Is there such a thing as “success by brute force”?

I’m guessing that mentally healthy people seek success. However, many of us fail. Should we give up trying? As a geek, I love to explore theory and engage in thought experiments. Here’s one: can success be attained through brute force? I think so, yes.

In any scenario where the chance has a non-zero probability of occurring, it must be attainable through brute force. It’s this fact that makes books like Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” (buy it on valuable–it realizes the truth in the statement “success and failure come from action, nothing comes from inaction.” Scott Adams suggests choosing actions for Complicated Decisions by not trying to choose the right decision but at least the knowably rational one. Again, this helps avoid analysis paralysis which often leads to inaction. You’re almost no longer interested in making the decision that leads to success but rather just making some rational decision that leads to learning, which iteratively enables you to make different rational decisions in the future.

The key is to avoid insanity (“repeating the same action expecting different results”). Brute force success doesn’t come from repeating the same decisions or actions–it depends on trying every possible input until the desired output occurs. Just as theoretically unbreakable encryption must be defeatable through brute force in theory (although, in practice it could be infeasibe due to time, cost or other constraints), success must be achievable by brute force, in theory.

Of course, as a pragmatist, I have to ask myself, “How does this theory help us, in practice?” I believe the answer lies in the necessary traits involved in achieving brute force success: rationality, tenacity, resiliency and skepticism. Rationality and skepticism are critical because they will prevent insanity and yield the best next actions. Tenacity and resiliency are critical because they are necessary in order to sustain the process. Does this mean that everyone who exhibits these traits will eventually succeed? No, because there are other practical limits to brute force (time, cost, etc.) as well. But, I’m guessing, these people are statistically more likely to succeed where others have failed in cases where the brute force approach is the optimal path to success.

What then does this mean for people who lack these traits? Are these innate or genetic, are they environmentally formed, or can they be taught and learned? I have no answer, but my instinct tells me they are indeed learned but through both genetics and environment, some learn them as a side-effect of other processes. (I’d appreciate citations of any affirming or contradicting scientific evidence, if you have it.)

What do you think? Can some successes be achieved through simple brute force methods? Could all successes fundamentally be the product of what is essentially a brute force method, even if externally they appear to be skill-based or even luck-based successes? When you have succeeded at something, to what do you generally attribute your ability to succeed? How do you isolate and identify your failures in order to avoid making them again?

Go ahead and share your thoughts in the comments below!



  1. Ian Knight says:

    It seems to me that brute force must be successful, in theory, in a static challenge, where the input of wrong answers doesn’t affect the nature of the problem. However, I also suspect that many, if not most, challenges one might face in the real world are affected by the solutions one attempts, so that a series of brute force attempts could fundamentally change the nature of the problem. This could include making the solution require far more energy; making the problem essentially unsolvable; changing the problem from a single problem to a multitude of problems; or even altering the problem such that a previously failed solution would now be successful.

    Just a thought.

  2. Ian: Thank you. After I’d written this, I realized I forgot to include the dynamic vs. static nature of problems, and indeed I agree with you: in practice, an attempted solution will likely change the problem. This means that classic brute force methods might be impractical.

    However, what does this mean for the four traits I outlined (rationality, skepticism, resilience and tenacity)? Are these traits equally important even when success doesn’t come by brute force? What other traits would you add to the list as being important for success?

    (Note: I’m very carefully trying to avoid identifying “success” as “commercial success” or “mainstream success” but simply the act of achieving personally identified goals.)

  3. I think there is a big difference between persistence and brute force. Persistence is what makes someone successful. But, it’s persistence in picking up the phone. Persistently improving an application. Persistently serving client. etc.

  4. Peter: I agree. I wonder, what’s the difference between persistence and tenacity? Is one a form of the other?

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