Why Am I Still Stuck? The Hidden Flaws in Success Advice

Srinivas Rao
16 min readMar 3, 2024


Do you ever feel like you’re on a self-improvement treadmill, consuming book after book, podcast after podcast, yet your life doesn’t seem to change? You’re not alone. But why is that? Could it be that our understanding of success is fundamentally flawed?

The narrative around success is often distilled into well-worn phrases: “Work hard, overcome obstacles, learn from failures, and success is yours.” This formula, though alluring, fuels a self-help industry worth billions but delivers tangible success to a fraction of its audience.

This raises a lot of questions about our understanding of success:

  • Why do some books, despite their mediocrity, land on the New York Times Best-Sellers list?
  • How does subpar content dominate the iTunes charts?
  • What keeps some talents hidden, while a urinal becomes an art icon?

What if we told you that there’s a more scientific, evidence-based approach to success that’s within everyone’s reach? According to network scientist Laszlo Barbasi, success isn’t just about individual performance. It’s also about how others perceive your work.

Especially in situations where it’s hard to measure the quality of work, factors like our connections and location can significantly sway our success. This perspective shakes up traditional views of success, highlighting the crucial role of networks and situational context.

Redefining Success: Beyond Personal Metrics

Success, inherently personal and elusive, demands a definition beyond subjective measures. Barbasi emphasizes the necessity of seeing one’s impact ripple through their networks to truly define success. The tangible effects of your endeavors, such as the impact you make on others or the value you add to your community, are often more meaningful measures of success. For instance, a teacher’s success could be measured not just by their salary, but by the growth and achievements of their students

The Hidden Flaws of Success Literature

The prevalent narrative of success literature often overlooks key factors, leading to a plethora of questionable advice presented in self-help books, TED talks, podcasts, and motivational seminars. Let’s delve deeper into these often ignored yet crucial aspects of success.

The Missing Placebo of Aspirational Media

A placebo, commonly used in pharmaceutical studies, is a substance that has no therapeutic effect, often a sugar pill. In such studies, one group receives the actual drug, while the other gets a placebo. Interestingly, the placebo group sometimes experiences the drug’s effects, not because of the placebo itself, but due to their belief in its effectiveness. This concept can be applied to our understanding of success.

Fabulous books have been written about success. But some of them are actually written by very successful people who have kind of recounting their own trajectory. Others were written by people, by people who kind of summarize the trajectory of a group of successful individuals and this stealing information for that, you know, that is very inspiring. The problem I have in these approaches is that I’m very inspired by them, but they’re missing the placebo effect or the control study. And what I mean by that is that they only look at successful individuals and they’re not looking at the individuals who did not succeed — Laszlo Barbasi, The Unmistakable Creative Podcast

We seldom see individuals who have worked tirelessly yet achieved little on the cover of Forbes. Biographies are rarely written about people who spent their lives in obscurity, only to die penniless and broke. This presents a skewed view of success, disregarding the hidden placebo effect. In other words, many people may be “taking the pill” of hard work and ambition, but only some experience the “effect” of success, creating an incomplete narrative.

Success stories are often skewed by survivor bias, focusing on winners and disregarding those who didn’t succeed despite similar efforts. This results in a distorted understanding of success. To gain an accurate perspective, we need to consider both successful and unsuccessful stories, acknowledging the overlooked placebo of aspirational media.

All Prescriptive Advice is Context Dependent

Prescriptive advice is typically offered through widespread cliches and “fail-proof” strategies for success. However, an essential factor that drastically influences the effectiveness of this advice is often overlooked: the individual applying it. The same advice that might significantly transform one person’s life can absolutely wreck another’s.

  • A diet that revitalizes one individual could lead to serious health issues for another person.
  • Likewise, productivity strategies that work for a single person, like myself, could prove ineffective for a busy mother managing toddlers and daily chores.

Often, people generalize advice without considering the variability in individual contexts, which can drastically alter outcomes. The examples of the diet and the morning routine illustrate how context can drastically affect the outcome of any advice. It’s crucial to remember this when seeking or applying success advice — what works for one person might not work for another due to differing contexts.

Variables that Alter the Context of Prescriptive Advice

When we study the narratives of successful individuals, we encounter numerous variables that can alter both the context and effectiveness of the advice given. Many of these variables are unique to each individual’s journey, making them impossible to replicate.


