The environment effect: Why so few people succeed and others don’t

The romantic idea that success is a byproduct of hard work alone is too simplistic, and fails to take into account the role of environment.

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On November 16, 1532, Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, and invading Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, set eyes on one another for the first time, at the Peruvian highland town of Cajamarca. 1

Atahuallpa had a huge home advantage. He was the monarch of the largest and most advanced state in the New World, ruled an empire of millions of people, and was surrounded by an army of 80,000 soldiers on home soil.

Pizarro on the other hand, led a group of 168 Spanish soldiers into the unfamiliar terrain of Atahuallpa’s empire, far away from reinforcements.

The odds were heavily stacked in Atahuallpa’s favour, as he was on home soil, and his 80,000 soldiers significantly outnumbered Pizarro’s 168 men.

Shortly after, the Indian soldiers would defeat the Spanish invaders, in a one-sided battle.

Or would they?

Within a few minutes of the first encounter between the two leaders, Pizarro captured Atahuallpa, and his soldiers slaughtered over 7,000 Indian troops, in what was the bloodiest massacre of indigenous people during the early Colonial era.

Several months later, Pizzaro executed Atahuallpa, and the Spaniards conquered the entire Inca Empire.

The victory of the Spanish forces over the Inca empire, marked the beginning of widespread European colonial success across the Americas and Africa.

How did such a small number of Spanish soldiers succeed in defeating the vastly more numerous Inca empire? Why did the Europeans succeed in colonizing the rest of world, and dominate in every aspect of prosperity and economic development, instead of the Americans or Africans?

Most importantly, how does this explain why today, so few people reap the rewards and achieve success at the highest level?

Let’s dive in.

Why Jamaican sprinters run so fast

At the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, Jamaica was ranked 13th in the world, winning just two gold medals in 400-meter track events.

By the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Jamaica dominated the sprint events in 100 and 200 meters: a clean sweep, with Usain bolt winning three gold medals, and Veronica Campbell-Brown winning one gold medal in Women’s 100-meter dash.

At first glance, it may seem to be a coincidence that Jamaica, an island of only 2.8 million people, is the “sprint factory” of the world. And that a disproportionate number of its sprint champions would happen to be born in the parish of Trelawny, north of Jamaica. 2

But is it really?

Each year, Jamaica hosts a national high school track-and-field championship called “Champs.”

Champs is screened live on national television, and extends over four days with the best athletes from 120 schools competing against one another.

The event takes place in Kingston’s 35,000-seat National Stadium, which often sells out, and has attendances much larger than those of professional track events.

During Champs, scouts keep their eyes peeled for the next sprinting superstar of the world, and young athletes have the opportunity to change their fortunes, through scholarships or endorsements.

It’s the culmination of several years of sprinting under the Jamaican youth system.

And much like the youth system of football in the United States, or soccer in Brazil, nearly every kid in Jamaica would have been made to sprint at some point in youth races, from as young as five years old.

A child born in Jamaica would have the following stacked in their favor: a school system that encourages high level sprint training and competition from a very young age, a warm climate that enables sprinting outdoors all year round, a culture that reveres and rewards sprinting, and high level facilities, coaching and equipment.

By the time high school athletes participate in Champs, they have had over 10 years worth of practice in sprinting, and are miles ahead of their counterparts in other countries.

So, is it that much of a surprise that Jamaican sprinters run much faster than their competitors, and dominate sprint events on the professional level?

This brings us one step closer to solving the puzzle of why so few people succeed in life and work.

The power of location

Back to the battle of Cajamarca. Why did Pizarro succeed in capturing Atahuallpa and defeat the vastly more numerous Inca army?

A basic answer is this: Pizarro and his men had the military advantage of using steel swords, armor, guns, and horses, that Atahuallpa’s troops didn’t.

This distinct advantage enabled the Spanish soldiers to kill thousands of natives, who could only defend themselves with stones, slingshots and wooden clubs.

But this answer is too simplistic. It doesn’t answer the real question beneath the surface: why did the Spaniards and Europeans first come to have these military advantages for colonization, instead of the natives in America or Africa?

To answer this question let’s have a look at the map of the world:

Diagram of the major axes of the continents via Guns, Germs and Steel.

Do you notice anything strange in the image above?

The major axis of the Americas is north-south, likewise in Africa. But, in Eurasia, it’s east-west.

