Is this success?

A never-ending ascent

We tend to accept a definition of success loosely based around financial gain & social status. Being a wealthy finance executive, or a partner at a law firm, or a business magnate.

‘Success’ is narrowly defined for simplicity. There is one definition that we as a society have accepted & therefore follow.

But can such a broad definition be applied to the diverse needs, interests & goals of each individual? Is it even accurate to say that one definition exists?

Firstly, no, we can’t fit all of humanity’s diverse goals, interests & goals into one narrow definition. We are just too eclectic. Too diverse.

Secondly, even if we base the underlying assumptions that define success on social status & the accumulation of wealth, then it falls up short.

Because both these assumptions have no clear outcome, no clear goal. They are entirely subjective & malleable. You cannot say, for example, ‘I have $1 million & should therefore be viewed as a successful person’.

Wealth is relative. Social status is relative. Both are also relative to your own perception & expectations.

A millionaire will think he is poor & inadequate in a room full of billionaires.

 

Climbing up the corporate ladder, always in the pursuit of more, never seems to have an end point.

Because where’s the point that you’ve ‘made’ it? Is it when you’re highest up in the ladder? Or you’re earning over $500,000 per year? Or you’ve got a nicer car than your neighbour? Or you’re head of the company? Or you’re head of the biggest, wealthiest company in the world? Or you’re head of your own company?

It’s impossible to quantify, or when to say ‘stop’. There’s no clear peak to summit. There’s no way of benchmarking yourself & saying, ‘OK, I’ve now made it. I am a success.’

There’s always someone else with more money, or with more social status. It’s a never ending struggle to the top. Once you start playing that game, there’s no end in sight.

 

Define success yourself

It seems to me that we need to re-frame the question.

We currently look at success based on outward metrics. Based on arbitrary concepts that society says we should follow.

But this is backwards. We can’t just define success as a singular concept. Each person must define success for themselves. If my priority in life is a balanced family life, for example, then being a wealthy business leader with three estranged kids is, in fact, a hugely unsuccessful life.

Instead, we should look at success inwardly. What is it that we want to achieve as an individual? Why? How can we quantify it?

Is it based on a metric, like wealth? Or on a journey?

Are you only focused on an outcome, or are you interested in seeing how things unfold along the way?

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — Bilbo Baggins

In my experience, outcomes can be a risky business. They can be arbitrary, they can change over time, based on new information or experience, & they can be outside of your control, particularly in a fast-changing world.

Psychological studies support this, suggesting we should focus on process rather than outcomes in goal-achievement.

So, what is success then?

I can’t give you an answer. I’m neither qualified, nor do I believe that anyone else can give you an answer.

You must go, experience things, learn along the way, enjoy it, & start finding your own answer to that question.

 

When actions don’t follow thought.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” — Gandhi

It’s presumptuous to think that everyone knows what they want; that they are able to clearly envision living – or attaining – a successful life.

However, the majority of people do at least all have a sense of what they want to do or achieve in life.

One of the greatest failings of Western society, however, is that very few people end up doing what they want to do in life. People know they can & should do something, but never do.

Is inconsistency in thought & action caused by fear? Is it a lack of self-reflection? Does it stem from a difficulty in measuring your progress? Or just something some people don’t really think about that much?

It is a travesty that many of us do not even know where to start when it comes to aligning our thoughts with our actions.

You end up in the same miserable relationship because you are too scared to admit to yourself – or your other half – that it’s not working.

You remain in the same dead-end job until retirement because you never end up making a start on that new business idea you had.

You crumble in the face of opposition when your principles come into conflict with someone else’s.

In essence, you waste vast swathes of your life umm-ing and ah-ing, left with a pile of ‘what ifs’ rather than of great memories & experiences.

 

But is this just a modern societal issue? Are we the first who seem to stand for nothing? Or whichever trend seems to grab our attention for a few fleeting moments?

When I think of holding firm to your thoughts & beliefs, I think of peoples like the Celts, exterminated by Caeser 2,000 years ago, who refused to bow to this external cultural threat.

I think of resistance to Nazi Occupation, Rosa Parks, the suffragettes. I think of the countless small, unnoticed acts of bravery that we will never even know about. In essence, I think of people that had beliefs, stated those beliefs as openly as they could & acted according to those beliefs.