Analyzing the success trajectories of numerous startups, Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab (a pioneer incubator for early internet companies such as Citysearch and Cars.com), identified timing as a pivotal factor.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” presents the stories of tech industry pioneers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. These visionaries were born at a time that allowed them to enter college just as the computer revolution was beginning, essentially winning what Gladwell refers to as the “timing of birth” lottery.

I launched the Unmistakable Creative in 2009 when podcasting was considered a medium on the decline. However, almost seven years later, journalist Kevin Roose proclaimed the advent of a “golden age” of podcasting. The Unmistakable Creative’s success can largely be attributed to its decade-long head start on a trend that eventually evolved into a significant cultural phenomenon.


The role of genetics in achieving excellence is frequently downplayed in common success advice. Yet, it’s impractical to dismiss the substantial influence genetics have on the probability of success in various fields.

We all possess unique genetic strengths and limitations. We can certainly enhance our strengths, but many of our limitations are unchanging. For example, if I had attended the same high school as basketball superstar Lebron James, been on his team, and practiced with him daily, my basketball skills would undoubtedly improve. Yet, due to our genetic differences, he would still be the one to progress to the NBA, not me.

The simple truth is, our bodies are constructed differently, and this significantly impacts our individual potentials. Like it or not, genetics do play a role in what your probability of success in any given field.


Being the child of Indian immigrants, I was brought up in an environment filled with high expectations. My parents never praised me for achieving good grades, it was simply what they expected from me. The work ethic and sense of innate motivation that they instilled in me have undeniably influenced all that I’ve accomplished in life.

Now, let’s consider someone who was raised in a poverty-stricken environment, where their primary role models were people involved in criminal activities. The outcomes of their lives would be drastically different from mine.

This stark contrast in upbringing environments significantly influences the paths we take in life, our attitudes, and our achievements. As such, the environment we are raised in is a crucial element in shaping our futures.

While individual contexts such as timing, genetics, and environment play significant roles in success, understanding these variables can help us tailor advice to our unique circumstances and set ourselves up for success. But beyond these individual factors, there are also universal principles that govern success. It’s time to turn our attention to these universal laws of success and explore how they apply across different scenarios.

The Universal Laws of Success

Let’s step away from the typical self-help clichés and dive into the universal laws of success. These laws don’t just offer inspiring stories to fill you with hope. They stand on a foundation of evidence, distilled through rigorous scientific analysis. These substantial, actionable insights that can truly make a difference come from Laszlo Barabasi’s book, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success.

1. Networks Drive Success When Performance Isn’t Measurable

You and I could easily purchase a child’s toilet from Amazon, place a roll of toilet paper next to it, capture some photos, and post them on Instagram. Instead of being praised for our artistic brilliance, however, our followers would likely question our sanity. But if the same setup was displayed as an exhibit in a modern art museum, we might be hailed as visionaries. Let’s explore why this is the case.

The perceived value of art is often not determined by the intrinsic value of the object itself, but by nearly invisible networks. As Laszlo Barbasi mentioned in our conversation on the Unmistakable Creative, “Who put it there, where it is at that moment, and what other institutions have acknowledged it before” greatly impact the perceived value of an artwork. This makes art a domain where performance isn’t easily measurable. What one person finds hideous, another might find breathtaking. This is why we often hear the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

When it’s an exhibit in a modern art museum, the child’s toilet and roll of toilet paper become part of a network that amplifies their value. Humans tend to assign prestige based on observation. If the curator of a modern art museum deems this seemingly absurd installation as brilliant, people’s opinions are likely to align. After all, this person is the curator of an art museum.

Find a Network That Your Talents Can Be Expressed in the Best Way

Choosing the right network where your skills and talents can shine is crucial for your individual success journey.

  • If you’re a talented computer programmer or someone tech savvy, this network might be in Silicon Valley.
  • If you’re a budding writer with a knack for storytelling, this network might be within a writers’ circle or an online writing community where you can share, critique, and improve each other’s work.
  • On the other hand, if you’re a creative individual with a passion for design, your network might be in a design studio or a digital community of graphic artists, where you can collaborate, exchange ideas, and learn from the best in the field.

When performance isn’t measurable it’s important to understand that our connections and relationships can often be a more reliable predictor of success than individual performance. This law reminds us to value and nurture our networks

2. Performance is Bounded, but Success is Unbounded

Superstars exist because success is unbounded. By performing even a fraction better than your competitors, your reward can easily be hundreds, sometimes, thousands of times greater. — Laszlo Barbasi

The principle of Performance is Bounded, Success is Unbounded suggests that while our performance, the quality of our work, and the effort we put in, has a certain limit or bound, the success we can achieve is limitless or unbounded.

