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.

 

What’s your story?

Anyone starting a company knows — or at least should know — the power of story-telling.

A product — let’s say an ice cream brand — could focus on marketing the ten scientific reasons why it is better than any of its competition.

These clear facts may even be understood & accepted as true by the potential customer.

The customer may even like their fancy packaging, the drool-inducing images & the warm, welcoming branding.

But they don’t give quite enough of a shit. They still buy the more expensive, objectively less healthy version on the next shelf.

Why? Because our first product has no soul. It has no narrative to match the brand. Where did it come from? Who worked their arses off to get the milk churned, to hand-pick the fruit, to send it off to you with love, care & dedication?

I don’t even particularly like ice-cream, but if I buy it, I’ll buy Ben & Jerry’s.

The names are fun, true. But I buy it because I remember reading the back of the pack fifteen years ago & it resonated with me. Two guys, on an organic farm, raising a couple of cows, coming up with crazy recipes. What is not to love?

And what’s more? I don’t even know whether it’s organic, nor how many cows they have, nor how they come up with the recipes. It’s probably all just done in a factory by a team of guys in lab coats.

But my ten-year old self created that image in my head & it’s still the same one my twenty-five year-old self envisions.

 

So start telling your story

So any entrepreneur or marketer knows the value of story-telling. Yet we still don’t f**king do it!

And that’s OK. I have ignored it myself. And that’s because it’s a really hard art.

 

Find something remarkable

You need to find something that is compelling enough for people to go & tell their friends. This can happen with luck, but generally happens with a decent understanding of psychology or with the experience of trying one hundred ideas & seeing if one sticks.

We live in a crowded world. It must be remarkable, something worth remarking upon, in order for people to stop & notice.

 

Remove your ego

In order to stumble across an idea that is clear & compelling though, you must remove your subjective opinion as much as possible.

What you assume is interesting about your own story is unlikely to interest others. That life-changing trip? Those years in that shitty job? Unless it really clicks with the audience & comes across as incredibly humble, you are just going to put people off.

Again, we live in a crowded world. People have heard all the sob stories. Someone somewhere has probably had the same experiences. Your audience have already been there, done that.

 

Go out there & tell people

And don’t expect to hit the ball out the park in your first go. Just start telling people what you do, what your story is. See how they react. And I don’t mean their nod of approval or supporting words. They are bullshit. They are just being nice to you.

Really see what their true reaction is. Do they tell other people? Do they visit your website? Do they get in contact with you after?

If 10 people react indifferently, go back to the drawing board.

 

I’m not a marketing guru. You’ve probably heard this advice before. Yet you didn’t actually go & follow it. Find a story, test it on a few friends, go back to the drawing board, test it on as many people as you can find.

Because if you hit that one idea, that one thing that resonates, it does all the work for you.

4 Reasons We Fear Commitment & How to Overcome Them

“But I don’t know what I want to do with my life…”

We are passive in life. We stumble into our first job because we throw up our hands, shrug our shoulders & think there’s nothing else we could possibly do. When we come up for air, & pause to reflect 30 years later, we are not quite able to remember why we started in the first place.

We look enviously at a friend or colleague who got out the rat race. We may even spend time looking into alternative career paths.

But we don’t commit. We never commit.

 

Which is a problem, as without commitment, we never really pursue those big, ambitious goals we should pursue in life. It leaves us paralysed, never taking action.

We tell ourselves as a society that we can be anything we want to be in life. This is just not true.

We tell ourselves we have all the time in the world, when the reality is that we will be lucky to have an impact in one area of society, maybe two if our work is exceptional.

Celebrity culture means we are always looking for the quick wins. The big breaks. The instant fame. The all-in-one modelling, music & acting careers. It makes us believe that commitment is not really a big deal – or necessary.

So we don’t commit. We remain perpetually scared of commitment. Petrified even. Because commitment means we trigger almost every type of fear we could possibly trigger.

