There Are Two Ways to Become Successful — Only One is Right
How do you start a billion-dollar company? Simple. Just make a few phone calls.
Sir Richard Branson was stuck at a tiny airport after his flight was canceled en route to Puerto Rico. In a pinch, he came up with an idea that would spark the creation of Virgin Airlines. He collected money from fellow travelers, called for a chartered plane, and boarded the plane with his new customers.
Seeing there was money to be made in the airline business, Branson decided to start his own airline. One problem — he didn’t have a plane! So, what did he do? Simple. He just called up Boeing and asked to buy one their planes…on the condition that he could simply return it if the business flopped. Talk about bold, right?
Branson is one of these lionized entrepreneurs — world traveler, playboy, filthy rich super genius. He’s cited along with other uber-entrepreneurs and “successful” people.
Jobs — ruthlessly dedicated to craft and aesthetics.
Winfrey — one recommendation from her can explode your book or business.
Musk — builds underground tunnels in his spare time while trying to populate Mars while trying to create brain-computer chips while smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast.
Huffington — mass media extraordinaire turned sleep, health, and wellness advocate.
Are these people worth worshipping? Or is there a better alternative to becoming successful?
How Much Success is Too Much?
I ended with Arianna Huffington because her example is telling. She pushed herself to the brink to build one of the most successful media companies of all time.
After she “collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, broke [her] cheekbone and woke up in a pool of blood”…she realized that maybe she needed to slow down a little bit. She pivoted and now runs a business based health and wellness that suits her physically, mentally, and spiritually.
You have the recent story with Andrew Luck showing that the almighty pursuit of success isn’t everything, even detrimental in certain circumstances.
What’s the point?
Success isn’t everything and you can do too much, but I’m also about 10,000% sure you don’t fall into the category of Arianna Huffington or Andrew Luck in terms of work ethic.
You can push yourself quite a bit before you break. Pushing too much can literally kill you, but…so can pushing too little.
Seek the Appropriate Level
The level of success you want to achieve depends on a few things:
- Your Appetite — People like Branson have an innate propensity for boldness and ostentation
- What You’re Willing to Sacrifice — People like Musk know they’re essentially giving up a good chunk of their life, even their health, to pursue their mission. Musk has admitted as much. And he’s good with it.
- Your Talent Level — “Talent doesn’t matter,” is what people with talent say who don’t want to make you feel bad. Talent does matter. It does dictate success. The catch? Even though you’re not as talented as say, Steve Jobs, you’re still selling yourself short.
So, on the one hand, articles like “Follow these 15 Steps to be like Elon Musk,” are dumb because they forget to add the most important step — be a genius with an innately sociopathic level of ambition, desire, and work ethic.
On the other hand, though, most people, you, sell themselves way too short, chase the wrong type of success, make horrible sacrifices with bad payoffs, and almost never align their life with what they’re wired to do.
There is no “right” way to chase success that’s all-encompassing, but there are signs. Whether you follow them or not is up to you. But I’ll give you the game, right now, for free. The hustle, though? That’s sold separately.
How Big is Your Mouth and Your Stomach?
I used to think that I wanted to be a billionaire who ran a 500 person company or a bunch of different companies under my umbrella company. You get the idea. I did see myself becoming a Steve Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg type. Maybe not to that extent, but I’ve pretty much always thought I was going to be a rich and successful business owner.
I still believe the words in the aforementioned sentence, but to a much lesser extent than I used to think. Jeff Goins shared something similar in a post where he talked to Seth Godin about scaling his business to be more “successful” vs. keeping it at a level that brought him joy:
Seth laid out two options for me:
Scale my business, graduate to CEO, and acquire other businesses to help deal with the churn of my industry, eventually creating an 8- or 9-figure company and selling it.
Keep the business at the same size and focus on profitability instead of growth, saving at least half the money I make every year. Then, with that free time and energy, focus on my craft.
“There will be times,” he said of the second option, “when you will get paid what you’re worth. And there will be times when you won’t.”
“What happens when I’m not paid what I’m worth?” I asked, worried.
“That’s why you put half your money in the bank.”
We concluded the phone call with my telling Seth I would consider both options. But in my mind, the decision had already been made.