In addition, Eurasia has the largest landmass of all three continents.

In the best-selling book, Guns, Germs and Steel (Audiobook), historian and geographer, Jared Diamond, argues that these geographical differences in the continents, affected the diffusion of food production and inventions, and contributed to the significant differences in development of the Native Americans, Africans and Eurasians.

For example, Eurasia’s east-west major axis, enabled the rapid spread of the newly invented wheel in 3,000 B.C., from Southwest Asia to the rest of Eurasia within a few centuries.

Conversely, America’s north-south axis, prevented the spread of wheels invented in Mexico to the Andes region.

Likewise, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the north-south axis and the major ecological barrier of the Saharan desert, prevented the spread of writing, which developed in Egypt in 3,000 B.C., and did not spread independently to the rest of Africa until it was introduced by Arabs and Europeans, centuries later.

Unlike Africa and the Americas, Eurasia had moderate ecological and geographical barriers.

The east-west major axis permitted ease of movement of crops and livestock, which in turn enabled food production in abundance, a larger, healthier population, more competing societies, more inventors, and better innovations, than anywhere else in the world.

The answer to the puzzling question of why Pizarro successfully led a tiny army of soldiers to defeat Atahuallpa’s Inca empire, is simple: Pizarro was born and raised in Eurasia.

He enjoyed the benefits of living in the most developed, prosperous and advanced society in the world, including the military innovations that helped his soldiers to conquer the Inca empire.

In other words, if Pizarro and Atahuallpa, were interchanged in where they had been born, Atahuallpa would have defeated Pizarro.

So, how does this all tie back to solve the puzzle of why so few people achieve success in life and work?

Long story short, successful people live in an optimal environment that enables them to develop the right skills, mindset and tools, required for success.

And because success is subjective based on comparison to others, the optimal environment creates distinct competitive advantages that result in only a few people reaping most of the rewards.

This is why Jamaican sprinters dominate sprint events, and Europeans achieved much more developmental success than Africans and Americans.

It’s not because of their distinctive human intellect, genetics or work ethic, rather it’s because of their environment.

Design your luck

There is a strange phenomenon sociologists have observed. It’s called the “Matthew Effect,” named after the New Testament verse in the Gospel of Matthew: 3

“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” — Matthew 25:29

The Matthew Effect suggests that people who have a distinctive head start or advantage over others by chance or luck, are the most likely to be given more opportunities that breed greater success. And vice versa.

As we’ve discovered, that distinctive advantage is environment.

There are very few people in the world lucky enough to live in the right place, at the right time, surrounded by the right people and resources, required to achieve the success they desire.

This is why the top athletes tend to come from the same regions of the world. It’s why Eurasia survived, conquered and dominated the world, and Americas or Africa didn’t.

And ultimately, it’s why so few people succeed and other’s don’t.

The romantic idea that success is a byproduct of hard work alone is too simplistic, and fails to take into account the role of environment.

Environment is the hidden force that shapes our lives. Where you live and the people you surround yourself with, will ultimately determine the destiny of your life.

But you don’t have to leave this to chance.

You have the power to step outside of your comfort zone, and change your environment to work for you, instead of against you.

You have the power to surround yourself with people who will support your goals and improve your odds of success, and distance yourself from those who don’t.

In the end, only you have the power to design your luck.

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.Com, where he shares the best practical ideas based on proven science and the habits of highly successful people for stress-free productivity and improved mental performance. To get these strategies to stop procrastinating, get more things by doing less and improve your focus, join his free weekly newsletter.”

A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “The Environment Effect: Why So Few People Succeed and Others Don’t.


FOOTNOTES

  1. The account of Pizarro’s capture of Atahuallpa is a combination of eyewitness accounts. A 19th-century account can be found in William H.Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru (New York, 1987).
  2. Lists of sprinters of Jamaican descent who compete for other countries and Jamaican sprinters from Trelawny could be found in the annex of: Robinson, Patrick. Jamaican Athletics: A Model for 2012 and the World. Black Amber, 2009.
  3. Merton, Robert K. (1968). “The Matthew Effect in Science” (PDF). Science159 (3810): 56–63
  4. Please note that the argument of this piece doesn’t discount the importance of genetics or hard work for success, rather it puts them in rightful context of environment as the primary driving force behind success.