Why You Should Stop Trying to Be Successful
Picture a talented musician who loses her dream job at the peak of her career. The premiere symphony that just hired her goes bankrupt. Now she can’t even afford to pay off her cello. She moves back into her mom’s house, and stumbles into a lucrative career — with the unfortunate side effect of it making her a social outcast.
I’m obviously describing the plot of Departures, a 2009 Japanese film that can teach anyone a lot about disappointment.
Now imagine yourself in a similar situation. For years, you devote everything to a particular skill or profession. You follow all the right advice. You put in your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and then some, all while taking care of your mind and body.
You find your way inside Barbie’s Malibu Dream House, right before some mystery prick drops a match on the roof.
Bruce Lee has a little something to say about this. A long time ago, I read the Tao of Jeet Kune Do. It started as an accident, just something I found in the attic. It made a shocking amount of sense:
The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or defeat. Let nature take its course, and your tools will strike at the right moment.
This is pretty much how you have to approach everything. Educate yourself. Listen to good advice. Follow your interests. Live above your demons. But also don’t expect any of that to shield you.
So here are some takeaways…
Success Really Isn’t Up to You
So you hacked your life and gamified the crap out of it. You sleep right. Eat right. Train right. Read three books a week. All that.
So does my beautiful friend Brianna, who’s had her heart set on the Olympics for as long as I can remember.
During the trials, she tripped and fell. Dropped from first place to last. Are you going to look at Brianna’s washboard tummy and tell her she lost because she’s lazy? Or spends too much time on her phone?
No, sometimes you just trip. And lose everything.
Anyone Can Fall From the Top
That’s what we call a vicissitude — when life sideswipes you. They hurt the worst when we feel cheated. You did all that work, just to wind up no better off than if you’d followed an easier path.
My tenure and promotion letter arrived the same week our president announced yet another budget crisis, followed by yet another round of crippling budget cuts.
His salary would remain untouched, of course.
So here I am, like many other seemingly talented, smart, hardworking people. It’s not enough to succeed. You have to anticipate a sideswipe.
Falling Hurts Less When You Plan on It
You should plan to lose it all at some point. That sounds counter-intuitive. Even negative. It goes against most advice out there.
But it’ll make you a stronger person. We put so much emphasis on success, on learning from our failures.
But sometimes defeat comes with an especially harsh lesson. You actually didn’t do anything wrong.
This is why you might want to tweak your attitude toward success. See it as something that involves a lot of factors other than just your attitude, your habits, and your grit.
Success Obeys No Law or Principle
In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb warns against the pursuit of sudden and extreme wealth through big risks. They say fortune favors the bold, but not really.
It favors only a small handful of the bold.
Even worse, it favors them randomly. Smart people lose their money on big gambles all the time. Talented artists spend their entire careers below the level of fame they probably deserve.
Hard Work Doesn’t Always Lead to Success
We actually don’t know what exactly makes one person hugely successful and someone else only marginally so. That scares us.
It’s hard to accept that you could devote countless hours toward perfecting some craft and still wind up broke.
We’d rather tell ourselves fairy tales. Even though those fairy tales just set us up for bitterness when vicissitude intervenes.
Walk through the catacombs of history. They spill over with the bones of artists, writers, and inventors who never got their full due.
Habits and Mindsets Don’t Make You Rich
Good decisions and healthy habits — however you define those — will always improve your life. So they’re worth looking into.
All that stuff about morning routines? It’s basically telling you to spend a few minutes deciding what you want out of your day, before plunging headfirst into your phone, guaranteed to trigger stress.
No mix of mindset or routine can make you the Luke Cage of entrepreneurs. Anyone can fail, for lots of reasons. We can just miss our target. We even succeed, just not on the scale we’d hoped.
Longing for Success Can Drive You Crazy
Most of us don’t ever stop to think why we want success, or what that even means. Money, status, awards?
We’re good at dreaming up ever distant levels of success that don’t match up with reality. Writing them down on a postcard or speaking them into a mirror won’t increase your odds.
In fact, that probably just digs a deeper grave for your aspirations to roll in when you have a bad day.
The biggest disappointments come when you bank on something that only happens to a small handful of people for no logical reason. Dreaming that your startup or that song you wrote will make you rich and famous only salts your expectations.
Don’t Quit, Find Another Direction
We’re taught to take complete ownership of our lives and our goals. Our social media feed screams at us to keep going and never give up.
Pursue your dreams at all costs. Really, all?
Meanwhile, we ignore the large and powerful forces that shape events outside our control. We think we can take them on. There’s a fine line between optimism and determinism, and you can learn to walk it.
Here’s something that works: Give up all your hopes of success for a minute. Just imagine you’ve been granted a basic minimum income. Nothing fancy, but you won’t die of hunger. You’ll have a place to live.
What would you do?
Try Thinking Like a Roomba
Now, imagine you literally can’t do the top two or even three things you think are your passion. What comes next?
This is how the aspiring actor finds an actual career as a producer, special effects artist, stunt specialist, costume designer, or any of the other hundred job titles that roll up the screen at the end of a movie.
Maybe you didn’t actually want to be an actor. You just wanted to work in movies, and somehow you got stuck on one option.
You don’t have to give up in order to fail. Something much bigger can stop you dead in your tracks. So do what a Roomba does. A Roomba doesn’t punish itself or rethink all of its strategies. A Roomba swivels around and goes in another direction. So can you.