Recently, while at a speaking event, someone in the audience asked me the following question:
“Have you ever seen someone come close to breaking through but then not succeeding? What is the difference between those who make and those who don’t?”
My knee-jerk response was: “Quitting. The difference between the ones who make and the ones who don’t is quitting.”
This is true — in a sense. If you quit before you reach your goal, you’re not going to make it. You’re never going to publish that book, launch that business, or quit that horrible job.
But there are exceptions, those who have been tirelessly working at their side hustle for years. And still, no results. None to really speak of. This is frustrating, even unfair. I know, because I’ve been there. Maybe you have, too.
So what are we missing here?
How to fail at everything
For most of my twenties, I made halfhearted attempts at becoming a professional writer. I even got a feature article published in a national magazine with a circulation of hundreds of thousands of readers. They paid me $250, featured my story on the cover (I still have the photograph to prove it), and my path to the big leagues was forged.
Or so I thought.
During that time, I launched multiple blogs, none of which had more than 100 readers. Each lasted no more than a few months. Some only lasted a few weeks. They are still all on the Internet. You can find them if you are willing to dig deep enough.
I spent five or six years doing this, growing frustrated by the process. It was around this time that I attended a conference where one of the speakers told his story and shared that on Day 6 of his brand-new blog he got over 6000 visitors.
“That’s when I knew,” he said, “that this was my calling.”
And yet, here was I, having worked for much longer than six days and still had nowhere near that traffic. I was a failure, on the verge of giving up.
It was at this time that I made a few decisions.
Three decisions that changed everything
First, I decided to start doing my best, admitting I wasn’t really working as hard as I could.
Part of me, I think, was afraid to succeed, so I was subtly sabotaging myself. This wasn’t a conscious effort, but I was definitely acting the amateur.
This often happens in other areas, as well, such as weight loss. It’s confirmation bias. We give the life change we want a “solid try,” about 80% of our effort, fully knowing that this may not be enough. So that when we fail, we can say, “See? I tried that. Didn’t work. Now, it’s back to donuts for me.”
Second, I decided to humble myself and follow the work of others, becoming a student of their success.
This is difficult for someone who thinks he knows all the answers, but I knew it was 100% necessary if I was going to break out of this funk.
Third, I decided to do the work every day for the next two years and try to not compare myself to others.
I would simply trust the process.
And guess what? It worked. Two years later, our household income tripled, and my wife and I both quit our jobs. I’ve been doing this work — writing books and teaching online courses for writers — ever since.
One word that changed everything
Do you know what made the difference for all this? What ultimately led to my success? Not a book. Not a motivational poster. No some hollow cliche.
It was the belief and determination that eventually I would get there — to that place I wanted to be. I suspended any expectations of how long this should take, despite my adolescent impatience with all things taking longer than I’d like them to take.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins calls this the Stockdale Paradox, named after James Stockdale, a US Navy Admiral who was imprisoned in a Vietnamese POW camp during the Vietnam War. Collins asked him who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, and Stockdale replied:
“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be… I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
When I made this realization, I got to work, being honest about the process but also determined to succeed at some point. If I wasn’t successful yet, then maybe I didn’t deserve to be. I’d just have to keep going and keep trying.
Colbie Caillat said this of her experience with getting rejected on American Idol before she went on to become a mega pop star. “They were right to reject me,” she said. “I wasn’t that good.” That rejection, in part, drove her to improve. It made her curious. It made her hungry, desperate to know what she lacked. A similar thing happened to me. I grew frustrated with setting and not meeting my goals. So, instead, I made a new word my mantra: eventually.
Eventually, I’ll make it.
Eventually, I’ll become a writer.
Eventually, I’ll replace my income and get to do this full-time.
But not today. Today, I practice. Today, I get better. Today, I became a little bit more of the self I long to be.
You, too, can make it. But only if you get good enough. Only if you humble yourself to learn the lessons others can teach you, even those you might not want to learn. Only if you are willing to say “eventually.”
Six years later, I am still saying that. I’m not yet where I want to be, but eventually I’ll get there.
And as for today?
Well, today, I practice.