Comfort is the Enemy of Success

If, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, then what is complacency?  Not necessarily the father of failure, but it's at least letting failure crash on its couch for a while.

Failure, you see, likes to get comfortable; and it's most comfortable in complacency.  Comfort is where it lives, where it grows, where it plays video games all day.

Success, on the other hand, is up at 5, exhausted by lunch time, and home well after dark. Why? Because it has to be.  Necessity doesn't just breed invention, it breeds inspiration.

The necessity of success--and the fear of failure's consequences--is often the world's greatest motivator.

Just don't tell that to one of the world's greatest successes. 

"The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail," Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told Harvard University graduates during his commencement address Thursday. "But today, we have a level of wealth inequality that hurts everyone. When you don’t have the freedom to take your idea and turn it into a historic enterprise, we all lose."

To remedy this, Zuckerberg said, "we should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things."

Put another way, we should make everyone comfortable and then hope that complacency doesn't tempt and ultimately consume them.  Yet complacency in comfort is as predictable as it is unfortunate.

How hard will someone work if they know that no matter what they do, they will always be comfortable? Will they really stay late at the office every night?  Will they really study extra hard for that final?

Or will they do what is easier?

Complacency is so tempting because it is so easy, so comfortable.  And it is human nature to want to be comfortable.  That's why the greatest successes are also the most elusive: Because they require the most sacrifices--of comfort, of free time, of, well, sometimes everything.

Yet if there is no need to sacrifice everything (or even anything), why bother?  If the fear of failure is eliminated, what motivates an all-encompassing drive for success?

A concrete floor is a whole lot less comfortable to land on than a cushion, where it's often easier to just curl up and take a nap.

A basketball player isn't as likely to shoot extra free throws if he knows he's already made the team.  A businessman is less likely to start his own company if he's content to be a mid-level manager.  And a college student is less likely to change the world from his dorm room if he is just fine graduating to a programming job at an IT firm.

Mark Zuckerberg, of all people, should know this.  His family's wealth may have meant that he was comfortable financially, but he was far from content.  And that motivated him.  LeBron James wasn't content to be just a decent basketball player.  Warren Buffett wasn't content to be just a decent businessman.

Not everyone, of course, will succeed as they have, but everyone can succeed provided that they overcome their own complacency.

Take JK Rowling.  As Zuckerberg noted in his commencement address, she "got rejected 12 times before publishing Harry Potter."

When she did, she was a single mother on welfare, describing herself as as "poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless."  Would she have taken her manuscript to 12 different publishers if she had a guaranteed income on which to fall back?  How motivated would she have been to finish her manuscript at all?

The fear of failure (and specifically the discomfort it will bring) creates what former President Barack Obama famously called the "fierce urgency of now."  A guaranteed cushion courtesy of Obama-style government largesse has a tendency to create the "fierce urgency of whenever I get around to it." 

But that's just what Zuckerberg wants.

"And yes, giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free," he said.  "People like me should pay for it. Many of you will do well and you should, too."

Naturally, this raises an interesting question: How many of us will do well if we know that we don't have to?  If we know that someone else will be paying for us no matter what we do?

And once too many of us decide to do nothing--content to live a comfortable life with a guaranteed income--who will be left to pay that income?

That's ultimately the problem: Once everyone is comfortable, then no one will be.     


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