Why We Fail To Help Others Achieve Our Success
The error of 'if me, then you' when trying to help others.
It’s not hard to believe long-term research shows most people who go on diets will gain back all the weight they lost within 5 years. A review of decades of dieting research shows consistent patterns of high drop out rates from weight-loss studies and meager drops in weight (within 1–5 pounds) if done within 1 year.
The few long-term studies that exist show the loss eventually goes away. When dieting is considered “successful” because it helps participants lose 10% of body weight within 1 year’s time, the success rate is still just 20%.
The combination of these studies include all kinds of diets from self-made diets in which a person pulls information from several sources to create their own version, to the plethora of commercial diets in existence, to diets prescribed at medical centers.
However, you get a success story like Jillian Michaels, who weighed 170 lbs when she was 13, and now weighs 117 lbs in her 40s, and we think, that could be me.
No matter that when 14 contestants on Biggest Loser who used Michael’s methodology joined a research study, only 1 kept all the weight off after 6 years. Most had returned closer to their baseline weight and some had gained even more weight than when they started.
This post isn’t about the controversy between the weight-loss industry and blossoming alternative movements like Health at Every Size or fat acceptance; it’s about when I, or you, end up in a small group of some kind of success that gets bandied around in media, be it health or finances or love, and I, or you, think to ourselves, because it happened to me, it can happen for anyone.
This includes the 20% of people who successfully lose significant weight for just 1 year, the 452 international Unicorn startups since 2013 when over 50% of startups fail on average, the 7.7% of U.S adults who are millionaires, the 3 and 5% chance for men and women to live past 100 in the U.S., the 30% of Millennials who have kids and are married, etc.
When we believe attaining these moments of success that are heavily celebrated in the U.S only has to do with our own actions or way of thinking without recognizing our inherent differences, the people who supported us, and the environment that made our success possible, we won’t truly understand why it happened and what is required for most people to attain it.
Human Beings Can Never Be Self Made
Animals on this planet that live alone, not as in a studio apartment alone, but fighting for their existence alone kind of animals, are actually self-made. Their survival depends primarily on how well their biology matches with their environment. There isn’t much room for forgiveness. You know how snakes hatch from eggs and they just leave and start their lives?
That’s self-made. You know how plankton is a staple for a whale’s diet that is made up of drifting sea animals who are too young to swim away and hide? That’s self-made.
Human beings as a species are defined as social with a lengthy period (16–18 years) of total dependence on older humans. If you were born and had to find your own food and shelter immediately, educated yourself, built your own road and clothes and cell phone, you might be a self-made man.
The only person I’ve heard of who came close to this was a man who ventured out to Alaska to build his own house from tools he made himself while surviving on his own in the middle of a wilderness landscape for 30 years.
That’s as far as he got by himself. Apparently that’s inspiring to some people, but remember that this happened after he was already an adult and had been raised by other people.
The very idea that actions and character alone would lead to someone’s success without attributing it also to their upbringing, access to resources, environmental support, relationships, and biological differences is absurd. It does not happen for a single human being. On top of that, every generation benefits from the collective contributions from the generation before.
Certainly it is great to compliment and award people for doing good work or acting in ways that bring benefit to our communities. Certainly we should pat ourselves on the back when we act in kindness and integrity to be better people, to be better community members, to do something remarkable that inspires others. Certainly we can be astonished by how far someone has come who had far less support in their early years compared to the average person. But these compliments and awards are not the equivalent of designating someone whom we should or can all emulate.
When we as a society turn compliments and awards into worshiping an individual for what they do and their character or personality, we make the mistake of believing if we emulate only what that person did and their personality, we can achieve that same success.
When a person is so heavily worshiped in our society for what they did and who they are, they get paid to write books on their life story and sometimes offer advice to other people on how to become like them. If self-made men were a reality, these would be good ideas. But self-made men don’t exist.
We Fail To Acknowledge The Help We Get
There is a strange competition between humans to tell stories about how we achieved more with less help. As if having help makes your success less important or shameful.
Might we all love Mark Zuckerberg a bit more if he hadn’t attended Harvard, but had instead attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (my hometown university) and grew up in a single-parent household in which he had to scrap together his savings from his part-time job to build his own computer before he started Facebook?
It’s not a bad thing Zuckerberg had considerable help in his early life to build the hate/love relationship we have with Facebook; it’s just important we understand what kind of help contributes to how we define success.
This idea that Mark Zuckerberg has come so far without a college degree misses the point that Zuckerberg attained the prestige that comes with getting into Harvard and landed in a bunch of well-connected relationships with other students who contributed significant ideas and investments into early Facebook.
At 18, Zuckerberg was already in a world most of us won’t get to (0.4 percent of undergrads attend ivy league schools). The real question is what kind of help would make it possible for a University of Nebraska graduate to build a company like Facebook?