LeBron’s performance on the court, while exceptional, is bounded. There’s a limit to how much he can improve his shooting percentage or his free-throw accuracy. And even his earnings on the court are constrained because NBA teams have salary caps.

Despite his basketball performance being bounded, LeBron’s off-court success is limitless. Leveraging his fame, LeBron has built a significant business empire, securing endorsements, making strategic investments, and venturing into entertainment. His business acumen, long-term vision, and strategic partnerships have significantly boosted his net worth, demonstrating that his success extends far beyond the basketball court.

4 Actions for Unbounded Success

If you have a day job, there are only so many hours you can work, there’s a limit to how much you can earn in your role, even with promotions or raises. Thus, your performance is bounded. But there are multiple ways in which you can achieve unbounded success.

1. Start a Side Hustle

When you start a side hustle, your potential success becomes unbounded. There’s no cap on how much your side hustle can grow. It could become a massive success, bringing in significant income, or even grow into a full-time business. This is the unbounded success.

2. Volunteer For an Organization

Volunteering isn’t just about giving your time and energy. It’s an opportunity to connect with people who can influence your career trajectory. As Tim Ferriss shared in an interview on the Unmistakable Creative, “I volunteered at events, business events or put on by a sort of startup nonprofits and so on or for, or paid organizations on volunteer. And get to the point where I had more responsibility, because I would take on additional responsibilities they didn’t ask me to do.’ This proactive approach helped him make a good impression and build valuable relationships, despite being lower on the professional totem pole.”

3. Learn New Skills

This is perhaps one of the most accessible paths to unbounded success. The Internet is a fountain of knowledge that makes it possible for anyone to learn anything.

You could choose to deepen your knowledge in your current field, or explore a completely new area of interest. For example, if you’re interested in technology, you could learn to code through online courses. This new skill could open up opportunities for higher-paying jobs, freelance work, or even starting your own tech company. Moreover, the process of learning itself can be incredibly rewarding, leading to personal growth and satisfaction.

4. Postpone Your Job Interviews: Counter the First Mover Myth

In competitive scenarios such as orchestra auditions, where each musician performs behind a screen to prevent favoritism, an interesting pattern emerges: despite the random selection of performance order, no musician performing on the first day has ever won. This is due to the recency effect, a cognitive bias where we remember the most recently presented items or experiences the most. This effect is not exclusive to music but extends to other fields, including job interviews. When a manager has to choose from equally qualified candidates, they tend to favor the most recently interviewed. Thus, understanding and leveraging this bias, such as by postponing your job interview, can provide a strategic edge.

The Role of The Team in Individual Success

Every successful person owes a part of their success to a behind-the-scenes team whose contributions often remain unrecognized. This pattern is prevalent across various fields, such as sports and business. Notable figures like Lebron James and Steve Jobs had significant collaborators like Maverick Carter and Johnathan Ive, who played key roles in their success but received less recognition.

Credit for teamwork isn’t based on performance. Credit is based on perception. Which makes perfect sense if we remember that success is a collective phenomenon, centered on how other people perceive our performance.

An interesting aspect of this scenario is the distribution of credit within a team or collaborative effort. It’s often the person in the spotlight who gets the majority of the credit, despite the substantial amount of work put in by the rest of the team.

For example, when we talk about revolutionary products like the iPhone, the first name that comes to mind is Steve Jobs, even though thousands of people at Apple contributed to the creation of the iPhone. Similarly, Facebook, with its thousands of employees, is primarily associated with Mark Zuckerberg.

Laszlo Barbasi, in his interview on Unmistakable Creative, offers insightful perspectives on the dynamics within a successful team. According to Barbasi, the key to a high-performing team is not necessarily having a group of geniuses. Instead, the diversity of the team, encompassing various types of people and a wealth of perspectives, significantly impacts the team’s success. A team that gives attention to each other, fostering effective communication and active listening, can lead to better understanding, cooperation, and ultimately, improved results.

A non-hierarchical team structure, where no single person dominates the conversation, promotes equality and inclusivity, encouraging all members to contribute their ideas and insights. However, when the goal is innovation, the dynamics slightly shift. Here, one individual typically drives the work, with the rest of the team contributing to that person’s vision.

The challenge, however, lies in assigning credit for a team’s success. Irrespective of the team structure or goal, determining who contributed the most can be a tough task. The person driving the work is often credited the most, while the rest of the team’s contributions might go unnoticed.

