Swimming Upstream Against Your Destiny

The heritability of IQ increases with age. If this doesn’t surprise you, it should. What it means is that as you have more experiences, they matter even less for your overall intelligence.

One explanation for this bizarre fact is that intelligence has a compounding property. If you’re slightly smarter as a child, due to innate advantages, you’ll enjoy learning more and accelerate your intelligence faster. The smart, it seems, get smarter.

Malcolm Gladwell brought this quirk of human nature to light in his book Outliers. Called the Matthew Effect, it explains a lot of the divergence in talent in individuals, and suggests that even slight advantages early on can create huge gaps in success, intelligence or skill later on.

The Mathematics of Destiny

It turns out that this tendency, for small advantages to create huge disparities isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. The mathematics of chaos theory show that many systems can be modeled as having these divergent properties.

With a system of differential equations, you can even observe so-called “funnels” emerging from simple relationships. Slightly different starting points, creating wildly different destinies.

Trajectories Visualization via MIT's Mathlets

Trajectories Visualization via MIT’s Mathlets

One path increases, another gets very close but never makes it. If the Matthew Effect is correct, those plots could be the trajectories of your life, not just equations on a blackboard.

Swimming Upstream

But what happens if you reject the direction you feel your life is headed? Just because you struggled at school, does that mean there will be concepts forever outside your reach? Einstein was famously called a dullard in elementary school. But Einstein is just one man, and hardly a representative one at that.

My feeling is that there are two types of self-improvement. There’s the natural, accelerative kind. The slightly taller kid gets more attention from his basketball coach and practices even harder. The Matthew Effect in action.

Then there’s the swimming upstream kind. This is where the feedback isn’t wholly positive, and you need to fight against the seemingly mathematical inevitability of your current trajectory. This is the overweight person starting exercise or the awkward kid going to parties to try to meet people.

Some people would argue that making such a distinction is limiting. After all, if you tell yourself it’s an uphill battle, won’t that sap the very motivation to work that you have? Maybe it’s easier to ignore the sociological principles and pretend that our destinies are entirely ours to define.

But there’s an implicit optimism in the upstream swim as well. Because it means that if you can swim far enough to get into a different funnel, success might start to become easier, you might be able to get your own Matthew Effect rolling and forever escape the trajectory of your old destiny.

Swimming Towards the Inflection Point

I had an experience like this when setting up my first online business. I desperately wanted to earn just enough money to live on, and it was very frustrating when I spent years not even able to do that. I was swimming upstream, and the scale of the challenge ahead was daunting to me.

Yet, after five years of work, something strange happened. I went from being unable to pay the bills to having a good income in just the span of a few months. From there, future improvements became even easier, and now I’m financially secure enough to devote myself to a huge project that has zero impact on my bank account.

A truth, properly interpreted, is always more optimistic than a self-delusion. So while the Matthew Effect says growth is hard in the upstream phase, that’s not actually news to anyone. If you’re struggling with your career, finances, relationships, health or studies, you’re acutely aware of how hard self-improvement is.

What the Matthew Effect suggests is that there’s also an inflection point. A point where the positive reinforcement exceeds the negative feedback, and growth takes less effort—the trajectory shifts enough to define a new destiny.

Getting to the Turning Point

Recognizing that, in many systems, success is hardest early on, but it gets easier helps put things in perspective. It also encourages you to use more discipline early on, since getting to the inflection point is the hardest step.

I definitely felt this upstream swim with my social skills when I had graduated from high-school. I had been boring and fairly unpopular, growing up in a tiny town isolated from a lot of opportunities to meet new people.

When I moved away to study in university, I was eager to make up for lost time. But, I also noticed I was much rustier that many of my peers in the art of making friends and socializing. It always took an effort to convince myself to go out, since I wasn’t the life of the party.

I kept working at it, and somewhere in university I started hitting an inflection point. I became good enough at meeting new people, that I didn’t have to force myself to do it. I recently moved to a new city with no friends and I’ve met hundreds of people in the following months.

With my business and with my social skills, I had plenty of moments of frustration early on. Especially when success is not forthcoming, it is easy to believe that maybe you aren’t cut out to succeed.

Were I able to go back, I would have told myself to expect that, and just because the rate of progress is slow initially, doesn’t mean it won’t accelerate later. Work hard, show up every day, and sometimes you can swim upstream far enough to change your destiny.

Side Note: This happens to be the 900th article for ScottHYoung.com. Although it’s been a lot of work, I too owe a lot to the randomness of early fluctuations and from the generosity of readers here. Thanks to you for reading, and for making it possible for me to do what I love every day!

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  • Nascere

    I have been reading your blog for a few months. I gather you must be in your mid to late 20s and possibly younger. Without being condescending, I am impressed with your level headed maturity and humility despite obviously being very intelligent and very advance in your understanding of what is important in life aside from money. Keep up the great work!

