Much of the discourse surrounding personal development and self-help, not to mention entrepreneurship, business, careers, work, parenting and many other aspects of life can be reduced to the singular concept of success. How to get it, what will happen if you don’t get it, what it looks like, what it doesn’t look like, why it’s important, how it will make you feel when you’ve got it and so on and so on. Take any field you care to think of and there will be celebrated examples of those who it is perceived have succeeded in some way that we should all apparently aspire to. Such is our obsession with success, over $10 billion dollars a year is spent in the US alone trying to achieve it through self-development. Which when you think about it, is an absurd figure. Particularly when you can get so much useful information and advice for free.
The corollary of all this success is of course failure. We can’t all be winners all the time. We are repeatedly told from childhood onwards that failure is a bad thing and we carry negative connotations around the word throughout life. That in itself is unhelpful as it makes us scared to try, to create, to make, to experiment, to display. And consequently it stifles curiosity and leaves little empty boxes marked “what might have been” in our souls. More recently there has been a trend to counter this risk averse behaviour and embrace failure so that we learn something about ourselves. This is laudable on the face of it but often the premise is hijacked under the guise of using that failure as a stepping stone on the path to — you’ve guessed it — success. Pick up any book about starting a business or entrepreneurship and there will be something in there somewhere about the importance of ‘fast failure’. I’m not going to enter the debate about whether it’s a useful strategy or not other than to say I think it confuses our notion of success. Let me explain.
I attended last week a ‘Celebration of Failure’ where Rob Symington gave a talk about his own, very personal, experience of success and failure. A panel then added their own stories framed around their change of career. Afterwards the audience was challenged to define what success looked like to us as individuals and discuss it in small groups. It got me thinking. I wasn’t comfortable with the way it had been presented. Something wasn’t quite right. It seems to me that success is a binary concept. You either achieve it or you don’t, which is usually defined as failure. It’s as though Newton’s Third Law of equal and opposite reactions has been applied in an abstract way. There appears to be no middle ground. Can you half-succeed? Or half-fail? Success is a goal, the destination at the end of a linear journey. You take steps x, y and z on the way and then decide if it’s been successful or not. I have two problems with this.
Firstly, what happens when you get to that successful destination? We immediately move the goalposts, redefine the destination and start the process all over again. It’s rare that we then stop and bask in the glow of self-satisfaction at a job well done. What criteria will I use to decide if this blog is a success? The number of readers? In business terms this mindset is cunningly disguised behind the siren call of growth. If you define success for your business as reaching 1,000 customers and achieve that do you stop there? No, of course you don’t. You celebrate and try and reach 2,000 then 10,000 and so on. When do you decide enough is enough? And given that there’s only one Steve Jobs does that make every other entrepreneur a failure because they haven’t grown their business to the size of Apple? Rather like chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow success is totally illusory and eventually self-defeating as we actually march towards failure like lemmings off a cliff. Success and failure are merely two sides of the same coin.
Secondly, the idea of success (and failure) is an application of an entirely arbitrary external framework to the task at hand. It’s a simple form of measurement and most of the time we are not the ones with the ruler. To return to the question we were asked — what does success look like for us — the answer will always be set against someone else’s frame of reference. It could be your friends’, parent’s, colleague’s, the market, the court of public opinion or even society at large. We will, even subconsciously, be making some sort of judgment as to whether what we have created or done has been successful or not against that framework. Even if we have the emotional resilience to dismiss what other people think about us we will still likely measure ourselves against others, and probably in a favourable light; “I don’t care what the boss thought of my presentation, it was better than John’s or Susan’s”. Ergo it was successful. We’re talking to ourselves here, which involves paying attention to our ego, so there’s bound to be a bit of positive bias.
Measuring ourselves against others expectations is to listen to the story they are telling us or the one we tell ourselves. The hollow, fleeting high that success brings can be addictive, leading us to continually chase the next one, like a gambler trying to beat the house. As well as being quite exhausting I would argue that it’s not very healthy to be like this, either in business or in life.
So how do we break this cycle of transient success/failure and redefine it in a way that has some permanence? I have my own idea but before we get to that I suggest looking inside ourselves and focusing on our own narrative as the starting point. As Courtney Martin puts it in her book, The New Better Off:
“That’s the thing about success… it’s only satisfying if it’s defined by you and influenced most deeply by the people you love and trust. Every era will have its dominant narrative about [what success is]… It’s easy to swallow that narrative whole without inspecting it first, inspecting it constantly.”
We may be preternaturally biased in favour of ourselves, but attaining Martin’s definition of ‘‘success that is satisfying” requires us to set aside our ego and think about the consequences of the work we have done or the thing we have created. What is its value, in, and of itself?
To use my simple example of the workplace presentation, rather than judging its merits on the feedback it receives or some story you tell yourself about how hard you might have worked to create it try considering what the presentation was for in the first place. Did you put it together as a means of solving a problem? Or to provide information for your boss? Or simply because he or she asked you to? What was its intrinsic value, it’s worth to you on its own? Harder questions to answer, although the chances are in this case not very much. By thinking less about the outcome (success or failure) and more about the reasons behind why we are creating something we become more discerning about our activities and projects because we imbue them with a sense of ourselves. That sense is informed by what matters to us, so we are much more likely to care about the value of anything we make.
You’ll have noticed that I haven’t actually answered the question of how I define success (and failure). The short answer is I don’t — or I don’t anymore. I hadn’t really thought about it until that evening, but I’ve noticed that not only do I worry about what other people think much less than I used to but I also pay little attention to any arbitrary judgment about the value of my work. I ignore success and failure completely. And it’s very liberating. It leaves me free to create, knowing that that creativity is enough on it’s own. Now I won’t pretend that I’m completely immune to criticism but not thinking about whether something I’ve done is a success or failure provides me with a cloak of protection against barbs of judgement. I have an ego too and I will still probably check how many people have read this from time to time, but the figure won’t stop me writing more in the future.
There are two important countervailing claims to the usefulness of this attitude towards success: that what I get up to is primarily of benefit to me and I never explore how my creations interact with anyone else, and by concentrating purely on the process of creating and not the consequences I have little focus and produce things with no real substance. My single answer to both of these claims is that I try and create or do things that have some form of intrinsic value; they are made or done knowing that the consequence will be an intrinsic good for myself and/or others.
By way of a short explanation, an intrinsic ‘good’ is something it is rational to desire for its own sake. The American moral philosopher William Frankena in 1973 came up with a list of intrinsic goodscollated from other writers on the subject stretching back to Plato. Examples include self-expression, freedom, pleasure and truth.
I don’t consciously think about this very much, but if I stop to wonder why I’m undertaking something then hopefully I’ll find the answer on the list. When I’m asked why I’ve become involved with a particular project I often find my answer to be “I’m doing it because it is just seems to be a good thing to do”. With any luck others might benefit in some way too. Having goals can provide focus and be a catalyst for action, but to me they just bring to mind that judgmental outcome to be pursued — “will I succeed?” I find that by concentrating on intrinsic value I’ll know it was worth doing, however long it takes. I have no idea where this approach to work and life will lead but when I’m trying to work out whether what I do is successful or not I’m learning that…
Success is simply a story we tell ourselves. It’s how we write the story that is the most important thing.
If you are at all interested in the philosophy behind intrinsic value I recommend you read this exposition by Robert Hartman, a leading exponent in the field. There are some interesting applications to business towards the end. Thanks for this blog are due to Escape the City for triggering my curiosity about this sort of stuff and Maria Popov at the wonderful Brain Pickings for collating some great, and very useful, writing about success.
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