If infographics are to be believed, then underneath every success is a huge iceberg with EFFORT scrawled across it in big letters. For once, I have no sarcastic comment to falter this image. Though it’s a rather simplistic representation, it’s largely true – there are very, very few successes in life that come easily, naturally, or without a lot of grind. In fact, even the successes that seem to come easily in the minds of those who have achieved said success, have some sort of long-term graft behind them. Something that’s been so long-running, so drawn out, you probably didn’t even realise you were putting in the effort anymore.
This realisation dawned on me relatively recently, when I received a scholarship to study my Master’s at a SOAS. The process was fairly simple – fill out an application form, send it off to HSBC, wait what seems like forever for a response. Getting accepted onto the actual Sinology course was a foregone conclusion, but the scholarship was a whole different ballgame. They receive 10 applications a year and award only 2 scholarships. While that seems like good odds at first, you don’t have to be a mathematician to see that that’s only a 1 in 5 chance of getting accepted. Facing those odds, why would they pick me? But pick me they did. Again, at first glance, it seemed that the main reason was that my application was strong, solid. Not to mention the 1st I received in my undergraduate gave me a leg up. Of course, I wouldn’t have gotten into Edinburgh to do Chinese without good A Levels, which in themselves wouldn’t have occurred without my excellent – yes I’ll say it, all As and A*s thank you – GCSEs. And I couldn’t have gotten into my Grammar School without passing the 11+, which took a year and a half training in itself, for which I wouldn’t have been recommended if I hadn’t done well in primary school. A school I never would have attended if I hadn’t performed at nursery (or known the Hail Mary off by heart). So, apparently I (along with my mother) have been working towards this scholarship for the past 500 years. However, on the face of it, to an outsider, it would seem as if academic awards and achievements come naturally to me. Of course, I love education more than any other hobby – yes, hobby, I loves ma learning – but if anything that means I work even harder to succeed at it. This scholarship didn’t come off the back of a single application form, it came off the back of 18 years of striving in the education system. So why are we so easily convinced that there are such things as “Overnight billionaires” and “natural-born overachievers” when things in our own day-to-day lives don’t even go that easily?
We all know the iceberg exists, so why do we retweet the image without getting to the bottom of what it means? The ‘how’ is easy. The media presents images of the ‘real lives’ of those at the top just as Instagram allows one to display the highlight-reel of their lives, even augmenting and glamifying our stories to the point of distortion. We skip over Steve Jobs working out of his sister’s garage and jump right to the iPod. We don’t want to know about Jay-Z selling drugs in the projects, we want to know about how he’s on track to become the next black billionaire.
The ‘why’, however, is not so straightforward. Why do we soak up these stories when it’s actually much easier to believe that people spent a lot of sleepless nights, remortgaged a lot of homes and stepped on a lot of toes to get where they are? We believe these stories not because we are incapable of individual thought, but because, quite frankly, we want to. It’s not just the media that’s the guilty culprit. As humans, we like to be fed other people’s success stories, and we gobble them up in the hopes that they will fuel our own desperate aspirations. We read glib articles with titles like “7 Things all successful people do before going to work” or “5 behaviours that will guarantee you’ll become a millionaire before your next birthday” (my birthday is in a month, so good luck with that), not because we believe that they will work, but because we hope that they will sort of rub off on us. We all know it took Dyson 15 years and 5127 attempts to make a bagless vacuum cleaner, but somehow even this story is glorified and made to seem as if he was living the high life during the day and fiddling with a screwdriver at night. As if somehow, still, secretly, it was all easy really. It doesn’t help that our perspectives are almost always retrospective. Bar the Youtube star who pleads for votes and subscribers, we never see the build up, the resilience needed to really achieve something great. How much patience would it have taken to sit there and work out over 5,000 – over 5,000 – prototypes? Most of us would have given up at 10, if we had even bothered to attempt to put the idea into practice in the first place.
Very few of us are willing to put in the effort it takes to reach the top of the iceberg, but being seen – not by others, but by ourselves – to be moving towards possibly one day making that effort makes us feel better. It certainly makes us feel like it’s OK not to actually do anything about our ‘goals’. We like the idea that some people are just naturally brilliant, while the rest of us are doomed to be, as Chris Rock puts it, C+ at best. It gives us an excuse not to perform, to feel sorry for ourselves, to justify….not failure…more like not even trying in the first place. Listening to a weird speech by Shia LaBeouf doesn’t mean your dreams won’t remain dreams.
When I was 13 years old, I was put into the lowest set for Maths while all my friends were put in either the top or middle sets. I assumed it was because they were smarter than myself, and no teachers tried to contradict me on that point. I was ready to give up – how could I compete with those to whom it all came so easily, while I still struggled with the basics? It was my mother that pointed out that Eva, while very intelligent, probably didn’t skate through life without doing extra work at home. She didn’t get to the top by being ‘naturally brilliant’. There are things, behind closed doors – after MSN was turned off and all the good TV was over – that happened, that I didn’t see. This shook up my perspective. I worked harder, smarter, faster. I did extra Maths, loathing every second of it. I was moved up to the middle set within half a year, and by the time we got to year 11 (crunch time), I was sitting alongside my friends in the top set.
Till this day I’m still horrible at Maths, but to outsiders looking in I did well in every exam I took. To them, I have a full-ride to do the course of my dreams at a university that I never would have expected to accept me, because it all ‘comes to me naturally’. And as far as they know, it all happened overnight.