Redefining Success in 2016

In 2015, the voices in my head — the nagging, belittling ones — reigned supreme. They would taunt me mercilessly with an endless stream of, “You’re a total failure,” and “You should just give up and call it a day.” And I, because I’m human, succumbed to that looming cloud of self-doubt. Not every day. But some days, I was so anxious that I could barely get out of bed. Some days, I let myself believe that my success was solely tied to not what I personally outlined for myself, but was in relation to what was outwardly projected by everyone else.

In Crazy Love, Overwhelmed by a Relentless God, author Francis Chan wrote, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”

If I learned anything in 2015, it was that I will fail if I worry about the things that really, really don’t matter.

In our society, success is almost always tied to performance. “Get A’s and you’ll go to a great school.” “Do well in school and you’ll get a great job.” “Get a great job and find love, and you’ll be happy.” Most of us follow the script dutifully. We jump from milestone to milestone, very rarely asking ourselves if we’re content and satisfied, if we’re fulfilling our own very personal notions of success.

When you’re an entrepreneur, it gets that much worse. Success and failure become interchangeable ways of defining your existence — “Her company is valued at $1 billion, she’s a success story,” magazines and blogs crow, i.e., She Is Worthy. “His startup failed miserably,” they cackle mercilessly, AKA, We Will Forget You. And when no one writes about you or recognizes you, the deafening silence blares, You Are Invisible. Go Home.

It becomes a self-enforcing phenomenon, in which entrepreneurs claw on to any outward praise or validation to feel some modicum of success. You can easily fall into the Rabbit Hole of Despair skimming Facebook feeds that showcase everyone’s glossiest and sparkliest version of themselves, and anxiously measure your real self to that. And though failure is viewed as a tangible end to a story, you instead feel it as an everyday constant, as you struggle to make sense of it all.

On the first few days of 2016, I decided to confront the demons that had been plaguing me all year. Armed with Holstee’s Pocket Reflection Worksheet and my trusty Moleskine, I jotted down the things that made me grateful about this past year. Surprise, surprise: None of those things were work-related. Sure, my company had struggled but had done relatively well this year. We achieved impact and certain milestones. I spoke at cool conferences. Rah, rah. Go us.

Thanks Holstee. (holstee.com/reflection)

But while that mattered, the things that stuck with me from 2015 were the people I met and the experiences I had. I am grateful for the much-anticipated holiday with my husband (we had not gone on a vacation since our honeymoon three years ago!) and for quality time with family & friends because I chose to scale back on crazy travel (relatively, anyway). I cooked more meals at home and worked out regularly. I immersed myself in something creative and different every week. And while I failed at things I tried, I was still really proud that I got right back up and tried again— from getting massively lost in Beijing when I explored the city alone to learning how to water ski in California.

For the past four years, I have lived and breathed my company. But this past year and the reflection that came with it taught me that if I wanted my company to live, I needed to too. We all need to live our lives in abundance rather than constant scarcity, where there is room for it all, and we’re not so busy that we can’t take time to reflect awhile or do things that make us creatively refreshed and intellectually fulfilled. Our work will be better for it, and so will we.

In 2016, the voices in my head may not be fully quiet — I’m still human, after all — but at least I know how to turn the volume down.