Don’t Chase Success. There Is a Better Way.


“Let the future tell the truth and evaluate each one according to his work and accomplishments. The present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine.” — Nikola Tesla

I don’t particularly like the word “success.”

It’s arbitrarily thrown around, and it’s most commonly associated with fame, money, and grand ambitions. For some, these things may indeed be what define success, but that’s a very narrow definition.

To add to that, most people that chase success in and of itself are generally moving in the wrong direction. Success isn’t an end.

A better way to define the term would be as a byproduct of an endeavor that’s built on commitment, personal growth, and a sense of mastery. This is broad enough to be encompassing, but specific enough to be meaningful.

For some, this may mean raising great kids and fostering a close family. For others, it will be about their careers and creating art and building things. A few yet will find their definition in a combination of the two.

In any case, it’s something that’s earned after a certain price that has been paid. That’s what gives it it’s value, and it’s what makes it worth celebrating.

Anyone that tells you that they have the exact steps for how to pay this price is generally being dishonest with you. There are definitely things that can sway the odds, and it’s worth studying those things, but what worked for me won’t work for you, and what worked for someone else won’t work for me.

That said, if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that any meaningful kind of success almost always correlates with a desire to work for tomorrow.

What does that mean? Glad you asked.

A Story About Steve Jobs

A few years ago, a VP of Engineering at Google, Vic Gundotra, shared a story about one of the interactions he had with the late founder of Apple.

During his time working on mobile applications for Google, he had received a call on a random Sunday while at a religious service from an unknown number. He momentarily let it pass.

When he went through the voicemail, however, he realized that the call had been from Jobs, who requested that Gundotra call him back at his home.

This was unusual. Thinking that something big may be up, he nervously got back to him to apologize for missing the call and asked about the issue.

This is apparently what Steve Jobs had to say:

“So Vic, we have an urgent issue, one that I need addressed right away… I’ve been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone and I’m not happy with the icon. The second O in Google doesn’t have the right yellow gradient. It’s just wrong and I’m going to have Greg fix it tomorrow. Is that okay with you?”

They collectively agreed on the correction, and Jobs immediately sent over an email with a subject line “Icon Ambulance” to set up the change. Gundotra ends the story with the impression the whole incident left on him.

“When I think about leadership, passion and attention to detail, I think back to the call I received from Steve Jobs on a Sunday morning in January. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. CEOs should care about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday.”

It’s no coincidence that Apple spent 12 years going downhill until Jobs came back in 1997 with a vision greater than one involving margins and profits. That’s how they become the most valuable company in the world.

His primary concern wasn’t with quarterly revenue targets, but it was with what they could accomplish by building great products for tomorrow.

The Value of the Perennial Seller

I recently finished Ryan Holiday’s latest book Perennial Seller. It’s his best one yet, and it’s about what it takes to fuel and sustain a great creation.

In a world obsessed with bestseller lists and status indicators, Holiday takes us through a rich collection of works that don’t necessarily fit the definition of success commonly associated with books, movies, music, and businesses.

The term “Perennial Seller” may not be familiar to the average person, but in the publishing industry and in music/movie studios, it represents the kind of work that sells year after year. It’s where most of their revenue comes from.

In Hollywood, consider The Shawshank Redemption. In publishing, think Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In music, see bands like Iron Maiden.

None of these creations started off with a bang, and none of their creators began with the intent of being “successful.” Sure, they all hoped that they would be able to reap the rewards of their labor at some point, but in each case, it was about more than a quick win.

For example, Frank Darabont, the Director of The Shawshank Redemption, turned down the chance to cast stars like Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise to retain creative control over the movie. In the process, he reaffirmed what history has already proven — over time, the market will reward the best.

In Holiday’s own case, he shares that you become a writer because it’s something you can’t not be. It’s tough, and it’s a battle, and that’s why unless he’s creating work that has a shot at enduring, the incentives are misaligned.

It’s not about fame or a paycheck alone. It’s about the body of work itself.

The Takeaway

Working for tomorrow doesn’t necessarily have to be about leaving behind a legacy or anything of the sort. I personally couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of me when I’m dead, but still, I guess I understand the sentiment.

To me, it’s predominantly about having a greater intrinsic motivation to be disciplined about compromising for something more than what’s easy, available, and comfortable. It’s about choosing to pay the price.

It’s about having the courage to say “no” when you have every material incentive to say “yes,” and it’s about valuing the work for it’s own sake. It’s about treating your commitment, whatever it may be, with respect.

To Steve Jobs, it was about creating something beautiful in the world. To make that dent. To Holiday, it’s about writing books that last. Books that deserve to stick around. The underlying motivation, however, is the same.

You become successful when you care about something more than becoming successful. That’s ultimately what working for tomorrow is about.


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