I’m following a similar path. There is a level of success where you can…stop. But. Still. Get there first and see for yourself.
What This Means for You, Specifically
As you improve in different areas of your life — career, business, health, relationships, networking, etc — you’ll actually start to see what “flying too close to the Sun,” looks like. But right now?
You have no clue.
You have no clue because you’re still stuck in the daydreaming phase. You’re not doing any work toward your purpose. So you think you know what type of life you really want to live, but you don’t. And you’ll never really know until you give it an earnest shot.
So the recipe? Bite off more than you can chew, first. And then chew till your jaws get sore. Then, after some years of work, you can decide if you want to keep eating at the buffet. That was either the best or worst metaphor ever.
Most people either daydream about getting richer and more successful then they’d even really want or pretend they don’t want wealth and success at all because they’re hiding. Both dumb.
If you work on your purpose, you’ll begin to tell what type of appetite you have for:
- Risk — How much time, effort, and money will you give up?
- Work — Can you grind like Elon Musk (no)? Figure out a healthy level of productive output
- Strategy — Are you strategic enough to run a 500 person company (probably no)? Scale back until you find your level
The hard part is settling and staying relatively content once you’ve done the work. But that’s a better problem to deal with than the angst of never trying at all.
Alas, most people never really try. And end up doing this bullshit I’m about to describe.
The Worst Way to Chase Success (The Way 99% of People Do It)
I have this hobby where I see inanimate objects and create a life-story about the person who owns them. What the hell am I talking about? Let me explain.
I went to a sandwich shop the other day for lunch. I pulled up next to one of those fancy-schmancy BMW’s. Maybe it was a Z3 — two-door convertible. It must have cost at least $80,000. I didn’t actually see the person who owned it, but I created his life profile anyway:
- White male
- At least 50 years old, maybe 60+
- Professionally employed or recently retired — mid-level manager at a corporation, lawyer, accountant, etc
- Recently purchased the car either on a bad lease or a high priced monthly loan
- Ascended the corporate ladder, but deep down feels he has wasted his life
- His only refuge for sanity is to buy a car that makes him look better than the other Jones’s
- Great LinkedIn profile — many, many, recommendations “I’ve known Bill for years. Stand up guy!”
- Wanted to start a business, never did
- Wanted to travel the world, only did for business and never left conference rooms
- Will try to travel and have fun now but is old, tired
- Plays lots of golf
- Health issues — too many carbs, 8-hour shifts seated, and overly stressful workweeks
Climbing the Wrong Ladder
Every old man driving a Corvette is the microcosmic symbol of what’s wrong with our society. The same goes for every middle American person who settled instead of chose — minivans, barbecues, quiet desperation.
As well as every person who was tricked to believe they’d be nothing more than a “have not” — I run across fast-food workers on a daily basis who could make it big online. You can smell it on them — great demeanor, but not enough guidance.
You’re pushed to create a mismatch in almost all the important areas I discussed above:
- Appetite — Many people have a higher appetite for risk, work, and strategy than they ever pursue. They try to “feed” themselves, but doing so the wrong way provides nothing but “empty calories,” junk food. Yeah, I’m sticking with the food analogy. Deal with it.
- What You’re Willing to Sacrifice — I don’t know where this idea of pursuing your path is such a sacrifice. Little to no money is required — just time. Wake up early or stay up a little late, watch less Netflix, and do it on the side. Instead, people sacrifice a third of their life doing something they either hate or tolerate. What’s the real sacrifice?
- Talent Level — It takes almost zero talent to become a cog in a corporate machine. Look at how easy it is to get a degree. As long as you pay for it, they’ll give you one. Some people are suited for corporate. Some aren’t suited for entrepreneurship. Others are artists. Some should be skilled-laborers (most of which should learn marketing and scale their services to a business). Some are incapable due to status, intelligence, or severely messed up circumstances, but odds are if you’re reading this, that’s not you. There are many different paths, but 99 percent of people choose the wrong one.
Again, the purpose of this post isn’t to lionize entrepreneurs or money or success. But rather to figure out what works for you.
Something which, I’m almost positive, could be orders of magnitude better than what you’re doing now, without having to be a pipe-dream.
So I just spent a ton of time talking about the wrong way to chase success.
