Sunday, February 3, 2013

The sweet smell of success

Camille Sweeney and John Gosfield are the authors of a self-help book on the feats of “superachevers.” As part of their promotional campaign (I assume), they offer in the NYT some insights into the “Secret Ingredient of Success.” Faithful to the conventions of the genre, they start with a catchy anecdote. They tell the story of Korean-American chef David Chang who was failing in his efforts to live off a small noodle bar in NYC. Then he had some sort of epiphany, and started to cook up strange fusionish dishes. Those quite unexpectedly attracted crowds of customers, followed by rave reviews and multiple awards - a course of events the newly minted celebrity chef still finds “kind of ridiculous.” Now Mr. Chang owns a mini culinary empire with 8 outposts (as of Jan. 19) spanning the globe. He also has “other thriving enterprises, including bakeries and bars, a PBS TV show, guest spots on HBO’s ‘Treme’ and a foodie magazine, Lucky Peach.

Ms. Sweeney and Mr. Gosfield also point to OK Go, a highly successful group whose members saw the writing on the wall with the decline of CD sales, and successfully left behind “the business model of the 20th-century rock band.” What was their “secret ingredient”? “Rather than depend on their label, they made wildly unconventional music videos, which went viral, and collaborative art projects with companies like Google, State Farm and Range Rover, which financed future creative endeavors.”

Ms. Sweeney and Mr. Gosfield apparently want to show us that such miracles indeed happen, and the next one could happen to us - if we just follow their advice (based, by the way, on solid scientific research). So, how can we do it? As I was reading their column, I had, in fact, a different question in my mind.

Why, why do it? Why work yourself “to the bone” in order to acquire celebrity status? Why achieve this distinction by offering convention-defying kitchy concoctions of culinary, sound, visual, or entrepreneural ingredients? Why not pursue a slightly less ambitious path while remaining a bit truer to yourself? Mr. Chang and OK Go did not ask themselves those questions. He “worked 18-hour days in his tiny restaurant” - a habit which must have come in handy given his multiple current self-investments; and they were probably shell-shocked by the loud music they put out.

The Sweeney-Gosfield team, though, and the researchers they cite, may not suffer from similarly acute sleep deprivation, chronically elevated stress hormones, and related neurosomatic deviations. So I am not sure why they do not approach their subject matter in the kind of philosophical mode which comes so naturally to me. I do know, though, that Ms. Sweeney and Mr. Gosfield have found their own “secret ingredient for success” - and I am eager to reveal their formula. What they are doing is dangling before us the bait of superarchever supersuccess - the kind of meteoric rise most of us will never achieve, even if it wasn’t much of a pact with the devil (a concern which can be easily brushed aside by a casual “sour grapes” remark). I hope their recipe will work for them, and for a few of their success-oriented readers.