In the same way, the stories of Steve Jobs and Wozniak seem intentionally told to make us believe that any young twenty-something with the right work ethic and imagination could build the next successful innovation that will dramatically change our lives.
As Walter Isaacson pieces together in Job’s biography, we forget that Steve Jobs had parents deeply dedicated to his education to the point of moving and buying houses outside their ability to pay for them because of a promise they made to his biological parents. We forget that Jobs and Wozniak lived in a specific place that happened to be a tech hub filled with people highly skilled and interested in investing in tech.
We forget that building a business in “your garage” actually meant building a business in your parent’s garage with at minimum free food and free rent. Since rent makes up 40–50% of expenses for those with low-income salaries, free food and rent are incredibly important factors to take into consideration when it comes to successful startup ventures.
We Are Ignorant Of Other People’s Needs and Limitations
Unless you have lived with a large number of people who are very different than you, or you work in a field like sociology, it would be really hard to truly understand the constraints that others face who come from different backgrounds.
The best example of our ignorance is the recent success of charities abroad that give impoverished families pure cash instead of tying that money up in some venture we think would be good for them. Heifer International has been a staple international non-profit with the goal to eliminate poverty worldwide by purchasing farm animals for families.
It was the typical way we have considered global charities to help poor families build businesses that also provide their own food. Businesses we selected for them. Then along came Give Directly who sent $1000 to families in rural Kenya just one time.
Those families spent the money with local businesses, and the original $1.00 turned into $2.60 in economic benefit to their local community. In an earlier study, the majority of money received by families was spent on livestock, as Heifer International had predicted, but also durable goods such as furniture or a roof, and savings. Over time more money was spent on food, education, and medical expenses.
Universal Basic Income is built on the same premise. Predicting that our future economy that is more and more automated will need fewer and fewer humans, Andrew Yang made this proposal of $1000 a month for every American at the Democratic debates last year.
States have fought over the idea of giving impoverished adults money without having work requirements in place so that eventually they are not dependent on state dollars. So much to the point that disabled and severely sick adults have been required to join job training programs in order to have access to Medicaid, their health insurance that helps them maintain a standard level of health.
But we already have examples that UBI is an effective idea. Social security is the same thing as UBI for those over the age of 65 who retired from work. Half of married couples and 70% of unmarried singles use social security as their main source of monthly income after retirement to spend on whatever they choose.
For those of working age, Michael Tubbs is Stockton, California’s mayor who has tried a version of UBI to give cash-strapped families monthly income. Each family spent the money differently, and each month was different, which is the point of arguments for UBI.
No government or non-profit can ever figure out the most important need for someone over a period of time. It’s better for someone to choose that for themselves.
It’s just really hard for us to understand how other people live. Even those who have the greatest financial limitations spend money differently based on their various needs that change over time.
We Want People to Achieve Our Definitions of Success
The biggest caveat to this entire post is how I defined success early on as losing weight, getting rich, building an important company, living forever, and getting married to have kids. Studies show time and again that these achievements do not always correlate with happiness.
People seeking life fulfillment will often make the mistake of believing that by achieving these goals, they will indirectly get the fulfillment they wanted. What studies show is that people are really bad at predicting future happiness based on their accomplishments.
The reason why Health at Every Size and Fat Acceptance have become movements is that people got fed up with the process of losing weight.
Losing weight “for health” led to greater levels of disordered eating, anxiety and depression for a lot of people, even for those who were successful. People decided that the motto of eating disorder specialists to promote self-acceptance by making their life more fun with exercise they enjoyed and foods they actually liked was better for them.
Those who are wealthy in the U.S. have been found to work ever increasing hours compared to the average American. A work-life balance doesn’t exist. A study found that $75,000 a year is enough in the U.S. to create the maximum happiness from salary alone, and the benefit drops off after that.
The fact that singles, single parents, unmarried couples and childless adults make up the majority of Millennials isn’t a breakdown of our social structure. It’s a representation that adults are sustaining many options for a chosen family life that works best for them.
As Maria Rose writes for child-free adults, “we’re on the frontier of defining what love means”. This sentiment of reaching higher standards of self-love, family love, and life fulfillment is also discussed by Rebecca Traister in her book on aging single women who do or don’t have kids.
The queer community further weaves this thread in understanding “chosen families” with roles of parents and siblings filled by nurturing friends of various ages who look out for each other.
Will our success really help others achieve happiness and life fulfillment? When we talk about it, we should be open to recognize the costs our success comes with, and acknowledge that a lot of people may not want it.
Ultimately, Why Our Advice Fails
We haven’t listened. It’s very different to understand yourself and overcome your own obstacles to then try and understand thousands of people and help them overcome their own obstacles to achieve your dream for them.
When we think we can help people from our wisdom, or we want to help people, the best advice I got was from startup culture. Ask them. Ask them what they want and what they need to get there.
PhD student for health services research; past start-up operations; mental health advocate.