I was recently having a conversation with a professional peer who was asking me about work and how it was going. After answering him, he said something like, “Wow, sounds like things are going really well. What’s your secret?”

I like to think of myself as someone who isn’t easily offended because I admire people who aren’t, but I have to admit, I was a little put out by that question.

You see, I think it betrays a mentality that is at the heart of a maturity paralysis that is pervasive in our society. It assumes that the outcomes we desire in our lives (i.e. successes) are the consequence of some secret knowledge that once accessed will reveal opportunities closed off to most people. If I just find the right trigger, or light the right fuse, or insert the right cheat code, all the obstacles that have stood in my way will suddenly crumble before me and success will be mine for the taking.

This is a philosophy and a mindset that is determined to find the shortcut because it firmly believes there is a shortcut and that those of us who have managed to find “success” have simply found a way to cut those corners. We’ve found the cheat that everyone else is looking for. Maybe this is why it’s so easy to create bad guy stereotypes out of people who are “successful”. Not many people will admire the success and ingenuity of people who have found economic success. Instead, you’ll often hear assumptions about how they must have cheated someone in their rise to the top. And, boy, do we ever love a good scandal that confirms those suspicions (Lance Armstrong comes to mind).

This is what bugs me about that question. Based on its assumptions, it’s impossible to answer because there is no secret. I can’t tell you about the shortcut to success because there isn’t one; at least not for most people.

I wonder a bit about why these kinds of assumptions are so prevalent and I think it’s, in part, because they’re very seductive. Who hasn’t fantasized about winning the lottery, right? Yet, does that mean that we normalize expectations about those fantasies? In part, I guess a lot of people do, otherwise they would never buy a lotto ticket or gamble when the odds are stacked so utterly against them. The other problem might be due to the amount of self-help books out there claiming to know the secrets of successful people. Let me save you some time by telling you that the secret that such authors have tapped into is how to sell books with flashy titles. It’s the link bait of literature.

So, how does somebody become successful? To explore such big questions, I think we need to dig down to the heart of the matter. I prefer to explore the fundamentals of any question like this and, to be honest, let’s not pretend like this hasn’t been answered a thousand times before. We’re not breaking new ground here so we don’t need some kind of secret; we just need to be willing to take the challenging road that all the wise men and women have been pointing us to.

Great thinkers have labored over the questions of what makes a woman or a man exceptional and a set of characteristics have emerged through the history of exploring those questions. I absolutely agree that if you can excel in these virtues, you will be well on your way to success, however you define it. They are prudence (wisdom or common sense), justice (knowing what is right and fair), temperance (discipline and self-control), and fortitude (unwavering consistency). I don’t have time to write a long treatment on these qualities, so if you’re interested, take some time to read up about them. It’s no easy thing to build up these characteristics in your personality, but they are foundational to what makes a person exceptional and it is usually exceptional people who find success.

If, upon looking at the road to be traveled, you decide you’d prefer a shortcut, then by all means, look for it. Meanwhile, I’ll be putting one foot in front of the other walking the only road that can be walked towards maturity and prosperity and with a bit of luck, I’m trusting that some good things will happen along the way. Hope to see you along the way.