came time to compete, he was the same guy as he was in the training room, he didn't lose anything, whereas his opponents were only competing at maybe 50-60% of their potential. He said why he could beat them was that he came to terms with discomfort, whereas, most people, he said, don't. 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 human beings. As adults, our subsequent careers have sidetracked us 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 our icebergs of potential onto the surface. It takes time and effort. But it also means more learning, laughter, movement, and more people to join in our journey. We fear the work. We fear taking the first step because we aren't sure where it'll lead. We fear that final leap from gray into darkness, but with the faith that we are much more than we think we are, we can make it to the other side. Only then will we find the light. That we are capable of much more. And that everything we've been waiting has been there all along.

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