  • Chris

    For me, there is a lot of food for thought in this. Thanks Scott!

  • Sally

    Awesome article. Love the merge of mathematics & self-help advice. Keep up the great work to yet another 900 articles!

  • Alberto

    Great post! enlightening. congratulations for your 9OO posts

  • Thomas

    Scott, you’re the man. Another thought-provoking read. Congrats on the 900th. I’m constantly looking for mini self-improvement projects as well, and have been considering joining you in my own version of the MIT CS courseware.

    Cheers buddy!

    And P.S. hopefully this positive reinforcement helps overcome any negative feedback.

  • Kamykazee

    Quite enjoyed this one. Now it just leaves the question ‘Where do you direct these efforts?’ to be settled. That also seems daunting.

  • Pau Ruŀlan Ferragut

    I recall something like this when I started programming. In high school I tried
    on my own but it was not until the second semester at the university when I
    began tu understand simple concepts like variables or procedures. But then the
    whole picture appeared a lot cleaner and my learning speed seemed to skyrock.

    Thanks for the post and congratulations for the 900th!

  • usexpat

    Really enjoy reading your articles; congrats on the 900th one!

  • Emily

    Persistence and belief in yourself will take you places other people only ever dream of.

  • Peter

    “A truth, properly interpreted, is always more optimistic than a self-delusion.”

    Loving this quote. Thank you for another great article.

  • Anumole

    Congrats on your 900th..the thought and effort that u put into each post is obvious..keep the good work going

  • Carolyn

    “After all, if you tell yourself it’s an uphill battle, won’t that sap the very motivation to work that you have?” — This is incredibly true!

    This happens to be perfect timing for such an article, as I continue seeking employment in a field that is highly competitive. I do have one question though — even in an uphill battle, if not due to a lack of grit, physical fatigue will eventually set in, and you have to know when to slow down. Most of us aren’t usually able to predict when the inflection points in our own lives will occur. If you can elaborate on this idea more, I’d appreciate your sights. Congrats on your 900th article!

  • Michael Sieler

    I really like this article! I agree with you 100%! Those brick walls that protect the beautiful garden of Success are there to block others that have weaker will power.

    I really like your website and you’re stories are an inspiration to a young wanna-be entrepreneur/free-lancer.


  • Nick

    Sounds like the natural type of self improvement is based on outside motivators to get you started
    And the swimming upstream type is based on inside (your own personal) motivators to get you started…in theory, you start your own Matthew Effect for yourself.

    Its cool that this post has a little bit of math/stats behind it, as I’m sure you’re learning a lot about those things in you MIT project. I can only hope future posts will be linked to other “real world” ideas. This makes your posts more relevant, as the knowledge is tied to something real. And it makes your posts more interesting as we get to learn about something that we probably never would have stumbled upon on our own.

    As a faithful reader of your blog, CONGRATS! on #900.
    When #1000 hits, hopefully you will have invented the technology to transport all of us to where you’re at and we can have a huge party.

  • Josh

    YES! YES! Exactly! I’ve always considered long term growth is the best investment.

    I think everyone who has seriously worked on themselves gets this. That moment of clarity where the massive breakthroughs start to occur.

    Congratulations on 900. I’m sure the next 100 will be even better than the last 900.

  • Jonathan

    Love the article! You should consider doing a follow up article regarding strategy so we can all put this into good practice. I have my own little strategy but would love to expand it. First I find out my main, big picture goals in life and set my mind on achieving them with as few skills as possible.
    So let’s say I need to make a certain amount of money to finance other interests. I would first scan my own ‘natural’ strengths (for me it was my love of science and computer programming), and I would choose a related career and that paid enough.
    I think the most telling principle of the matthew effect is that less is more. Having many skills will mostly make you stay in that uphill phase for the majority of them. Having a small, varied mixture of skills will allow your abilities to skyrocket — a key to self-improvement!

  • Josh

    I think this is the difference between goals and rewards. I imagine that truly successful people know how to reward themselves for going after their goals, by telling themselves that they’re going to succeed, having interested that make life exciting, forming meaningful relationships.

    Since they don’t depend on short term successes for their well being, they have the ability to set long term goals. They feel good and think clearly and so they get to see that turning-point as it approaches.

    And then they reap the HUGE rewards after they cross it.

    Congratulations on 900. This is one of my favorite blogs ever. I’m looking forward to the next 900.

  • Anders

    This reminds me of the movie Gattaca.

    No matter how much the odds are vouching against you, with proper discipline and most importantly, passion, you can do whatever you want…

  • Shaun

    Story of my life! LOL.

    Thanks for the post!