Does Success Skew Your Perception?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about perception and reality.  Particularly, if being successful at something causes you to believe that it’s easier to do than it actually is, or that ‘anyone can do it’.  If you make yourself a success at something, no matter what it is, do you start to think that other people could achieve your level of success, no matter what their situation?

In The Blogging World

What got me started thinking about this topic was reading a somewhat old blog entry from Trent of The Simple Dollar.  When reviewing the book, ‘Bargain Junkie’, he commented that the author should start a blog, as ‘she’d probably end up earning more revenue from it than she would from this book over the long run.’  It’s not the first time he’s touted the profitability of blogging over other online activities; one instance that sticks in my mind is his commentary on Mechanical Turking, when he mentioned building something for yourself (like a blog), rather than spending the time to earn $7.61 an hour Mechanically Turking.

It’s probably a good time to add a little bit of a different perspective here: I’ve been a blogger for well over a year, I’ve written close to four hundred posts (this will be 393 of the ones published here), and I’ve recently managed to turn my blog into one of the two hundred thousand most popular on the web.  I’ve also just recently managed to earn my first $100 dollars from this blog; if you count the costs of setting up the blog (and some technical help I’ve gotten along the way), I’m still several hundred dollars behind. If we assume that each entry I’ve written took one hour to complete (a much lower amount of time than it actually takes, plus one that ignores the time reading and responding to comments, setting up and monitoring the blog itself, etc.), I could have earned $2990.73 by Mechnical Turking during that time, a much higher profit level.

Don’t misunderstand me; I have a great amount of respect for Trent.  He works hard, writes well, and is by all accounts putting in the hours to make The Simple Dollar a success.  But I can’t help but wonder whether that same success causes him to think of blogging as a (potentially) highly lucrative activity, while for me (and most of the other 100 million bloggers out there, if Monevator is right about the average blogger’s daily earnings), the reality is that blogging is much less profitable than many other pursuits he would consider not worthwhile.

Investor’s Choice

It’s far from just Trent and other bloggers, though; just about everyone seems to take the view that the things they can do, everyone else can do. When you master a particular talent or skill, it soon becomes a second nature, and you sometimes forget that not everyone can, say, take a car engine apart and put it back together or figure out complex math problems in their head.

To cite one example from my own life: I never learned how to ride a bicycle.  There’s a number of reasons, from the fact that I spent much of my free time as a child reading to being in day care much of the time and not getting much of an opportunity to learn.  So, when people say things like ‘as easy as riding a bike’, they’re indicating a much different view of bike riding than I have; to my mind, it’s a rather difficult feat.  My experiences have shaped my view of bicycle riding, in the same way (but with the opposite end result) as those of the kids who learned to ride and biked everywhere.

You see this tendency to some extent with investors (or at least, with those investors who end up writing books); when they have success with a particular investment type, they start to see it as highly profitable and usually easy, and recommend that investment (and many times, only that investment) to others. Investors who have success investing in a particular instrument, whether it be stocks, bonds, options, futures, real estate or something else entirely, consider their option one of the best.  So, you end up with Robert Kiyosaki promoting real estate and building a business, for example, while Jim Cramer is strongly in favor of stock investing.  Each of them had success in a particular field, and as a result, they lean strongly toward those types of investments, in some cases even insulting other, equally good investment options.  Success skews their perception of the investment landscape, leading them to focus on some investments as opposed to others.

On The Other Hand…

Of course, the inverse situation is also possible; failure can skew your perception, as well.  Perhaps Trent has a clear view of the effort/reward ratio for blogging, while I (with my admittedly low earnings thus far) have a distorted perspective.  There’s a psychological concept, learned helplessness, where an animal or person, if repeated prevented from helping itself in unpleasant or harmful situations, continues to act helpless even if it is no longer restrained.  Perhaps my situation is similar; with so little profit made on my blog in the first year I was writing it, perhaps I’ve simply internalized the idea that try as I might, I can’t actually make a living by writing a blog.

It might go even further than that; perhaps I’m finding messages in Trent’s writing about the profitability of blogging that aren’t really there.  Because of my own interest in blogging and relative lack of success therein, I might be attributing to him ideas he doesn’t really have regarding the ease and profitability of blogging, when he’s mentioned nothing of the sort.  Perhaps I’m projecting a strawman of a professional blogger onto him so I have something to attack to feel better about my own lack of success.  (Nah…)

All of that said, I’m still not sure just how much our successes and failures influence our outlook on life; they clearly do, but just how is a question a bit tougher to determine.  How difficult a particular activity will seem and the potential for profit or other rewards depends a great deal on the person who is doing it, their skill, knowledge, and abilities.  The truth, as it so often does, probably lies somewhere in the middle; blogging (to go to our original example) can be profitable, and it can be unprofitable.  It all depends on factors both inside and out of your control.

Does success at something skew your view on its difficulty?  How about failure?  How much does our perception affect our reality?  (Alright, now I’m going WAY beyond the scope of the original question.)

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