Discovering How to Succeed


February 2012
Ivan Obolensky

Some time ago I created a plan to improve my life. I decided to follow in the footsteps of successful people by reading how they did it and then to mimic what they did. As I researched, I discovered many others had the same idea and were looking to the self-improvement industry for answers.

The industry, itself, was emulating the success so many wanted to achieve.

Self-help book sales had risen 96% between 1991 and 1996, and between 2003 and 2005, the category grew 24%.

The US self-improvement market is now worth over 14 billion dollars with an annual growth rate of over 10%.1 In addition, 40,000 people in the US work as life coaches.2

When I visited the self-help section of my local bookstore, I found dozens of titles about thinking positively, building self-discipline, and many other methods. The authors advocated following a specific set of steps and cited numerous cases where their method was successful.

I asked myself: Does this really work?

Diagoras, an atheist from Ancient Greece, was shown images of sailors who had saved themselves during massive storms by praying to the gods. He looked at the pictures and then asked to see the images of those who had prayed to the gods but had not been saved.

We are told in our youth that success is the result of many things with hard work being chief among them yet one cannot help but ask how many people worked hard yet failed to achieve the success they sought?

It always seemed too simple an answer since I knew more than a handful of hard-working failures.

I decided to do some research.

I found that success and happiness seem to go hand in hand. The psychological literature stated there is a correlation between the two. The more resources (money, friends, and influence) one has, the happier one usually is. Correspondingly, the more successful one is, the more resources are available.3

As to whether success leads to happiness, or happiness leads to success was not clear.

There is some evidence that working to acquire happiness leads more often to success than its opposite: trying to acquire success in order to achieve happiness.4

So how many people in the world are successful?

A search for the percentages of the population that were successful came up with little available information; however, the Pareto principle states that 80% of the wealth derives from 20% of the population and this measure holds approximately correct across many data sets over different time periods.

One could surmise, therefore, that at least 20% of the population could be considered successful in terms of resources and more inclined to be happy. By researching the percentage of happy Americans, I could indirectly find out the percentage of those who were successful.

I found the following:

In 1972, 30% of Americans said they were very happy while the percentage of very happy Americans in 2004 was 31%.5 In 2005 this figure was 34% while in 2011, 28.8% of Americans considered themselves very happy.

The percentage of those in the “very happy” category has remained relatively stable for an extended period (regardless of a set definition of “very happy”). This particular survey has been reporting since 1972 (when the General Social Survey was funded by the National Science Foundation) and has asked the same happiness questions over a forty-year period. (How happy are you these days in your life?)6

As an observation, it seemed odd that the satisfaction level of “very happy” (what most people would like to achieve) would remain constant while the self-help industry ballooned in size.

What I wanted to know was how likely my chances of success were if I followed the self-help route. I did not want to know the number to several decimal places, I just wanted an estimate. To answer this I needed to know if there existed an estimation on the effectiveness of self-help in general.

A review found extremely divergent opinions. Some studies said there was absolutely none. Another claimed it was as high as 63% when related to binge eating 7 and a study of depression found self-help books as effective as a course of therapy.8

From zero to 63% was a very wide range of effectiveness.

I did not think that the self-improvement category was particularly harmful. I just wasn’t so certain of its effectiveness. I decided to assume self-help overall had at least the effectiveness of a placebo.

The word placebo means “I shall please” and refers to a pharmacologically inert substance (such as a sugar pill) that seems to produce an effect similar to that of an active substance. Its first use in modern times originated in 1955 by H. K. Beecher (“The Powerful Placebo”) in which Beecher evaluated fifteen clinical trials and found 35% of 1082 patients were satisfactorily relieved by a placebo alone.

The placebo effect has come under scrutiny in the medical field recently, with some studies such as one in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2001 that found little evidence of its effectiveness.9

There were no studies that I could find on the overall efficacy of the self-improvement category other than specific studies having to do with depression. I decided to assign the effectiveness of a self-help program to be at least as effective as the 35% base scenario of a placebo (as put forward by Beecher) and to possibly be as effective as the optimistic 63% scenario used in the binge eating study.

I also set Very Happy as the preferred result of such a program.

