Most of us think that success should come through merit. In this case (and in a shocking reversal of the norm), most of us are right.
But there’s a second expectation that many of us have toward the successful: that they should have to “go through” something difficult, undignified, or unrewarding before they hit it big. Musicians need to spend years playing lousy gigs for tips before you should be releasing a number one album. Successful CEOs should have had to work through a chain of lower positions first. Artists should “starve” at some point and fail repeatedly to get people to like their work.
In short, successful people should “pay their dues.” We’ve probably heard this phrase in all of the most dramatic success stories, and it probably seems right. After all, merit usually goes hand in hand with hard work.
But if we look closer, we aren’t simply arguing that successful people should have to work hard for success. We expect (at least unconsciously) that they should have to go through a bunch of shit before they can really deserve to enjoy their full potential.
We expect professionals to climb the corporate ladder for decades so they can get management positions at the end of their working lives. We expect Olympic athletes to have devoted years of their lives to training for one chance to succeed on the field. Actors should chase every audition – the more failures on the way to the big break, the better.
We can’t stand the people who skip this shit on the way to the top: American Idols who land their first record deal from being on a reality show, teenage startup founders who make millions on the next mobile app that no one sees coming, poets that become laureates for the first verses they write. “Success without shit” has the curious effect of making us think that they’re smug and unworthy.
We’re demanding that successful people prove something to the rest of us. We have an exclusive club for ordinary people – and we demand that all of the extraordinary people pay membership dues to be accepted as part of it.
Why would anyone want to join that club?
In most cases, our expectation that people should “pay their dues” is wrong and absurd. (But you can relax now – the universe is at least back to its normal state, in which most of us people are wrong again).
If someone is prepared for greater challenges and fabulous success after having gone through less shit, there’s absolutely no reason they should pay any dues to anyone. “Paying dues” as an academic philosopher by enduring institutional politics and spending years grading papers doesn’t make sense for someone who can spread her ideas to a mass audience without an ivory tower. Going through the 18-year slog of school to get a career doesn’t make sense for someone who can get meaningful work without a degree.
Yes, sometimes a lack of experience coupled with a lot of success and responsibility can breed a kind of naive arrogance. Nobody likes that. Sometimes we think a few hard knocks in life will knock that look off of the faces of the boy band singers of the world.
But what are we really asking from successful people when we demand that they pay their dues? What does that demand say about our response to talent, spirit, or intelligence? About our own pettiness and envy?
We really should cut it out.
Anything above and beyond the skill, creativity, and work we need to be successful is a a deadweight loss. Life is too short, and all of us have too many successes to chase to spend unnecessary time going through shit for one.