 

5 types of fear:

  •  Extinction: The fear of no longer existing (a.k.a death), which gives birth to the fear of heights or flying.
  • Mutilation: The fear of losing any part of our bodies or being physically invaded or harmed (includes the fear of spiders and sharp objects).
  • Loss of Autonomy: The fear of being helpless because of physical or social restraints that are beyond our control. This includes the fear of closed spaces or even commitments that might make you feel like a prisoner.
  • Separation: The fear of rejection and being unwanted or unvalued by others, which can be especially damaging when you consider that we are social creatures that crave connectedness. This is usually the voice in your head that asks you, “What will people think?”
  • Ego-death: The fear of losing our established sense of self, having our confidence crushed, or questioning our own competence and understanding of who we are. This includes the fear of failure and shame.

Source: Practical Intelligence by Dr. Karl Albrecht

Ego-death

We fear the potential failure that comes with commitment. Whether it be a relationship or new venture, failure – & the inevitable mistakes that come with trying something new – will lead you to question your confidence, competence & self-worth.

 

Separation

Failure is still looked down upon & is, to some extent, seen as shameful. You fail once & you are a failure. As social animals, we fear how others perceive us & base our self-worth far too often on society’s opinion. “What will people think?” Becomes a question we internalise & constantly repeat to ourselves.

We shouldn’t celebrate failure for the sake of it. Somebody that fails at the same business idea 10 times becomes he’s unable to learn from his mistakes should not be praised.

We should, however, recognise that failure is inevitable at some point when you try something new & that society’s response to it is irrational & irrelevant.

 

Loss of autonomy

There is a sense that committing to something, whether a relationship or new company, closes off all your other options. You can feel trapped.

In a society built upon constant change & upgrade, always craving something new, it is no wonder this short-term mentality trickles into other aspects of our lives.

 

Extinction

Perhaps the most powerful & least tangible fear, however, is the fear of death.

This is because commitment to a goal, such as a specific career path or new company, forces us to confront our own mortality.

Commitment denotes “life’s work”, “dedicating your life to some specific cause or problem.

Therefore we shy away from commitment. We prefer to sit in life’s waiting room, thinking we have all the time in the world. We ignore the reality that we have but a brief moment to make an impact on it through dedicating ourselves to one goal.

Most of us can only hope to go after one specific thing in life. Maybe we’ll make an impact on it. Maybe not. Whatever the outcome, we should be proud of the fact that we tried to make an impact.

Polymaths exist, yes, but they very deliberately commit to a limited number of goals they can realistically achieve. Almost all have mastered one specific commitment first as well. Think Arnold Schwarznegger, Elon Musk, Tim Ferriss.

Commitment triggers all of these fears & therefore any commitment constitutes a big, scary decision. What do we do when something big & scary appears in our life? We tend to avoid dealing with it at all costs.

 

My Experience

I know from my own experience that these fears are very hard to identify & quantify.

Some are simple. When we closed the first company I started, BackTracker, there was a definite loss of confidence & self-worth, as well as a strong sense of social anxiety around failure.

However, things I tend to hide, that my father had a drinking problem, for example, are harder to put your finger on. Is not talking about it linked to ego-death, in that it questions my self-value? Or social anxiety? Or even a fear that I develop the same problem & achieve none of my ambitions in life?

 

 

Overcoming Commitment

All these fears are very common, if not ubiquitous. Therefore you shouldn’t become frustrated with yourself when you feel them seeping into your thoughts & actions. They are just a natural, human response.

However, you must also realise that they lead to poor decision-making. When you are fear-driven, you make bad choices & never commit to anything impactful, because everything impactful is risky.

So you end up committing to the default path. The easy path. Without even realising it, you commit yourself to a life of monotony, in a job you dislike, a relationship you are unhappy with & an expectation that life can only ever be just ‘fine’.

“Mostly, making good decisions involves beginning with a commitment to make a decision. That’s the hard part. Choosing the best possible path is only possible after you’ve established that you’ve got the guts and the commitment to make a decision.”
– Seth Godin

 

I could tell you the logical, rational solution to overcome your fear of commitment. But that doesn’t work. Your fears will prevent you from following the advice.

Rationally, you should explore a few different options first. Map the terrain, as it were. Spend time researching & dabbling. Then you should choose one path to follow & commit yourself 100% to that path. Never wavering. Never backing out.

