What It Takes

August 5, 2009 at 12:11 pm (By Amba)

The three most important characteristics for success in life, it seems to me, are (in no special order)

  • temperament
  • entitlement
  • perseverance

So what does that mean?

Everybody understands “perseverance,” and it is probably the single most important, and most broadly applicable, prerequisite for success.  This was driven home to me when I was writing about the Hubble Telescope.  (I know!  You’ve read it already!  But do read this book.) More than forty years from inception to execution, and then — already a billion and a half over its projected budget of $500,000,000 — finally launched — with a fatal flaw!  The pressure to cut losses and leave the thing up there as orbiting space junk was strong.  But, no!  It took three more years, but they went up and put glasses on it!  And it changed the world.  Trust me, there’s a similar story behind everything — from vaccine to blockbuster — that changes the world.  As @weirdralph said recently on Twitter, “Every giant oak tree is simply the result of a nut that decided to stand his ground.”

Perseverance can probably be acquired, although some people persevere by temperament (i.e. they have an obsessive streak), and having a sense of entitlement helps.  The three are intertwined.

Temperament, I think, is a matter of nature and entitlement one of nurture, although certainly nurture can modify temperament (give your child too much of a sense of entitlement, and given the requisite temperament, you may create a narcissistic diva; too little, and you can quench a fire); and different inborn temperaments elicit different nurturing, as any parent of more than one will tell you.  But without the inborn drive and some early approval of your using it, all the gifts in the world will just sit there like unbaked dough.  Without drive, whether for creation or recognition or whatever, you won’t try hard enough.  Without entitlement, you’ll give up too easily.


  1. wj said,

    Perhaps you could elaborate a bit on what you mean by “entitlement.”

    My observation has been that a sense of entitlement is one of the biggest handicaps to success. People just assume that they are entitled to something (including success) and don’t put in the effort (perseverance) that it takes. But that’s obvious enough that I figure you must have had something else in mind.

  2. amba12 said,

    Interesting! Entitlement “to get” is a narrow slice of the spectrum, and not the one I had in mind, obviously. Entitlement “to take,” “to do,” “to be.” To be here. To stake your claim to your one-six-billionth-and-counting of the world’s space. Maybe something you’re only even aware of if you don’t have it. Easy to take for granted if you do.

  3. amba12 said,

    It’s probably what I call the thing others call (nauseatingly, to me) “loving yourself.” Althouse, to me, is an example. Things (attention, opportunity, love) are drawn to you in proportion as you feel you are entitled to (deserving of) them. You are also fearless about going after them. This is probably established in the first few years of life.

  4. PatHMV said,

    I think you’re right on “entitlement,” amba, but perhaps “will” would be a better word. I think you mean sort of having a healthy sense of self-esteem. If you think you’re worthless and no good, that nobody would ever hire you, that nobody would ever go out with you, whatever, then odds are that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    On the other hand, if you think “of course hot women should want me” and “of course I should be highly paid in my job,” as long as those sentiments aren’t TOO far from reality, then those ideas, too, can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

    The meek often complain that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It’s the sense of entitlement that causes the squeaking.

    I’m meek by nature, myself. But I have learned, over my 41 years, that one’s will often determines whether one gets something or not. The toy that both 5 year olds are fighting over generally winds up with the one that WANTS it the most, the one most willing to exert his will, the one who feels most entitled to the toy.

  5. amba12 said,

    The meek often complain that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It’s the sense of entitlement that causes the squeaking.

    Well put!

    There’s also a whole spectrum in between feeling worthless and feeling almost overconfident. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it corresponded fairly closely to the spectrum of success, which is after all not an either/or thing — although in our “blockbuster or bust!” culture it may appear to be.

  6. wj said,

    Ah! Now I get a glimmer.

    I think what I would call it is self-confidence: the feeling that, if you work hard and are doing something useful, you will succeed. If it slides over into raw egotism, I suspect that the chances of you persevering in doing something useless go way up. And, of course, if you have no self-confidence, you are unlikely to try at all.

  7. Donna B. said,

    Or… it could be grit – a combination of perseverance and temperance that really matters.


  8. michael reynolds said,


    Damn. I guessed:

    inherited wealth
    a nice tan
    a big wang

    I suck at quizzes.

  9. amba12 said,

    Inherited wealth probably has a negative effect, from what I’ve seen!

  10. Rod said,

    Before I can agree or disagree, I need a definition of “success in life.”

  11. amba12 said,

    “Things (attention, opportunity, love) are drawn to you in proportion as you feel you are entitled to (deserving of) them. You are also fearless about going after them.”

  12. amba12 said,

    The relationship of temperament to “success in life” is interesting as I think about it, because what you feel and understand as “success” will depend very much on your temperament. A quiet temperament, a shy temperament, a thrill-seeking temperament, will all aspire to very different things. Maybe “success in life” needs to be defined as expressing your temperament and creating a fit for it — whatever it is.

  13. amba12 said,

    And then there’s Freud’s classic definition: work and love. Work you love, love that works for you?

  14. amba12 said,

    My initial definition of “success” appeared to be something grand. But there are contributions of all sizes. Everyone changes the world.

  15. amba12 said,

    To remind myself: “I used to believe, like the well-indoctrinated Ivy League student I was, that accomplishments, technological inventions, scientific discoveries, voyages of exploration, great works of art, great acts of state, were what most changed the world. I am now convinced that nothing comes close to changing the world as much as bringing a new individual into it. (And that holds for fathers as well as mothers.) Individuals are what the world is made of, and what makes the world. It’s not just that all the abovementioned accomplishments come from individuals. It’s the simple fact that each life stunningly and uniquely impacts the lives closest to it, and these impacts ripple outward, interacting to make the complex and particular patterns we call the world. Add or remove one individual, and you change everything – not only the sight and sound and story of the world, but its inner dimension, too.” ~ AmbivAbortion Rant II

  16. wj said,

    I was always taken with a pair of aphorisms that my parents used on the topic:
    “The Lord will provide.”
    “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”

    Which actually seems to resonate with where you are going with this. The first keeps you from worrying too much when things get tough. The second keeps you motivated to put out the effort needed to improve your situation by your own efforts . . . i.e. not just sit back and wait for things to fall into your lap because of the first.

    Over several decades, I have seen both work out. My own efforts moved me forward. And, when things got tough (or sometimes just out of a clear blue sky) something great would happen and move things a huge step forward. Of course, maybe I am just “lucky” — as some of my friends would have it. But those with equal talents who don’t work at things, somehow never have the lucky breaks come their way.

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