Yet here we are, in the 21st Century, with most people unable to even stand up to one of our colleagues in case the boss finds out.

We seem to be afraid of everything, despite living in the safest period of human history.

We are afraid of ruining our career, of what our friends will think, of disappointing our parents, of not being able to afford that new car, of having a weak CV.

We are so afraid of trying something new & of the unknown that many people never even start. They remained trapped, in a protective cocoon of their own creation, happy to pursue mediocrity rather than ever challenging themselves.

 

Aligning thoughts with actions

I know first-hand the effect of confronting your fears. ::I hated my job::. I was unhappy because of my job. So I made changes. I started blogging, building a new business. ::Ended up getting fired before I handed in my resignation::.

And you know what? All those fears? All those scary unknown entities? They all fell away.

For the first time in four months, I was happy.

So I urge you: start breaking society’s rules. Build your defiance as you would build a habit.

What small thing can you take action upon today? What nagging thought keeps coming back, left unresolved, never going away?

Write it down. Confront your thoughts on paper. Tell someone, so that the thought exists & has form. Then act, so your actions may reflect that belief.

Repeat this &, over time, what you think, what you say, and what you are will always be in harmony.

 

 

Escape: Running away from it isn’t the answer

“Nowhere can man find a quiet or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul”

― Marcus Aurelius

 

Inner Turmoil

Every moment of every day, for your whole life, the greatest challenges you will face will come from within.

Inner turmoil will be your closed, most constant companion in life, dominating your thoughts & determining the actions you take.

Most people’s minds tend to be in a state of constant flux & conflict, with the past competing with the future, the positive with the negative, the rational with the instinctive.

If depression stems from looking into the past, & anxiety from looking towards the future, then to be at inner peace we must look to the present. Yet in the midst of this inner war of thoughts, the present gets forgotten.

We are either unable to focus on it, or are too afraid to confront our present reality.

 

Running Away

To escape, we run to beaches, spas, mountains – even other countries. We unquestioningly accept the belief that you can find respite in a few days away, free from the stressful demands of city life & a regular job.

In a sense, holidays are a way to desperately gulp in a breath of air before being plunged back into the waters of ‘real life’ – the stress, the lack of sleep, the depressed commuters, the grey office blocks.

It is normal to need to go & ‘re-charge your batteries’ for a few days.

But this norm is problematic.

All of our lives we build up to this certain view of what success looks like, generally wealth & social status. We get the ‘dream job’, yet find ourselves needing to escape from it every few months in order to keep ourselves motivated & energised enough to continue with it.

We spend thousands of Euros a year, earned from our ‘dream job’, in order to escape. The further away & more exotic, the better.

 

Should your ‘dream job’ not be one where you feel energised by it? Where you don’t feel the intermittent need to just get away from it? Where the lifestyle you desire is very much achievable?

 

Quell the inner turmoil

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Gandhi

 

It’s the hardest thing to do though, to align your actions with your inner mind, but it’s the most important thing you could do.

If you know your current job or lifestyle are incompatible with your beliefs, then you must take action. (You’ll know from that little niggling voice in your head & how much inner conflict you are experiencing.)

If you free yourself from the past & the future, then you will find your mind quietly at peace in the present.

If every day you do what you genuinely want to be doing in life, then you will find you don’t need a beach, fancy resort or weekend spa trip to make you happy & feel energised.

 

“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”

― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

 

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I have something remarkable to say.

Remarkable: ‘Worthy of attention; striking;’

 

Stumbling upon writing

I started journaling out of a desire to clarify my thoughts; to get things down on paper so they didn’t form a frenzied mess in my head. However interesting or mundane a thought, the simple act of writing it down seemed to instantly calm my over-active mind.

Every few months, a short journal entry would get out of control. I would continue writing until a whole blog post took form on the page without any conscious control over it.

I published two or three on Medium when an egotistical urge for recognition struck me or when something, like the Brexit result, angered me.

I put them out into the infinite depths of the internet & forgot about it.

A few months ago I looked through my Medium account to realise that 250 people had read one particular post. I hadn’t publicised it – I remember writing a short post on Facebook (under a comment like ‘My two cents on Brexit’) & that was my marketing done.

Now 250 readers, most of whom probably didn’t read more than a paragraph, does not mean I will be going for the Pulitzer Prize any time soon, but it’s a start.