This approach, based on Essentialism by Greg McKeown, is lauded by many top entrepreneurs & thought-leaders.

Yet most of you will still just shy away in fear & mask inaction with excuses. This is OK. It’s just a natural response.

 

Breaking commitment down

So, how to overcome your fear? Just stop talking about goals. Don’t talk about your ambition to start a new company. Don’t talk about how you want to find your dream job.

Instead, put systems in place that will make the achievement of that goal inevitable.

Say you want to start your own business. You don’t need to make grand statements & start your business plan on day 1. You’ll end up paralysed by inaction, terrified of the mountain you are about to start ascending.

Instead, put one small system in place that will get you there. Read for 30 minutes every morning on key aspects of entrepreneurialism & an industry you are interested in.

Test & reinforce that system over a couple of months.

Introduce another. Start journaling every morning for 5 minutes. Test & reinforce it. Develop that system, by writing a short article every morning. Then publishing a short article every morning.

I apply this to my own ambitions:

I want to run a business with 10-20 happy employees that pushes the boundaries of work culture, experimenting with new ideas & questioning social norms. I don’t worry about when or how that will happen. I don’t even worry about what the problem we solve will be. I just worry about process. That process is to set aside at least 1 hour of learning & writing every day. I know that by improving myself dramatically, it will inevitably happen at some point. It gives me a quiet, relentless confidence that I’ll get there.

Systems work because they provide you with the framework to become a radically more knowledgeable, experienced person. Carefully-cultivated knowledge & habit will breed confidence & momentum. That confidence & momentum will mean that the outcome of starting a business will just be an inevitable next step.

This is not to say that you cannot have goals. Just don’t worry about them, because goals tend to reduce your current happiness, reduce long-term success & can be outside of your control.

When you focus on systems, there’s nothing to fear. What are you committing to? Writing a few sentences every day? Reading a couple of articles? How hard is that?

What’s stopping you starting that first system today?

 

 

 

How we can re-think ‘success’

Imagine a society where ‘success’ was re-defined.

Caring for your elderly parents or your children would mean being successful. Teaching kids how to play the guitar would mean being successful. Organising football games for your local team. Writing a blog that only reaches 10 die-hard fans would be success. Cooking for friends.

Currently we live in a society where success tends to be defined by wealth. Investment bankers, lawyers, management consultants are ‘success’. Confidence, sexual prowess, happiness. All of these things supposedly come from reaching the financial elite. Film stars, magnates, entrepreneurs, slick bankers.

We place value on one figure: a number in your bank account.

 

Think about that for a moment. The whole, complex human experience is valued by one arbitrary figure. One that changes dependent on the country you live in. The spending power it provides. Goods you can buy with it.

It’s our way of judging how we are doing against others. A childish benchmark to give your ego a pat on the back each time your number increases.

Yet when [the evidence suggests](https://80000hours.org/articles/money-and-happiness/) time & time again that wealth brings no – or very little – extra happiness, what’s the point? Is it really ‘success’ to incessantly pursue the accumulation of wealth when it adds no real benefit to your life other than to satisfy your ego?

Is it really so absurd a concept to imagine a society that valued science, education & the pursuit of equality instead?

One that, rather than judging individual success on annual income, judges individuals on their level of job satisfaction, contribution to society, balanced social life.

 

Culture is a construct. Our thoughts, beliefs & actions are entirely shaped by our environment. An un-contacted Amazonian is going to be as unable to understand your concept of property as you are his.

We only equate wealth with ’success’ because that is what we collectively value as a culture at this specific moment in time. It is not fixed.

But it also does not change overnight. Culture gradually evolves, as different influences, ideas & events mould it in infinitesimal, inconspicuous ways.

It’s already happening. Western youth are more interested in who you are, rather than what you do. We pursue experiences rather than the fancy car & white, picket fenced house. We value our time over our money.

Materialism still exists, as strong as ever. Social media has created a new outlook for our egos. Yet there is progress.

Will it happen in a generation? In 5? Who knows. It will be gradual, but we can all play our small part in changing that culture, starting from today.