It is important when pursuing success to know what exactly you mean by ‘success’. In different aspects of both your personal and professional life you will measure and track your success differently. You might have health and fitness goals, personal happiness goals in your day to day life. And you might have goals to be a better leader in your professional life, be a better sales person etc. Regardless of what you are attempting to be successful at you will need to keep in mind that anything you are going after will have a secret sauce that will enable you to achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve.
And that secret sauce is failure.
What exactly is success?
A lot of people grow up believing that success is a straight line. I am starting at this point and I want to get to that point so I will simply follow the steps to get from one to the other.
This is nonsense.
For a lot of reasons.
Firstly, our idea of success is an ever changing landscape, what you wanted to be when you were 5 years old is probably different from what you wanted to be at 25 years old. My 5 year old son changed his mind mid-sentence about what he wanted to be when he grows up (bin man to firetruck man).
And so it goes for a lot of us. We think we want to work for a certain company or work in a particular field and once we get there it is not what we thought it would be so the goalposts move again. That is absolutely fine. That is the essence of life.
How do you know you’ve succeeded if you don’t know where you’re going?
Most of us realise at a certain point that we are pursuing career goals that have somehow seeped into our minds from external sources. People want to get promoted so that they can get promoted again….and for what? What is the purpose of your pursuit? The great philosopher Alan Watts had a great take on the purpose of life.
Of course some people are in it for the chase, which is great if you are aware that the journey is what you love. If, however, you are continuously chasing the next ‘thing’ without knowing why then you probably feel stress.
All we have to do is listen to the wise people who have achieved what we think we we might like – namely fame and fortune. There is a great quote from the actor and comedian Jim Carey. He said ‘I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.’
So where does that leave us? You might get everything you ever wanted and still not be happy. Another great thought I heard recently is from actor Tom Hanks. He said he spent his entire career climbing the mountain, trying to be the best, highest paid actor. He spent all that time climbing the mountain only to get to the top and realise there is nothing up there. How profound is that?? Maybe the real pleasure is in the climb, not the summit, the journey not the destination.
The point is, defining success in the first place is difficult. It is not the simple, straight line that we might think it is. So that is the first thing, success might not lie where you think it does. It might! But it might not.
Find your success strategy
Nothing clouds a person’s judgement more than watching their neighbour get rich. We can feel that we are in an imaginary race against whoever happens to be in our proximity. Be that a colleague, a neighbour, a friend. We feel we are competing against them.
This is a false reality.
There is plenty of success to go around. And just because they got a promotion, more money, happier seeming life, doesn’t really mean anything. And the reason is because we are not all running in a straight line, racing against each other, we are bobbing in an ocean. And in an ocean, we can have some effect on the direction we move but not a whole lot. We are at the mercy of the waves, current and eh…sharks? (analogies can only take us so far, but you get the point). Imagine that the people around in your life are bobbing along beside you in this ocean of life.
What should we look out for when it comes to achieving success? The answer, somewhat counterintuitively, is failure.
You can’t have success if you’re not prepared to fail
No real worthwhile success is going to be easy to achieve. If it was, everyone would be doing it. Failure is how we course correct as we move through the project.
In Working Backwards the authors discuss Jeff Bezos’ approach to decision making. He is perfectly OK with failure as most decisions are 2 way doors. By that he means you can usually walk it back and make another decision when it becomes apparent that you are approaching or have reached failure.
In the book he speaks about the Fire phone which was an unmitigated disaster for Amazon but without the lessons from that failure there would be no Kindle.
In his book Black Box Thinking the author Matthew Syed gives examples of high risk situations where learning could have happened and yet did not. These failures to learn lessons in the field led to profound insights as to what went wrong to allow such catastrophic failures to occur. Examples like pilots not listening to their co-pilots concerns because the pilot had more experience resulting in plane crashes and the deaths of passengers.
And surgeons refusing to listen to concerned theatre staff for the same reason. As tragic as these outcomes can be there are tremendous lessons to be learned about what not to do next time.
Are we failing or just getting feedback on the path to success?
Failure can be a dirty word for some people. A failure in a task can mean the person is a failure. This again is wrong. Imagine a salesperson who feels they did everything right during the process with a lead but the lead doesn’t bite. Is the salesperson bad at sales? Maybe. But maybe the lead was never going to buy or their situation changed. Who knows. The fact is, the salesperson is not the failure, it is the strategy that failed. Change it and go again. This is the secret to success.
Finally, here is an idea to let marinate in your mind – there is no such thing as failure, only feedback. So just tweak your approach and try again.