Human Accomplishment: Engines vs. Fuels


I think a lot about why some people are highly productive and successful while others produce nothing in their lifetimes. Some get Ph.Ds and spend their time writing books, giving talks, and working on their next big idea. Others punch a clock somewhere, refuse to eat right or exercise, and consume hollow media until they die.

The difference cannot be more severe.

Modeling this sort of thing is interesting to me, and the other morning I awoke to the idea of different components in this equation: engines that make you more effective once moving, and fuels that inspire you to move in the first place.

  • Intelligence is an engine: it allows you to move forward effectively when fueled

  • Self-discipline is fuel: it is required before you can use the engine

  • Passion is a fuel: it motivates like self-discipline, but for its own ends, not yours

  • Health is fuel quality: if you don’t eat right and exercise your self-discipline and passion will be diluted and inconsistent, if present at all

These analogs arrive from my long-held belief that drive/fuel/discipline is the most important attribute of a successful person. Having intelligence, or talent, or whatever type of gift is nearly wasted if it’s not pushed ahead and focused.

Interestingly, some human attributes seem to fall into both categories:

  • Creativity is both an fuel and an engine: it can drive you to produce (fuel), or help you solve a problem itself (engine)

  • Networking (knowing people) is similar: it can motivate you by exposing you to those who are successful around you, and can also facilitate success via connections

Alas, I don’t have any terraforming solutions here other than to say that fuel is more important than engine. Diet, exercise, and self-discipline are the critical attributes of an accomplished person. This is true because not because they determine if you’ll be effective, but because they determine whether you’ll even try.

[ Oct 26, 2011 ]

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