I have a friend who succeeds at almost everything beyond belief. His capacity for success is inhuman. Every time I talk to him he’s achieved a new thing — even more foreign rights to his book have been sold, he has to call me back later because he’s on his way to a dinner with Jay-Z to discuss their most recent media project. Stuff like that. I’m really glad for him, glad that his career is taking off the way it is, and I can’t wait to see what he will do next.
A lot of the time I wonder how successful people do it. Is it because they work harder and more efficiently? Or are they just innately more talented and gifted than everybody else, and the rest of us are simply doomed to a life of mediocrity and averageness?
There’s nothing America loves more than a narrative of success. We are a nation of rags to riches, or if not rags to riches then at least we are fascinated by people who achieve insurmountable feats. You know the story: do well in school, you’ll get a scholarship to a great college where you’ll make all sorts of connections and get into secret societies and land a job at some important place where you will work your way up to the top.
“You can’t do that” is a weapon naysayers use to keep you from achieving what you really want to achieve. “No one has ever done that before.” “It is totally impossible.” “You are out of your mind.” The person thirsty for success, however, says: “Watch me.”
What makes successful people successful is not just that they take bold or even strange risks. It’s not that they go against the grain or that they work harder or do things better than everyone else. What makes people succeed is obsession. Successful people make it because they find their passion and become obsessed with it.
I suffered from severe depression when I was younger, middle to high school age. I wasn’t suicidal, though I was curious and did phone a suicide hotline a time or two. All I wanted was to get away. From what exactly, I’m not even sure. But I just didn’t want to be where I was. So I didn’t try at anything, because even if I did, would anybody notice? Would it matter?
My grades plummeted. I never paid attention in class, never did any of the homework. My report card: F, F, F, D+, C. My teachers didn’t even bother to help me. One of them even suggested to my parents that I was too dumb for my grade and that my reading level wasn’t up to par. To them I was probably just another helpless black boy in a fucked up school system.
I know this sounds cliche but one day it all changed. One day I just decided that I didn’t want to be that boy anymore. I think I realized that if I ever wanted to get away, to wherever that was, that I would have to take myself. I would have to do it for myself, by myself.
So I became obsessed with success. I became obsessed with getting straight A’s. I became a perfectionist. I cleaned up my act. Once you start doing something for so long you kind of go on auto-pilot.
Soon I realized it’s not about being obsessed with success per se. It’s about discovering what you want to do, where you want to go, and becoming completely preoccupied with that. You put all your energy toward this one outcome, this one idea, and somehow it returns to you. Sure enough, everything I have ever achieved in life is because I imagined achieving it before it happened, that in some way I made it happen because I got so obsessed with it.
Artists like Renoir, Matisse and Duchamp once said that an artist only has one good idea. His life is devoted to discovering that idea, unraveling it and pursuing it over and over. This is something like the obsession equals success formula I’m talking about. Whatever your idea is, go for it with all of your might. Learn every thing about it. Live it. Breathe it. Know it inside out.
Sure, success depends on a bunch of different variables, and some people are admittedly born with certain advantages. But that’s why success, done from one’s own will, is always more enjoyable when you’ve really, truly earned it.