On the 31st of March 2018, a six-foot-five, heavily-tattooed man stood on the sidelines of a soccer game in Los Angeles. It was the 71st minute and his team was down 3-1. He had had an illustrious career in Europe but was now already 36-years-old. Some had written him off as washed up.
Only one year ago, had he been stretchered off a game with a terrible knee injury. His English team had released him from his contract while he continued to recuperate. Now, he stared into the warm California afternoon, about to make his debut for yet another new team: the LA Galaxy.
20 minutes later, he had already scored an amazing goal to make it 3-3. But he wasn’t done. In the dying minutes of the game, another ex-English Premier League player floated a dangerous ball right in front of opponent LAFC’s goal.
Zlatan Ibrahimovich jumped highest and reached the ball just before the LAFC goalkeeper’s outstretched hands. The ball looped into the corner of the goal. 4-3 and game over. Zlatan had won the game and written his name into the history books.
It was a perfect debut.
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Everybody wants to be successful. But in today’s day and age, success alone isn’t enough. Most of want to be wildly successful when we’re young. We dream of the perfect debut.
Wouldn’t it be nice? To be top of the world before you hit 30? To have enough money to buy whatever you want, the ability to travel anywhere in the world, and all the fame that comes with it?
But the truth is, you’re likely gonna fail when you’re young. More often than you’d like to imagine. And that’s okay.
You Won’t Match Up to Your Inspiration
The great American radio personality Ira Glass once said:
“For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good… But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”
He was talking about creative work here, but it could apply to just about any young person’s work. Most of us do things because we’re inspired by greatness. We admire the Taylor Swifts, Cristiano Ronaldos, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.
We’re spoiled with so much quality that we don’t even realize it. Thanks to the Internet and Spotify, any high school student can instantly listen to a “greatest hits” collection and decide they wanna be the next Selena Gomez.
But unless you’ve been hustling hard like Selena since you were seven-years-old, you’re probably gonna suck when you start. And you’re gonna be sad if you keep comparing yourself to the best in the world.
Just understand that it’s natural. You’re never gonna match up to your idols in the beginning, but don’t stop being inspired.
You Learn More Through Struggle
20 years ago, the original tech-genius-billionaire wrote:
“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” – Bill Gates
Just consider the lowest common denominator for success that most people use: money. And the weirdly-frequent cases of big-money lottery winners who go broke. If you won the type of f*ck you money that would allow you to not work another day in your life, would you blow it all away?
Yet, we have heartbreaking stories of people who ended up way worse than before their lucky money. It’d be easy to blame this on stupidity, recklessness, or bad luck. But I’m not so sure.
Instead, I think the people who lost it all were unprepared for handling large sums of money. What’s worse, they didn’t get qualified people to help them, and they didn’t learn in time. You can make money through luck. But it takes skill to keep it.
Of course, success means a whole lot more than money. But the same principle applies: if we never develop skills for success in the first place, we’re bound to lose it.
So don’t be upset if you’re constantly falling down when you’re starting out. You’re not a failure. You’re learning how to be a success.
Success Takes Time
Today, we live in a culture of hacks. We’re bombarded by good-looking salesmen promising us 10 times the success in half the time. It’s a seductive message: “You can be top of the world, you can have it all (if you sign up for my course) today.”
But the laws of nature tell us otherwise. Real value takes time to build. There’s a reason why we value 25-year-old whiskeys more than cheap spirits.
This isn’t a rant against change; I understand that old ways aren’t always the best. Yes, we need to get better and faster.
But when we’re young, we often don’t have the wisdom to differentiate between valueless hacks and quality improvements. So we try and try, swinging between failure and success. Thankfully, history has stories to encourage us.
Vera Wang‘s figure skating career didn’t work out, so she worked a day job for 19 years, learning all she could about fashion. She launched her first boutique at the grand young age of 40.
Jack Ma was 35-years-old and a multiple reject of Harvard Business School, the China police force, and even KFC when he started Alibaba. It took him 15 years before he became a billionaire at 50.
J.K. Rowling spent her late twenties living on welfare as a single mother. She felt like a failure, was diagnosed with depression, and even considered suicide. It took seven long years from when she was first inspired to write about a boy wizard to when her “perfect debut” was published: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
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When we’re young, we believe we can conquer the world easily. But life has a funny way of teaching us a lesson when we step into the arena.
Bloodied and bruised, we take a step back and question ourselves. “Why is it so hard?” “Is it really worth it?” “Will I ever succeed?”
But just like how adulting confusingly lies somewhere in between the blind optimism of youth and the bitterness of a cynical old-timer, there are no black-and-white answers. At best, we could say “it depends.”
What does it depend on?
Opportunities. Timing. Privilege. Motivation. We could go on and on…
But most of all, it depends on you.
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” – Thomas Edison