The pinball machine of success

By Caitlin Kelly




Remember those?


The ball is put into play by use of the plunger, a spring-loaded rod that strikes the ball as it rests in an entry lane, or as in some newer games, by a button that signals the game logic to fire a solenoid that strikes the ball. With both devices the result is the same: The ball is propelled upwards onto the playfield. Once a ball is in play, it tends to move downward towards the player, although the ball can move in any direction, sometimes unpredictably, due to contact with objects on the playfield or by the player’s own actions. To return the ball to the upper part of the playfield, the player makes use of one or more flippers.


I think success is a lot like a pinball machine…


You put in your money, release a ball and hope like hell to keep that ball moving, and rack up enough points by the end of the game.

But, like pinball’s bumpers and alleys and pits, some of us face multiple obstacles to overcome:




chronic illness

mental illness







lack of self-confidence

language barriers

death ofย  a loved one


lack of education

lack of skills

lack of social capital




the larger economy

Which means, when you “fail” — and, like many of us, might then wallow in shame and frustration and self-flagellation — be a little kinder to yourself.

I see the people who succeed, at least here in sharp-elbowed New York, and know the incredible advantages some of them bring, and take for granted, whether prep school and Ivy League educations or access to decision-making people in power through their social networks, often both.

They keep winning and think: I did that! All by myself!

It was said of one American President — using a baseball metaphor — he was born on third base, confident he had hit a triple.

As that little metal ball pings and caroms around the pinball machine — as in life — weย  react as quickly as we can, flipping flippers and trying our best to guide it and keep it flying.



But, as in life, not every game ends in delight.

So there’s a larger, deeper, more candid conversation we need to be having about who’s winning, who’s losing and why.

In the United States, there’s a firm and fixed belief that every success — and every failure — is due only to each individual’s hard work, determination and intelligence.


Talk to a person of color.

Talk to a woman of color.

Talk to an immigrant whose graduate degrees from a foreign/unknown institution mean nothing to American employers.

Talk to someone waylaid by their partner’s terminal illness, death and grieving.

Which is why we all need to lighten up on the fantasy that success is soooo easy to achieve, which — if you look at social media — can drive you mad with envy.

We hide our struggles and defeats: the crushing student loan debt, the chronic pain, the multiple surgeries, the needy relatives or un(der) employed partner…

We also need to lose the conviction that only visible wealth, prestige, power and luxury goods mark us as “successful” while kindness, generosity, frugality, humility and wisdom remain dismissed and perpetually undervalued.


We need to be ruthlessly candid about what powerful headwinds some of us face and what tailwinds propel some of us forward with a speed and velocity that look so, so effortless


When they’re not.

Your “failure” may have very little to do with your hard work, determination, education or skills.

Same with your success.




23 thoughts on “The pinball machine of success

  1. Well said! While I can see why the idea of the “American Dream” is so appealing, it’s more of a myth than reality. As you pointed out, hard work is only part of success. And a lot of what happens in life is down to chance…

  2. Yeah, success is like a pinball machine. You have to bounce off a lot of barriers and hope they don’t send you down a hole to win anything. Hopefully, in my career and in my writing, I’ll bounce off the right barriers at the right angles and make something of both.

      1. Yeah, a few times. There are a couple of bars around Columbus that have them, so I’ve played them there. A family friend used to have one at their place. And every now and then I’m at a restaurant or a video arcade where they have a few in stock.

        BTW, I see you sent me an e-mail.

  3. Jann Jasper

    Thanks for sharing these important thoughts. I read a lot about cognitive fallacies – a fascinating subject. It’s about the many ways our minds play tricks on us. One fallacy is called the success bias. It means people want to believe that people who fail, or suffer injustices, surely did something to deserve it. Psychologists have found that people find it so unsettling to see how much unfairness there is in the world that they are more comfortable convincing themselves that a victim of, say, a horrible crime or financial rip off or abuse, did something to deserve it. The reality- that much of life is random and unfair – is just too scary for them to confront.

    1. Thanks for explaining this so well! I didn’t unpack this as lucidly, so I appreciate that.

      Yes, I think that’s so true. When I became a crime victim in 1998 and tried to sell a magazine story about it to female editors (as a cautionary tale for readers) I was told I wasn’t a (!) “sympathetic victim” because I am intelligent. As if that would have protected me from a professional predator and convicted felon…

  4. I agree in part… although it depends on how you measure success, of course. It is true though that some people have more barriers in their way than others through no fault of their own: we are not all born on a level playing field.

  5. I love your suggestions. When I began my blog, I thought twice about what I was sharing. I still have to edit myself simply to not overshare b/c of my children. But I firmly believe when we tell our stories, they help others. And they make us all more human.

    1. Thanks!

      I think it’s quite different with kids. Jose and I are very careful to check with one another before we mention one another on social media or post images. I know that’s generational, but I’m fine with it.

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