Success Is Fictional — Stop Worrying About It

Loads of us have struggles with ambition vs. contentment, goal setting vs. happiness, being excited about where we are now vs. looking towards where we want to be.

Selection bias is when something is reported but is biased and inaccurate. Reported ‘success’ is plagued with it. The outlets we watch, read, and listen to all suggest that we should invent an app in our twenties and sell it for a billion dollars within 18 months. It’s mostly about winning with speed while we’re young. But fast-success is like winning the lottery and rarely happens. We gloss over slow-success, the kind that is achieved by plugging away. We gloss over the years of hustle. The years when it doesn’t work.

There’s an actual reason why we only hear about the fast, young success stories. And this is the bit that blew my mind: a few influential marketers caused us to celebrate young and fast, because it sells more stuff.

Madison Avenue in the 50s. A bunch of ad execs got together and decided to sell products to younger people. Why? Because you can sell more stuff for longer to younger people. Companies make more money because younger people buy things for their whole lives. It’s not as hard to persuade a young person to buy something than an older person who’s already picked whether they’re Team Coke or Team Pepsi. It’s marketing, and it’s the reason and the root of why we are conditioned to think that it’s normal to reach ‘success’ fast and young. But it’s not actually very normal at all.

Da Vinci was born in 1452. Let’s call him LDV because everyone loves an acronym. He got a painting apprenticeship when he was 14. He then got a few freelance gigs, messed them up completely, and no-one would hire him to make stuff anymore. He had to paint dead criminals to get by. But during his dark days he kept making, kept bashing out work, kept painting. Kept creating for 16 years and still nothing happened. It was 1498 when he had a breakthrough and made something that anyone cared about. It was called The Last Supper and apparently it’s alright.

Same story for most people. Think of someone you know who you think has it all figured out now, delve into their story and I bet you’ll find that wasn’t always the case. There’s generally this long and sustained period of failure before anything happens. We’re happy to ignore that it takes years.

We’ll gladly disregard the first 9,000 hours of the 10,000 hour rule because the story’s not as good if that bit is mentioned. We think overnight success when it’s closer to 20-year success. It seems like there’s a few takeaways. We should be ambitious, because it’s a powerful driver. If bigman LDV stopped being ambitious, and stopped being persistent towards his mission, then that would’ve been bad news for him, and for the world if that’s your kinda thing.

For the grand missions, we shouldn’t worry or become too impatient if things take longer than expected, or longer than is ‘normal’. Because modern normal has literally been skewed for profit.If we are driven by a meaningful goal then we should be happy for it to take time, and expect this time to be when people doubt. Doubt is OK if you’re committed to the long-game. Here’s some of my own selection bias: People doubted Google in 1998. Guess what, doubters? They just brought out a self-driving car which will use sensors to stop people being killed in car accidents. No one in their right mind doubts Google anymore. They remembered to never listen to anyone who isn’t in the ring. They remembered to be stubborn in times of doubt. They remembered that critics who chime in without ever having made anything are trolls.

It’d be really easy to end here with a mega-cliché. The classic one that you know already. Featuring the words journey and destination. Ugh, sorry. Let’s not do that. Shouldn’t ignoring the goals and taking joy from the process be the most crucial ingredient? Seeing
something taking shape should be the reward. Everything else should be a side-effect that isn’t the focus. Maybe we should ignore the pressure for things to happen quickly because that’s what we’ve been brainwashed to believe is normal when it isn’t.

When the meaning behind doing what we do is the right one, the slow plod is the right path. Because without even knowing it we’ll probably look back and realise that, while it might seem like a process wrought with irritating plateau’s and speed bumps, we have come a long way and are taking steps forward. Perhaps that’s more important than success or reaching a goal. Perhaps that is enough?

image – Alex Dram

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