People who succeed against the odds all have one thing in common

What compels some people to persevere while others give up?
What compels some people to persevere while others give up?
Image: AP Photo/Tashi Sherpa
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What makes some people more persistent than others? To answer that question, it may be helpful to look at the example of a determined Taiwanese-born entrepreneur.

Our story begins in 1933, when the entrepreneur moved to Japan and built a successful clothing company. Business continued to boom during World War 2, as he expanded his business to sell slide projectors to the Japanese government as well as other products like air-raid shelters.

Eventually, he found an accounting problem with one of his companies. He went to the Japanese military police to get help investigating. Instead they arrested him and put him in a military prison, where he was starved and tortured for 45 days. While he recuperated, Japan lost the war. The economy was in shambles; his factories and businesses destroyed. He had little left.

But he started again. Over the years, he built a real-estate empire and help launch a bank — only to lose everything again, twice. He wound up stuck in prison, this time for years, on charges of tax evasion. (The charges were eventually dropped.) And when he tried to start a new food company, he spent a year in a makeshift laboratory in his tool shed, watching experiment after experiment fail.

At last in 1958, at the age of 48, this entrepreneur finally hit on an idea that eventually became a company worth $700 billion on the Tokyo stock exchange.

Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen noodles.

His story is an inspiring tale of perseverance. And yet it’s easy for us to discount by assuming that Ando must have possessed an extraordinary willpower that most of us will never have. We might be inspired by his example, but we can’t possibly imitate him.

I don’t think that’s true. Ando’s story isn’t really just his story. It’s also a story about the people who helped him.

Why we give up

Kids drop out of college for lots of reasons: academic problems, the high cost of tuition, even legal troubles. But it turns out that there’s an even more fundamental factor that determines who stays in school.

Vincent Tinto is a professor at Syracuse University. He’s well known for his theories on students’ persistence through higher education. His research produced what’s known as the “Model of Institutional Departure.”

Tinto’s model informs us that, above all else, college is a transition from one community to another. Our success in college depends on how well we integrate ourselves into that new community.

What happens if we go home every weekend to visit high-school friends and sweethearts instead of making friends in our new community? We don’t integrate. We don’t get help from new friends going through the same issues or receive academic advice from new mentors. Instead, we tend to drop out.

Tinto’s model has proven incredibly useful in improving how we educate not just undergraduates but people enrolled in remote learning programs and continuing-education classes. And it can be extended far past education to help us understand how people persist.

His model isn’t even unique. It was in large part derived from a model about suicide created by Emile Durkheim in 1897. Durkheim found that suicide rates depended partly on whether people felt fully integrated into their communities and societies. A person who feels more connected to a group is less likely to commit suicide.

If people aren’t alone, they persevere.

The power of social networks

While Ando was in military prison camp the first time around, he befriended a fellow prisoner. When his friend was released, Ando asked him to contact another friend — a lieutenant in the Japanese Army — who eventually arranged for his release. If Ando hadn’t had those two friends, he would have likely died in prison.

Then he started his real-estate empire. But that wasn’t even his idea. Another friend, Fusanosuke Kuhara — an entrepreneur who helped create what would become the company Hitachi — mentored Ando. His advice when Japan’s economy was ruined after the war? “Buy all the cheap real estate.”

When that fell apart and Ando found himself completely broke, he was able to start a bank because he still knew enough people who were willing to give him deposits.

And the success of his instant ramen is indebted to his wife, who let him continue to chase his dream. It was her idea to create a laboratory out of their tool shed. It was by studying her cooking that Ando got the idea to create instant ramen.

Ando’s persistence didn’t come from individual suffering. It came from the people he surrounded himself with.

Loose ties matter too

As I look back on the things I’ve accomplished in my life, I can point to obstacles where I might have given up or not started at all. Then I see the people who gave me a little nudge to get to a better place.

When I wanted to start my first company Inkling in 2005, I applied to Y Combinator, an early-stage investment program. Trouble was: the person I was originally going to apply with backed out at the last minute. And Y Combinator often requires its companies to have more than one co-founder.

This would have been an easy place to give up. But I had a lot of loose ties with other people who I then started reaching out to. I thought of a friend, Adam Siegel, with whom I hadn’t spoken in awhile, but who had mentioned a year previously over lunch that he was looking to create a new business. I thought he might be game. One lunch later, he was on board with my new business idea. We applied to Y Combinator together, got in, and away we went.

Years later, I was trying to figure out my next project. I remembered chatting with another friend, Andrew Wicklander, about how much we missed a now-defunct software program called Writeboard. That gave me the motivation to commit to an idea that became a pretty successful software project. And it was only successful because a lot of other loose connections and friends helped me spread the word.

At Draft, I asked another friend, Jason Fried, to help mentor me. Eventually he asked me to take over a software project he had started — Highrise.

Ask for help

I’ve gotten a lot of help from the friends and loose connections I’ve cultivated over the years. And what I’ve found is that I don’t have to be some schmoozing, glad-handing, awkward-networking-event-attending extraordinaire. I’m actually one of the most introverted people I know. If I’m at a conference, I’m in the back row so I can be the first to leave. If there’s a party, I’m probably not at it.

But it isn’t hard to drop people an occasional email or ask them out for coffee or lunch. Just think of all the people you haven’t heard from in a month. What’s stopping you from sending a quick: “How’s it going?”

Finally, don’t be afraid to be honest with all of those connections and actually ask them for help. Too many of us, especially those of us who run businesses, suffer in isolation. We tend to hide hard times from friends and people who could help. That’s because challenges can feel a lot like failure.

We’re told to act confident and “fake it till we make it.” That’s nonsense. I can’t believe how many people tell me how well their companies are doing, only to go out of business three months later. If only they had shared their challenges, maybe someone in their network could have helped.

On January 5, 2007, Ando died from heart failure at the age of 96. Again, we have a chance to see how good he was at surrounding himself with people.

Six thousand and five hundred people attended his funeral. It was held at a baseball stadium. It was invite only.