There's No Recipe for Success

TL&DR: There cannot be a simple and easy recipe for success, or everyone else would be using it.

My recent chat with David Bombal about networking careers’ future resulted in tons of comments, including a few complaints effectively saying I was pontificating instead of giving out easy-to-follow recipes. Here’s one of the more polite ones:

No tangible solutions given, no path provided, no actionable advice detailed.

I totally understand the resentment. Like a lot of other people, I spent way too much time looking for recipes for success. It was tough to admit there are none for a simple reason: if there was a recipe for easy success, everyone would be using it, and then we’d have to redefine success. Nobody would admit that being average is a success, or as Jeroen van Bemmel said in his LinkedIn comment:

Success requires differentiation, which cannot be achieved by copying others. As Steve Jobs put it: “Be hungry, stay foolish”

When I was still running a fast-growing company, one of my more futile endeavors was reading management magazines like Harvard Business Review, trying to get actionable ideas from their case studies. I failed consistently… until I realized that they cannot possibly give anyone a recipe because the right way to proceed depends on your circumstances and the market you’re in.

It’s the same with what certification should I go for – it depends on your local market, whether you’re aiming for a higher salary or structured knowledge, whether you’re doing short-term or long-term planning… No surprise, some people get upset when you try to articulate that because you can’t provide actionable advice.

Even worse, when desperately looking for actionable advice, one might follow whoever claims to have it. Unfortunately, a person with simple answers to complex problems could be oversimplifying1 or shouting from the high peak of Mount Stupid. They could also be turning their personal experience into a generalized step-by-step success story2 or simply making it up to make you buy their warez. In the words of H. L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” (and people who want to believe that answer).

So what could you do? Like always, focus on fundamentals (this time on ideas that make sense) instead of expecting recipes:

  • Try to extract valuable ideas from whatever source.
  • Try them out in your environment, and test which ones work for you.
  • Be persistent. Sometimes it takes years for a successful idea to work – it took me at least half a decade to get off the ground.
  • Don’t focus on a single idea. You can’t waste five years waiting to see whether it works. Try several things in parallel.

I know this sounds way too similar to a step-by-step recipe, so I’ll stop right there. You might also feel charitable and agree it’s more of a system than a step-by-step recipe, and if you’re willing to look in that direction, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big might be an entertaining book to read.

On a more serious note, you might want to check out these books3 by Cal Newport:

  1. There’s a difference between “go for CCNx” and “in the job market I’m working in, CCNx certification seems to be a prerequisite for an entry-level networking job advertised on a job postings web site. However, you might also want to consider…” Unfortunately, there’s often a good reason for oversimplified answers – people can’t be bothered with details, and stop listening the moment you try to explain them. ↩︎

  2. It turns out that many successful people happened to be at the right place at the right time, and had worked hard enough in the past to be able to recognize and grab the opportunity. See also Outliers↩︎

  3. I like using Amazon links because they are actionable ;). None of the links contains an Amazon associate ID – if you follow my recommendations, buy a book and like it, just do something nice for a random person who needs it. ↩︎


  1. Ivan, I happened to read "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World" recently so I can attest that it does provide some valuable advices on how to do things well. Some of the overarching themess are stay focus and cut off unnecessary noise/drain the shallow. The author also suggests removing your social media account if you can't see how it add values to your work/business, as social media can create attention disorder, seen in many young kids these days.

    As to your vid, I read most of the comments and saw several negative ones, so I decided to watch it in full to see if they're justified, as this is not the first time I heard people calling you a snob. Frankly, the 'No tangible solutions given, no path provided, no actionable advice detailed' one was clearly misguided, because from what I see, not only did you answer the questions directly, but did provide some path guidance as well. For instance, you ask youngsters to go out and build something themselves and show the world their accomplishment. What else do they expect??

    So I left comments there in response to some of those negative ones. Then it dawned on me the next day, that some of these guys simply expect to be spoon-fed. One comment went as far as asking: which certs are more profitable...? Frankly, what's wrong with these guys? Too much expectation, too little exposure to ground truth.

    Certs by itself provides nothing in terms of job guarantee. Back in 2005 when I was still at Uni, this Korean classmate was speaking to me about how back in his country, there were specialized CCIE training centers that trained people to get CCIE at all cost, which resulted in a fair amount of paper CCIEs aka CCIEs who know a lot of commands and some basic knowledge, but nowhere near the level expected of a CCIE. He said he'd finish Uni, then go home and get the CCIE before attemting to find a job. Employers know this, so certs can be helpful as a resume booster, but by themselves they're not the key to unlock employer's door. Neither is degree, unless you happen to go to high-end Uni that have a lot of industry connections.

    Reasonable people can see through what you're trying to convey in the vid, and we very much appreciate your thoughts Ivan, as reflected in most of the comments :)). OTOH, people who expect to be spoon-fed, won't make it even if a step-by-step, detailed action plan is laid out in front of them. Reason is simple: success takes work, lots of it. If one reads enough about people who make it big in different fields, one can quickly see a similar pattern; it's a pretty simple formula. But simple is not the same as easy. You have to put in a lot of work, and make creative adjustments from the base formula to fit your particular circumstances, as history doesn't normally repeat in verbatim, but it often rhymes. That creative effort comes from lots of hard work and self-reflection; it won't come to those who're not willing to put a lot of time and focus, in what they do, this willingness to work hard driven a fair bit from passion, from the fire within. Those who desire one-size-fits-all golden formulas out of a book, a vid, or a known successful person, are all doomed to be disillusioned, they're in for a nasty surprise, the shock of their life.

    And that's why despite tons of self-help books written, the number of people who are good/successful/way beyond average, however one wants to put it, in whatever endeavor they choose to take on, are still in the minority. Since you mentioned Havard Business Review, I'll bring up this example. How many investment-advice books detailing the time-proven methods of investing giants like Warren Buffett and the likes have been written, with actionable paths laid out in them? Plenty, and more are coming out as we speak. Yet, how many of those who read them become multi-millionaires, vs how many of those who read them manage to destroy their wealth investing in the stock market? Two people of different temperaments and work ethics, taking the same advice, can achieve vastly different results over time, because in the end it's character that matters more than intellect. No matter how talented you are, if you're not willing to put in a lot of hard work, and chicken out the moment the going gets tough, then GOD help you.

    For me, I grew up in a socialist/communist regime (Vietnam) which was rather tough, so I consider myself having working-class common sense. When I moved to Australia, English wasn't my first language and I wasn't gifted with linguistic talent, so it's tough as hell trying to get a job here. I read a lot of stuff in preparation for it of course, but in the end, it's your tenacity and ability to internalize the learned concepts and put them to use creatively and at the right time that decides whether or not you can move ahead.

    And yes, as you're rightly put, luck plays a big role as well, don't dismiss it. But a lot of us can create some luck through hard work as well. It won't come overnight, but it'll come when you least expect it, if you love what you do and are in it for the long haul. For people who manage to get by through sheer luck though, they will pay the same or even heavier admission fee in a different way, because life is all about balance. Some people are born rich because they inherit a lot or they can get material success thanks to their legacy/connections/sweet-talking, but if they take it for granted, they will pay, often painfully, in more ways than one. Undeservingly rich guys for ex, are often surrounded by sycophants who want a piece of their fortune, and don't normally have true friends. Like Warren Buffett has put it, success, by his standard, is measured in how many people truly love you. And without characters, no decent person wants to be near you, no matter how smart or rich you happen to be.

    Btw, I recommend the book "Talent is overrated" as well. It's an easy read, and it's quite an eye-opener :)).

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