It made me realise that there are people who find value in my writing. They have – I hope – considered my thoughts & amalgamated them into their own complex web of thoughts & beliefs.

It made me realise that there is at least somebody out there like me, that has similar questions they want answering, that is actively looking for those answers & that, I hope, finds some solace from my attempts at answering some of the questions life throws up at us.

Most people don’t bother writing because some things seem obvious to us. We don’t really see the point.

However, what may seem obvious to me is, in fact, remarkable to others. I forget that my experiences are unique, so my perspective is unique. My knowledge & opinions form a unique voice that is very much different from any other person, let alone writer, on the planet. It then seemed logical for me to share that unique voice with whoever is interested in hearing it.

 

And then self-doubt struck like a wave:

“I’m not a writer. I don’t write. I just put some words into my journal at a whim.

I’m not qualified for this. Who am I, with my unused degree in Politics & Spanish? Where’s my MBA from Stanford? What do I know about psychology? About politics? About anything?”

 

Why I write

And then, after the self-doubt rationally returned & I realised my response was typical of the ‘Imposter Syndrome’, where we have a tendency to feel under-qualified or to attribute success to luck rather than individual merit. I then found myself asking the question:

“Well, who really is qualified? What does that even mean?”

 

If you write, then you are a writer. If people read your content & learn something from it, then you are a successful writer. It’s as simple as that.

The qualifications don’t matter with writing. When did they ever matter other than to lend you a sense of grandiosity & self-importance? To give you society’s stamp of approval that you are one of the lucky few able to pursue this path?

Yes, there are hundreds of experts on behavioural psychology, there are thousands of business gurus & endless productivity hacks around. They are better in their way, but they do not have my voice. As long as I don’t try to categorise myself as something I’m not – & mimic somebody else’s voice -then I will always have a unique voice.

It’s not better than anyone else, but it’s different from everyone else.

All that matters is that somebody, somewhere finds your writing remarkable – and I use the word ‘remarkable’ in the definitive sense: ‘worthy of attention; striking.’

It means you don’t need to have a global audience or a New York Times Bestseller. All it means is that you need one person to stop & pay attention. Just one person to stop, read your work & re-consider their belief system in some way.

With that realisation, I find my writing liberated from self-limiting beliefs. I write what I want, on what I want, with a new-found sense of confidence.

If the whole world turned around & told me my writing was crap*, then who cares? As long as it interests me, then I’ve still got an audience.

 

An audience of you

I would even suggest starting with a readership of one: yourself.

Journaling has been one of the most transformative habits in my life, improving my well-being enormously. Your mental clarity improves & evidence suggests you are a less stressed, happy person because of this daily habit.

Try the following steps for 2 weeks & see whether you find value in your own writing:

1. Download the ‘Bear’ or ‘Evernote’ note-taking apps on your phone and/or laptop

2. Set a 5-minute reminder in your calendar for when you wake up to journal.

3. Write for 2-5 minutes in your journal on anything & everything that comes to mind. Some days you’ll write a mundane line or two, others you’ll find yourself writing a mini-essay. It doesn’t matter what the result, as long as you’re getting thoughts down on the page**

4. After the two weeks, read over your entries & consider the psychological improvements you will hopefully have noticed

5. Continue the habit for a life-time

 

Not only will you be improving your current life, but you may find it starts a whole new chapter.

 

 


 

* One of the most under-used words in the English dictionary, in my opinion, to describe something that’s a bit worse than ‘bad’ but not quite ‘shit’.

 

** Here are a couple of my very mundane journal entries, just so you don’t feel you need to write a masterpiece on your first attempt:

“A fairly uneventful day that blurs into yesterday and tomorrow. Although I am still motivated to work at home, I think it’s really important to start walking everyday and work outside of the house at least for half the day, so I’ll start this tomorrow morning rather than procrastinate.” (2016/1/2)

“I definitely had a moment where work was a bit overwhelming yesterday, so I’ve got to get on top of it all today. I’ll also start thinking of ways of rewarding/punishing myself for failed tasks. E.g. If I finish all my work early then having the day off or sacrificing a social event if I’m unproductive?” (2016/1/10)

 

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The Fear

03:00 Fear

I woke up in the middle of the night full of fear and self-doubt.