While individual effort is important, the role of the team in achieving success cannot be overstated. As we’ve seen, success is often a collective effort, and recognizing this can lead to more meaningful and sustainable achievements.

Absorb Wisdom from the Masters, Then Take the Wheel of Your Own Journey

Too much time spent in someone else’s shadow eclipses our contributions. We get relegated to the periphery when we pursue piecemeal projects, hopping around between various lines of inquiry — Laszlo Barbasi

Mentorship, although often perceived as a shortcut to mastery, is more accurately a pathway to accelerated learning. It provides the opportunity to learn from individuals who have achieved world-class status in their respective fields.

As Laszlo Barbasi explains in “The Formula= The Universal Laws of Success,” if your aspiration is to reach the heights of success similar to icons like Steve Jobs, Olafur Eliasson, or Norah Jones, you cannot remain in the background indefinitely. You need to initiate the process of ‘preferential attachment,’ which involves building your own reputation and credit.”

From the Shadows to the Spotlight: Ryan Holiday’s Career Evolution

Before emerging as the renowned author and strategist he is today, Ryan Holiday spent a significant portion of his career in the background. His journey began as an apprentice to Robert Greene, who imparted valuable lessons on conducting effective research.

Later, Ryan served as a book marketing strategist for best-selling authors like Tucker Max and Tim Ferriss, helping propel their works into the limelight. He also held the position of Director of Marketing at American Apparel, further honing his skills in the field.

While Ryan could have continued in these roles, making a comfortable living behind the scenes, he chose to step into the forefront. This decision allowed him to fully leverage his skills and expertise, culminating in the success he enjoys today, rather than having his contributions overshadowed by the clients he served.

Ultimately, you need to do something that makes you the person who is leading the work, the person with a bold and compelling point of view, and the visionary who gets other people to believe in your vision.

With Persistence, Success Can Come At Any Time

Despite the prevalence of young super-start startup founders, professional athletes, and superstars across a wide variety of domains, there’s no set timeline or expiration date for when you can become successful. And this is where some of the so-called “platitudes” of success become more valid.

Your Q-Factor

The Q-factor, coined by Albert-László Barabási in The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success denotes the inherent quality of a product, idea, or person. It’s a crucial determinant of success potential, emphasizing not just talent but the quality of the idea or talent.

A terrific idea in clumsy hands rarely leads to an important outcome. Your ability to turn an idea into a discovery is equally important, and that varies dramatically from person to person. That ability is known as your q-factor. Combined with persistence, a high Q-factor can boost the likelihood of success. However, its presence doesn’t assure success, nor does its absence imply failure.

Matching Talent with Environment combined with a high q factor increases your odds of success. For example, if you’re a highly analytical person who is great with numbers, your odds of success will increase dramatically. But in a highly creative role, even a high q factor might not make a difference. A genius in one context is an idiot in another

Match ideas with skill: One of the major reasons I became a podcaster was because one of the first people I interviewed told me I was a much better interviewer than I was a writer. And to this day, despite writing 2 books with a publisher, that is still true. You might say that my Q factor for podcasting was higher than my q factor for writing.

The Value of Time

A life dedicated to chasing shortcuts often leads to a never-ending journey to nowhere. As James Clear articulates, habits are the compounded interest of self-improvement. Just like a bank account, the compound interest on your habits will take time to yield dividends.

When we look closely at the trajectory of anyone who has persisted long enough to achieve a level of success, as defined by Laszlo Barabasi, we notice certain patterns. They seem to take two steps back, then leap twenty steps forward, repeatedly. There’s often an inflection point where they suddenly become an “overnight success”. However, what we usually see is the end result, not the countless hours of work that led to it.

Rethinking Your Approach to Success

While the biographies of cultural icons, self-help books, and people we hear on podcasts (mine included) are inspiring, they cause us to mistake anecdotal evidence for effective strategies. As a result, we get stuck in what Wylie Mcgraw refers to as the self-help hell loop: reading book after book, attending seminar after seminar in search of a silver bullet, only to realize we’ve been chasing a mirage.

By looking at success through the lens of a network scientist like Barbasi, we’re able to apply evidenced-based strategies, leverage the power of our networks, overcome performance limitations and choose paths that amplify our strengths, allow us to compensate for our weaknesses, and ultimately become successful.

Ready to dive deeper into the world of creativity and personal growth without any feel good fluff?

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This article was originally published on The Unmistakable Creative Blog



Srinivas Rao

Candidate Conversations with Insanely Interesting People: Listen to the @Unmistakable Creative podcast in iTunes http://apple.co/1GfkvkP