It is possible that there are many who have moved up from Failing to Doing Better, but I considered success to be more than simply an improvement and that an effective program should yield the result of Very Happy.

Because the Very Happy category is fairly stable as to percentage over time, I took it to be 30%.

This meant 300 people out of every thousand were Very Happy. A 35% effectiveness of the self-improvement field would mean 105 of that 300 could be the result of a self-help program, with as many as 189 at the high end of 63% effectiveness.

Of course, it is impossible to say whether any of these did any self-help, but if we look at broad numbers of the population and assume some effectiveness on the part of the self-improvement market, then 105 out of every thousand (with as much as 189 out of every thousand) would be Very Happy and be the result of following some sort of self-improvement regimen.

This would mean I had anywhere from a 10.5% (105 out of a thousand) to 18.9% (189 out of a thousand) chance of succeeding based on the percentages above. In any event, it was less than 50% or substantially less than flipping a coin.

These results are by no means scientific, but neither are they completely nonsense. No matter what one may believe, there is that contrary observation that the self-help area is achieving the success it purports to foster while the number of those who consider themselves Very Happy has remained flat over time. There is also our current economic, political, and financial environment to consider.

Where is all that success?

Is there something else about success that is being overlooked?

Here are a few conclusions:

For myself, I concluded I could not rely on the self-help area to be certain of my own success. Success is not achieved strictly by the actions of the individual or the Self.

The Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote around the fifth century BC that a good general may know how to win a war or a battle but not have the opportunity to do so because the opposing general has made no mistakes that can be exploited.

The environment in which one operates might contain factors that prevent success. This could include the economy. Capital is scarce. Opportunities are few. One may know how to do a good job but there is no job available. It might be necessary to take a good look at the environment to find out where there is more opportunity.

The great migrations to the US from Europe and the East during the first part of the twentieth century were made by those who thought a change of environment might better their odds of success.

The people that surround one are also part of the environment. My wife tells me that to have a beautiful garden (beautiful life) it is necessary to get rid of any rats and parasites and to keep them out. And that might be an ongoing exercise.

Sometimes it is necessary to fumigate one’s life and rid oneself of those who are keeping one down.

In biological terms it is thought that one of the reasons humankind was able to thrive so successfully was the result of the migration from the warm tropical climate of the Equator to those of the colder north. By moving to cooler climates, many diseases were left behind, allowing for much more vigorous behavior and much more capacity to expand and exploit the environment available.

Another factor is timing: as in the Dotcom boom of the 1990s. The Internet was like an untapped reservoir of potential expansion but only for a short period of time. The same actions repeated now would fail since much more competition exists today.

Another example might be going into the mortgage loan market in 2012 as opposed to 2001. In 2001 it was a growth industry with refinancing opportunities in abundance. In 2012, the recent real estate debacle and current loan environment makes mortgage refinancing much more difficult, if not impossible.

Timing can make a tremendous difference to even the most disciplined, capable, and hard-working of individuals.

One must take stock of one’s environment in order to discover what holes might exist to expand into. One might be able to succeed but not have the opportunity to do so. Sometimes one simply has to wait.

Success is not perpetual. Circumstances change. One can be successful one moment and unsuccessful the next. Success takes preparation. One has to ask where one is in a cycle of expansion and contraction.

Attempting to achieve happiness may be a better goal than success. At least if one achieves success while doing so one may be happy with it, which is better than many who have achieved success alone.

1 Kremer, J. (2011). Using Statistics to Plan New Editorial. Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

2 Google Answers. (2006, November 28). Q: Amount spent on self-help. Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

3 Quora. (2010). Is there a correlation between success and happiness? Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

4 Cobb, J. (2010, November 30). What’s wrong with this statement? Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

5 Pew Research Center. (2006, February 13). Are We Happy Yet? Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

6 University of Chicago. (2011, April 14). Highest Percentage of Americans in Four Decades Say Financial Situation Has Gotten Worse. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

7 Park, M. (2010, March 31). Self-help treatment effective for bing eating, researchers say. Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

8 Andrews, S. (2007, May 13). Self help books: Are they effective. Retrieved February 14, 2012, from

9 The Skeptic’s Dictionary. (n.d.). Placebo effect. Retrieved February 14, 2012, from


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© 2012 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

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