I realised that in 10 weeks I will be voluntarily unemployed, living in a city still largely foreign to me, in a country where I barely speak the language, running a business that is still undefined.

I imagine a ticking clock sitting on a little mantlepiece in my mind counting down the days until we run out of money. Counting down the days until I have to find another job I find uninspiring & lacking in purpose.

I imagine the days, spent of adrenaline, frantically trying to work out what exactly we should be doing & praying that we can close our first few leads.

I thought of the myriad, endless, complex paths we could take with this new business. Each decision we make has huge implications down the road & closes off doors to other decisions & opportunities. How do we know we’ve made the right ones?

I find myself at the entrance to a maze with no clear idea about where to start or where I am meant to end up.

Entrepreneurship is always going to be scary – you are trying to solve unclear problems that no-one else has solved – but it’s different when you actually experience it.

 

The Survivor Myth

If you are considering becoming an entrepreneur, then it is highly likely you view the whole endeavour with rose-tinted glasses.

In the media, we see the success stories of Facebook & Uber emerging from nothing; of young, disruptive companies ‘making it’ against the odds. We cheer on these under-dogs as it validates our belief that the sky is the limit; we can achieve anything with the right idea & some hard work. The survivor bias, however, distorts reality.

You don’t see the scrapheap of companies that never made it. You never hear from the founders that dabbled with entrepreneurship, got their fingers burnt & then decided it wasn’t for them. You forget the early success stories that quickly fizzled out into obscurity.

You don’t hear about the dark side of it either: the high rates of depression or the ego-mania that comes with rapid success.

 

Mitigating Risk

To reduce the fear, the modern gurus of marketing, such as Seth Godin or James Altucher rightly suggest building up a business as a side project before taking the leap full-time.

Almost all budding entrepreneurs can validate an idea & its monetisation strategy in their spare time to make sure that it is not just some ego project, but a product users actually want.

Say you want to sell hand-made Pokémon jumpers to die-hard Pokémon fans. You can set up a $100 e-commerce website, make a handful of jumpers, find out where die-hard Pokémon fans hang out (online or in person), market to them & see whether you generate any sales. If your jumpers are flying off the shelf, then you can confidently quit your day job. Just do the maths & estimate how much you would be earning with more jumpers & more time to work on it. If you’ve got no sales, go back to the drawing board & try again.

 

The issue here, however, is that some business models are difficult to validate whilst in full-time work when they conflict with your day job.

If we were to let some of the articles we’ve written out into the world right now, there’s a high chance both of us would be fired. They are fairly damning of a company culture & leadership we both strongly disagree with, so we have to publish anonymously.

Berlin is also a small world, so starting an event to validate the concept would be tricky. One of our colleagues seeing a Meetup run by both of us, linked to our online content, would be a clear sign we were heading for the exit. That’s fine in a few months, but it’s a little premature at the moment.

We have an idea we believe in, but we’ve not validated it. We haven’t tested any monetisation strategy, nor have we pinned down exactly what it is we are trying to solve.

Thus the waking up at 3am worried about my plans for the future.

 

Learn to accept it

I am now on my third business & now accept that the fear will never go away – however well you plan & execute a new venture.

However successful you are, you will always live with self-doubt. Taking risks triggers that feeling within us; it goes against our survival instinct, working as a mechanism to protect ourselves against any potential threat.

Validate your ideas as early as possible. Rationalise & substantiate your fears so they don’t seem so scary. Reduce self-doubt, anxiety & fear wherever possible & in whichever way works for you.

Just know that, if you take this path, it will always be there. If you want a life of comfort, safe in the knowledge of where you will be & what you will be doing in 30 years, then stick to the 9-5.

Entrepreneurship is for those that want more. It’s for those that see where they want to end up, but head off into the unknown without a map & a faulty compass to get them there. It’s for those that remain firm when the seas inevitably become rough along the way. It’s for those that know they will face fear & uncertainty, but will get through it to get where they need to go.

 

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Your Inner Critic & Ever-Present Fear

One evening Milarepa returned to his cave after gathering firewood, only to find it filled with demons. They were cooking his food, reading his books, sleeping in his bed. They had taken over the joint. He knew about nonduality of self and other, but he still didn’t quite know how to get these guys out of his cave.