What’s the right one?
I Can’t Tell You How to Live YOUR Life … I Don’t Know You
It behooves you to understand what you want, to understand your tastes, to understand your appetite, and to ultimately decide what a successful life looks like to you.
But first, let’s get this idea that you’re some martyr who’s immune to the trappings of worldly desire out of the way. You know you’re full of it.
People who act like this deeply annoy me. They’re the type who says they “don’t care about money,” but will buy a lotto ticket if the “mega millions” prize gets big enough.
There’s a difference between being content with what you have and lying about what you want.
Most people, you, create a success barrier in your mind. It’s not so much that you need to be obsessed with the trappings of success, but rather that you actually have to develop a healthy relationship with what you want and what you do.
You live in the material world, meaning that developing competence — an often spiritual exercise — will lead to byproducts of money, status, success, etc.
If you’re so damn altruistic, make the millions and then give them away — more resources help more people. Hiding your gifts is a cop-out, period.
Why is this understanding so important?
First, you’ll never have what you deep down don’t feel you deserve and pretending like you don’t want something will pretty much guarantee you won’t get it. But you’ll still, you know, want it and all. Bummer.
Second, denying yourself success works on the surface, but it gnaws at you deep down, which causes you to develop cancerous jealousy toward people who just own it and pursue it — the type of jealousy which, by the way, only hurts you. Scream at the sky about how unfair it is that certain people are successful. They don’t give a single you know what about your opinion and will continue winning while you do whatever it is you’re doing.
Third, it just pragmatically makes sense to become more materially successful. Not being successful enough can literally kill you — no money for health care/good nutrition, too much stress from the wrong job, nothing for retirement, nothing to help your kids. A whole bunch of nothing.
Just Be Honest With Yourself…For Once
I suspect that most people, you, want:
- Financial security — To have enough money to retire properly, you need to become a millionaire. Many times over, actually.
- Financial independence/freedom — You want to be able to take some vacations, have a flexible schedule, and tell people to f*** off if you’re so inclined.
- Work you enjoy — Not love, but enjoy quite a damn bit.
- Status — But the kind that comes from being recognized for work you have a real aptitude for and joy in doing. Not from climbing some dumb ladder. I soak up every ounce of status I gain from writing because I love to write. Find a healthy way to stroke your ego.
- Meaning — The sense that your life isn’t easily interchangeable with thousands of others. The feeling that your life actually matters and that you made an impact, even if to a small community.
Tell me I’m wrong. I’m not.
As far as the “How” goes. I’ve written extensively about the process of finding a purpose for your life:
- Book 1
- Book 2
- The Ultimate Guide to Finding Your Talents and Strengths
- How to Decide What to Do With Your Life
The important thing to understand is this.
When You Know, You Know
When you’re truly aligned — appetite, sacrifice, talent — you get to enjoy your success.
I suspect Richard Branson doesn’t feel guilt or shame for his lifestyle. But maybe I would because, even if I could pull it off, it wouldn’t be aligned. I’m about ninety percent sure I’ll be a millionaire by my mid-30’s. I want to become one. And I’m making it by doing things I love and that other people want. Why should I feel any shame or guilt for that? I don’t.
Society teaches you to be ashamed of success because they don’t want us all to have it. The great magic trick — oligarchs convincing you to give up your dreams and your wealth. Bernie Sanders is a multi-millionaire and owns three homes. I don’t know how this fact doesn’t stop people dead in their tracks mentally — cognitive dissonance for the win?
If you think shoving your dreams down and settling for less than what you’re worth is virtuous, go right ahead. No skin off my nose, dude. I will check back with you in a decade and see how that worked out for you. If you think climbing that ladder will fulfill you, go right ahead. I will check back with you in a decade and see how that worked out for you.
If, however, you decide that there’s a specific mission for you — mixed with wealth accumulation and altruism, work and play, sacrifices and lines you’re unwilling to cross, purpose and pragmatism, desire and contentment, love and the painful parts of pursuit….
I’ll check back with you in a decade…and reminisce about how well it worked out.
Ayodeji is the author of You 2.0 — Stop Feeling Stuck, Reinvent Yourself, and Become a Brand New You. Want a free copy of my first book? Get it here.