It’s the Losers Who Are Obsessed with Success

The Great Pyramid managed to hold the title for “the tallest building in the world” for 3800 years. Amazing, isn’t it! It was built in 2600 BC during a period known as the Old Kingdom by a pharaoh named Khufu. It is so old that we can take most of the famous personalities from ancient history (Caesar, Attila, Constantine, etc.) and find that they lived closer to us in time than they did to Khufu during his reign.

Because of this amazing achievement Khufu remains one of the most well-known pharaohs today. Compared to him, his father, Pharaoh Sneferu, was the biggest loser. Not only didn’t he build any of the Great Pyramids, he had so many failed attempts at doing so that we can seemingly only pity the guy. However, as you will soon learn, Sneferu is the hero of this story, while our own obsession with success is the villain.

Assyrian Ziggurat

Before Sneferu, Egyptians still copied the Assyrian-style ziggurats, massive temples that resemble the pyramids, but which were created using layered terraces. Picture Minecraft-like pyramids made of low-resolution pixels, only the pixels were huge stones weighing many tons — that’s a ziggurat!

Sneferu was an innovator. Like an ancient Steve Jobs obsessed with details, he wasn’t satisfied with such a low-resolution pyramid. He wanted to build a real “high-resolution” pyramid — one that would serve as his tomb for the afterlife. His “overnight” success, however, ran into several roadblocks along the way.

After many years under construction, his first pyramid collapsed for reasons that still remain a mystery. It must have been an excruciating moment and a terrible embarrassment for a ruler that claimed to be, and believed he was, a living god. But still Sneferu pressed on.

The wonderful Meidum Pyramid

He started over and years later was able to “unveil” a monstrosity known as the Meidum Pyramid. Its design was adapted from a ziggurat, but with the terraces filled in so that the end result would have looked more like the pyramids we know. The design alteration did not work, however, so this hybrid ziggurat-pyramid was never finished; the angles would have been too steep for the pyramid to hold itself up.

It took Sneferu many years to build these two structures. Most people would have given up and gone back to the tried-and-tested ziggurats. But not Sneferu.

The Bent Pyramid

He tried a third time, but halfway through the construction his engineer’s realized that their math was wrong. They informed Sneferu that if they continued the new construction would eventually collapse…again. After consulting them further, Sneferu instructed his engineer’s to change the angle midway. As a result, the final product looks nothing like the famous pyramids we can so easily recognize today. Historians now refer to it (sadly) as the Bent Pyramid.

Clearly Sneferu must have given up after this latest mishap?

The Red Pyramid

Nope. He did not. I told you: this guy is the hero of our story. Instead, Sneferu applied everything he learned from his past mistakes to build what we now regard as the first real pyramid — The Red Pyramid — the one that would serve as the blueprint for Khufu, who replicated his father’s design, but made it bigger.

At this point, observing his pyramid against the backdrop of the setting sun, Pharaoh Sneferu might have quipped:

“We made the pyramids in the desert look so good you’ll want to lick them.”

Winners and Losers

By today standards Sneferu was a loser. We don’t have a lot of documents from that time, but I am sure that if ancient Egyptians had Twitter, our pharaoh would have had a massive PR crisis on his hands:

I speculate about what might have happened after spending the last eight years of my career building services for managing and monitoring social media. During this time, I witnessed massive PR crises, but also simply observed the normal chatter online. Nothing is likely to go more viral than negativity spewed towards people, companies, or products. All it takes is a smartly worded tweet for hordes of people to join the hate brigade and all hell to break loose. Most of the people retweeting, liking and so forth, are usually too busy to read anything on the topic they are so outraged over. Which makes the environment we live in even more scary: one step sideways and you are screwed.

Sneferu escaped this kind of shaming because he lived in an age many millennia before the Internet. Maybe being a God-king helped him a bit, too. But you and I, we don’t have either luxury.

The age during which Sneferu lived aside, make no mistake: this is not a story about his persistence either. The moral is not how we should tune out the noise on social media, and try and try again to achieve our objectives. Persistence applied to a bad idea is a sure recipe for disaster. This is a story about progress. Sneferu failed and failed again, but every failure showed great progress compared to the previous iteration. To me, this is the main reason he is a real hero, ancient Twitter be dammed.

How to escape the success trap?

Success is an odd word. It’s hard to define, and the definition should be personal, as what success is to me should be different than what it is to you. The meaning I am referring to in this piece is the success defined by collective adoration, huge bank accounts, fame in the eyes of the society, popularity in the media, and status-based respect in social circles. I am talking about Elon Musk-type success, not about the happy father living on his farm-version of success. I am talking about the success that certain people seem to think Donald Trump is infused with. The kind of success that separates winners from losers.

We are surrounded by success. It surrounds us to such an extent that our grading system has been replaced by two core ratings:

⁃ It rocks!

⁃ It sucks!

There is nothing in between. It used to be that a product could receive a 3-star rating, making it mediocre. Not anymore. Anything below 4 stars is an embarrassment. Furthermore, a product that is loved by a small community of loyal users is also considered a failure. Because success is equated to exponential growth, a small, loyal community is suddenly no longer something to get excited about. Having happy customers is good, but one is not successful until they get half a billion of them.

I can imagine how stressful it is to create anything today, how the fear of failure can choke any initiative. And I get that the motivation to avoid failure exceeds people’s motivation to succeed. This fear of failure causes people to unconsciously sabotage their chances of success. This is especially true because the first of anything will inevitably suck. It prevents people from trying, not realizing that it’s being able to get to the second and third iterations that really matters.

But there are two things that I discovered that can help us escape from beneath the success cloud that looms persistently above us:

1. Focus on what’s under your control

When you find yourself paralyzed, unable to take action, check your core premises. Why are you doing what you are doing? Are you doing it solely for the approval of others, or are there intrinsic reasons giving your brain a kick? Would you still do the things you do if you knew no one was watching?

I am talking about you rethinking what the definitions for winners and losers are. Success can and should be decided by you. The opinion of others is and should be irrelevant:

“Don’t be like the second-handers: They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people. They don’t ask: ‘Is this true?’ They ask: ‘Is this what others think is true?’ Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull.”
Ayn Rand

2. Remove success as the KPI

Following the argument above, success should not be a KPI. It is not something you can control. Success is other people’s opinion about your work. As with Sneferu, progress should be the core internal metric. Instead of trying to please, try to improve your work with every new iteration.

This takes courage. It’s way easier to bow to public demands than to stand for an idea or to fight for a cause. Think about it. It would have been so much easier for our pharaoh to build a bigger ziggurat. Or, maybe, simply add a statue on top and call that #innovation. That’s what Khufu, Sneferu's son, did:

Step 1: Borrow dad’s designs

Step 2: Build it bigger

Step 3: Success!

Khufu is now in all the history books! HUUUUGE!

But progress, and consistent progress, is what I look for when passing judgement; it is the core internal metric for my work.

Agree? Disagree? Drop me a comment!

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I write about business strategy inspired by historical events. Follow me onTwitter or Medium if you would like to read more articles like this one.

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