The Fuck-Up’s Guide to Instant Success

A message for those who think they’ve made it.
And for those who think they never will.

by Humberto M. Belli


“Success.”

It’s one of the more annoying words in the English language. That is, until we’ve reached it. Which for most of us isn’t too often.

It’s a lot like happiness. Slippery. Elusive. Just beyond our grasp.

Not to say there aren’t people out there who don’t consider themselves successful. There are. And I think it’s easy for us to imagine who they are. Investment bankers. Rock star entrepreneurs. Powerful New York businessmen in their carefully tailored suits.

These are, for the most part, representative of our classic notions of success. People who’ve “made it” in the realms of wealth, of power, of authority — and all the better for them if it’s quickly attained alongside a family, a cute dog and a beautiful house.

And then there are those of us who haven’t quite made it yet.

Those of us who feel we’re running out of time. Who feel the possibility (or impossibility) of success looming over us like some ticking biological clock.

I was sitting in class just a few days ago with a teacher who had scarcely waited for us to sit down before he fired away down his list of past successes. Three masters, a PhD, a reputation as our school’s top instructor, a multi-million dollar start-up — and the list went on. He was, by all means, a rock star. And he was only 31.

Then he asked us our ages.

Bear in mind this is grad school, so most of us are in our mid-to-late twenties, several of us well into our thirties. We responded, most of us honestly, and in apparent acknowledgment of our “advanced” age and presumed lack of success, he said “Well you’d better get moving.”

At which point I resisted the urge to throw my laptop at his face.

Who was this guy to define our success according to his own? Who was he to assume we’d all started from the same launch pad, and were students now as a result of personal neglect rather than the pursuit of continuous improvement?

At that moment, I realized I felt threatened by the notion of success precisely because I failed to recognize how much of a malleable concept it really is. Even though I acknowledge that success, as a concept, is significantly relative — that there’s a different success to be had by each and every one of us — I can’t help but regard it, still, as an absolute. And I don’t think I’m the only who does this.

Deep down inside, we insist on attaching ourselves to the almost Victorian formula of: Accomplishments + Wealth / Age = Degree of Success (or some not-too-distant variant). And the problem with this mentality is that, unless we fit a very particular mold, all it does is set us up for unhappiness.

We become risk averse, precisely because risks that don’t pay off are the equivalent of lost time. We compare ourselves more to those around us, which, rather than make us feel happy for the accomplishments of others, makes us feel down on ourselves. And we miss out on potentially valuable opportunities, precisely because they aren’t aligned with our preconceived formula of success.

This popular notion of success, rather than help us succeed,
more often than not pushes us down the road to failure.

How many times have I met someone who checks all the stereotypical slots for success, and yet, is utterly unfulfilled? How many times have I heard the story of the boy who becomes a doctor in an attempt to fulfill his father’s dreams, only to realize, later in life, that his actual passion lies in the arts? It’s a shame when someone, who in everyone else’s eyes appears to be an absolute success, feels he might have been so much more had he chosen to go down something other than the beaten path. Which takes me to the following:

If success doesn’t bring happiness and personal
fulfillment along with it, can we really call it success?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I repeat: success isn’t an absolute. It’s not the product of some set-in-stone equation. And to assume it is is to abide by someone else’s definition. This isn’t to say we should all just go ahead and become “fuck-ups” in the name of personal success. What we should do is take the liberty to make mistakes, to try, to fail, and to try again, free from the fetters of someone else’s notion of success.

As J.R.R. Tolkien so beautifully puts it: “Not all those who wander are lost.” I, for one, have discovered the most about myself precisely when I’m furthest from my anticipated path. It’s those times when I’ve been furthest from home, furthest from my comfort zone and closest to failure that I’ve realized who I really am and what I’m truly capable of.

Back when I was in college, I made several friends who already knew what they wanted to do with their lives as early as high school. They carved their paths accordingly, and by age 25 were well on their way towards becoming industry rock stars. Others (myself included) reached college graduation day and were still stumped.

In retrospect I realize that’s no big deal. All our journeys are different.

Henry Ford created the Model T at 45. Darwin didn’t release On the Origin of Species until age 50. Vera Wang entered the fashion industry at age 40. It’s not about “making it” within an allotted period of time; it’s not about hitting X, Y and Z accomplishments before a particular age.

It’s about getting off our asses and making a constantly active effort to see where the journey takes us.

It’s about taking chances, making mistakes, perhaps even being labeled “a fuck up” before finally arriving upon that elusive something that makes us feel happy, fulfilled and, yes, successful.

Which takes me to this article’s title.

It’s one thing to fuck up haphazardly, as a consequence of neglect. It’s another to fuck up with purpose, as a consequence of trying to discover ourselves. Success doesn’t leave you behind as soon as you fuck up. Success only leaves you behind the moment you agree to stop chasing it.

So here’s to fucking up with purpose.

Here’s to fucking up a lot. Here’s to trying. To failing. To making mistakes. Taking leaps. Falling down. And getting back up again. Others might label you a “fuck up.” But you’ll know better.

And when you finally do reach success, those who preach the formulaic definition might not recognize it. But you will. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what matters?

Dedicated to the teacher who made me want to throw my laptop at his face. Thanks for pushing my buttons. It apparently gives me something to write about.

Questions, suggestions and dissenting opinions are
all welcome in the response section below.