Even though he had the sense that they were just a projection of his own mind—all the unwanted parts of himself—he didn’t know how to get rid of them. So first he taught them the dharma. He sat on this seat that was higher than they were and said things to them about how we are all one. He talked about compassion and shunyata and how poison is medicine.

Nothing happened. The demons were still there. Then he lost his patience and got angry and ran at them. They just laughed at him.

Finally, he gave up and just sat down on the floor, saying, “I’m not going away and it looks like you’re not either, so let’s just live here together.” At that point, all of them left except one. Milarepa said, “Oh, this one is particularly vicious.” (We all know that one. Sometimes we have lots of them like that. Sometimes we feel that’s all we’ve got.)

He didn’t know what to do, so he surrendered himself even further. He walked over and put himself right into the mouth of the demon and said, “Just eat me up if you want to.” Then that demon left too.

Pema Chödrön

 

Who are they?

You have let literally thousands of opportunities pass you by because of them: you let the girl of your dreams walk by without stopping her to ask her name; you didn’t go after your dream job because he told you you weren’t good enough; you were quiet around your friends last week because you didn’t think you had anything valuable to say.

Just accept it – you’re not good enough’, a voice says.

Self-doubt is one of these dark forces, sitting on your right shoulder, whispering in your ear that you aren’t good enough, intelligently outlining all the reasons not to take a risk, pointing out all of the flaws in your logic.

The difficulty is that he tends to win, drowning out the quiet, supportive voice on your other shoulder.

It’s a natural human tendency to be over-cautious, as we wouldn’t have survived particularly well on the open Savannah 10,000 years ago if we took big risks to get every meal. Better to go hungry than be eaten ourselves.

Academic research also supports this theory.

It is therefore not something to beat yourself up about – you will inevitably be over-cautious. The important thing, though, is that you do something about it.

 

Harnessing the inner critic

The battle between your monkey mind (i.e. the one still trying to keep you alive on the open savannah) and your rational pre-frontal mind (the ‘modern human’ brain) is a perpetual one.

However, you can start with two simple techniques to ensure rationality comes out victorious:

 

1. Write a simple list of pros and cons on a single blank page

This will allow your inner supportive voice to shine through. You will likely see that the negatives are not that serious and that there are more more advantages to you making this decision than there are negatives.
The simple act of writing it down stops the maelstrom of confused thoughts in your head being dominated by your inner critic

 

2. Fear-Setting

Writing the pros and cons is a good way to rationally determine why you should do something and whether it’s feasible, but it still doesn’t remove the irrational fear preventing you from taking action.

Spending 5-10 minutes writing out the ‘What ifs’ to taking action should make you realise that your inner critic’s arguments are flawed, irrational & entirely over-exaggerated.

(I would highly recommend watching Tim Ferriss’ TED talk on the subject & following download the template he uses for fear-setting.)

 

When deciding to start this business, this fear-setting exercise was the main catalyst in making the decision to start it. When I first considered it, there was an endless list of reasons to not do it: secure, well-paid job; enjoyable work; I was friends with my colleagues; it wasn’t particularly stressful; etc.

However, just one of the points in my list of ‘pros’ outweighed all of the others: ‘I am not fulfilled by my current job’. It was still a job.

Without fear-setting though, I think my inner critic would have got the better of me & kept me living an unfulfilling life for a few years longer, at least.

Fear-setting made me confront and break down my main fears: what if I run out of money? What if I fail? What will others think of me?

When I actually broke these down, there was really nothing to be fearful of. The worst case scenario would be a failed business and no money, but what would I lose there?

I could move back to my Mum’s house in London, find a new job with my UX Design experience & start again. Not only would I have learnt a huge amount about myself, but a huge amount about entrepreneurship & life lessons that would enrich me for the rest of my life.

 

Takeaway

You will never escape the inner struggle, but you can mitigate the consequences of it significantly. Accept your inner critic as part of your life – even welcome him into tea – and you will find yourself happier and more at ease with his existence.

Once you have accepted him, you will tend to find that his voice diminishes.

By simply listing the pros and cons of a decision, coupled with ‘Fear Setting’ in order to break down your fears, you will find yourself empowered to try things you never thought possible.

Imagine a life where you actually started that business you always wanted to start, asked the love of your life out for a drink, pursued the career you’re most passionate about.

It’s not as hard to achieve as you think.

 

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