What Determines Unequal Outcomes?

 All these runners are able-bodied and fit. They all started at the same point, running under the same weather conditions, on the same field, to the same rules...why then don't they end up at the finish line at the same time? 

All these runners are able-bodied and fit. They all started at the same point, running under the same weather conditions, on the same field, to the same rules...why then don't they end up at the finish line at the same time? 

This is an introduction to a 5-part series on the subject of what determines outcomes. What makes winners win? The focus, as is usually the case on this blog, will be on the individual even though the same principle applies to organizations and states

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the subject of inequality. Why is it that two people with apparently the same starting point finish in different ends of the spectrum? Why do some companies seem immune to recessions and depressions, posting superior results year in year out whereas others fail? Why are some countries “First World” and others (such as mine) “Third World”? As crazy as it sounds, these questions kept me awake as a 10-yr old boy living in Nigeria. The answers, as I later found out, will take a lifetime to uncover and that is why I am still a student of inequality.

The ubiquity of inequality

Everywhere I look, the reality of unequal outcomes puzzles me. Take the Olympics for instance, eight top-class athletes line up, and at the blast of a gun, they all start sprinting. Why does Usain Bolt get there first? Why not the others? How come Roger Federer reigned supreme in tennis for years, took a break, successfully staged a comeback despite his age, yet thousands of tennis wannabes are still slaving away without having a break? For the last 10 years, the prize of the FIFA World Best Player has oscillated between just two individuals. What do they have that others don’t? How do stars achieve stardom? They are humans like everyone else. They have 24 hours in a day like every mortal.

The business world is full of examples as well. I still find it hard to wrap my mind around self-made billionaires, by which I mean people who aren’t born into fortune; some actually started quite poor! Think about that, they are born with almost nothing, and in one lifetime, they manage to build empires worth billions of dollars. A billion dollars is $1,000,000,000…please count the number of zeros and let that sink in. This is happening in the same world, scratch that, same country where people are filing for bankruptcy because of unmanageable debt. How do some achieve in decades what takes others eternity (literally!) to accomplish?

And then I look at organizations and the same dynamic plays out. Coca-Cola wasn’t the only company that started in 1886, where are the rest? Why has Coca-Cola survived and others died? What is the secret of enduring companies? When Standard Oil was broken into its subsidiaries in 1911 by anti-trust laws, it simply became stronger; others would have folded in the face of such relentless social activism. For every Google we now know, there are 10,000 Silicon Valley start-ups that failed; why Google then?

Finally, when I look at societies, the subject of inequality is inescapable. The West is doing well, same as the Far East, but the rest of the world is in different shades of screw up. Are all these determined by an invisible hand, a council of watchers beyond the realm of men that pick winners and losers? Or is there something we can do to tip the scales in our favor?

Why these questions?

I wish I could say these ruminations started out of purely intellectual curiosity, the byproduct of an overactive academic mind that loves to think up grand theories. But nothing would be farther from the truth. I was raised on less than 50 cents a day, I saw how poverty was killing more people than war. Folks were dying from easily preventable diseases; they died because they couldn’t afford or gain access to life-saving drugs that were less than $1. Half of the diseases were caused by malnutrition, the other half by ignorance and hopelessness. I needed answers so I could use them, so I could get out of poverty, or at least stay alive.

I set out at an early age to mimic only the habits of the successful. I pored over biographies of luminaries like John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Benjamin Franklin and so on. I trusted that if I would do what they did, think like they thought and seek God’s help, I would have a chance. Luckily, I found some answers. And it changed my life. In the next three weeks, I will attempt to condense what I’ve learned these past 25 years. I will focus on the individual, although with a little reflection, the applicability to organizations and states is clear.

 
I trusted that if I would do what they did, think like they thought and seek God’s help, I would have a chance. Luckily, I found some answers. And it changed my life.
 

Factors that determine unequal outcome - a look at what is to come

There are three main factors that determine how high a person will fly. The first is Attitude, the second is Aptitude and the third is Environment. Subsequent posts will treat each attribute in greater detail but first let me issue a caveat. A topic as complex as inequality can be approached from different angles: social justice i.e. what the government can or should be doing to reduce inequality and shareholders activism which has reduced the gender pay gap in many big companies are two examples. My approach is to focus on what you can do, not so much as to reduce inequality in the world (a lofty goal) but on understanding it to better your own lot. I also acknowledge that the three factors I state here aren’t the complete, exhaustive list of all one needs to know to be successful. But they are a darn good start. Attitude, for instance, will always be the biggest predictor of success. There’s not much you can do without talent. And we all know that a hostile environment will blight even the healthiest seed.

I am still a student of what I am about to teach so I very much look forward to sharing what I have learned so far and I welcome your feedback in the comments.