19. December 2012–
Here our resident startup commentator Adam Fletcher examines the danger of having too-lofty goals for 2013. Better to bask in retrospective glory than set the bar of the future unnaturally high...
Here is how I imagine success works. Imagine you're not you any more, you're a fish. You're in a fish tank. Logically, you spend your days swimming, eating, exploring your tank. Not content with being just one of many fish swimming, eating and exploring the tank, you set out to separate yourself from your gilled colleagues.
I don't know how you do this, because I don't know all that much about fish. Presumably you do somersaults, or go digging for treasure in those little treasure chest things people put in fish tanks, which must really baffle fish, because well, why would a fish be interested in treasure? It's not as if the ocean floor is teeming with treasure chests and so their inclusion in a tank is likely to make all that much sense to a fish.
I may have wandered off my original point. Let's get back to people, we'll return to fish later...
Keep shipping... then BOOM!
As a human, you work really hard on something. It could be anything, business, book, film, song. You're interested in it, you're passionate about it. You craft it. You give it all you've got. Then you release it. You've done this many times before, nothing happens, that's fine. Your head goes back down and you keep learning, improving and closing that gap between what you want to produce and what your are able to produce.
You keep releasing, or shipping as Steve Jobs called it. Then one fateful day you release something and BOOM! people pay attention. They Like, Share, Tweet, +1, they tell friends, who tell friends. Something happens. You're delighted. The press call. All at once. That's how the press work. No-one is sure why.
For the first time, some strangers recognise you when you're out a meetup. They'll tell you how much they like that thing you made. This will be very enjoyable for you. Each small snippet of positivity is like a hug for your ego. Even if you don't see them, they'll email you, or Tweet you or just buy whatever it is you're selling with great enthusiasm.
It's a great time for you. Then you get new work opportunities. The kind of super-sweet, well-paying deals you've dreamed of will just arrive, all at once, unannounced. You'll say yes to every single one. Since you're so flattered to be asked and so excited that doors previously closed to you have now opened. Only a fool would not leap head first through them, right?
You'll get invite to parties and events where you'll meet people who previously you knew only by name and reputation. Now you'll shake their hands. You'll be amazed to learn some of them know who you are. Maybe they suggest working together with you on something.
What's the cloud in the success silver lining?
In the same way fish grow to the size of their bowl, so do we humans. We grow in response to the opportunities afforded to us. Success broadens the horizon of our possibilities.
But all this silver lining needs an appropriately sized cloud, right? The cloud is what it does to our expectations. Just as your becoming a bigger fish in that smaller bowl all those new experiences and your increased expectations swap it out for something a little roomier.
They swap the fish for bigger fish. As your peer group changes, your rank within it changes. You're back where you started, only saddled with greater expectations. After all, you've met all those people you previously revered and are amazed to learn just how much like you they are!
The line separating you and them is much thinner than you'd previously imagined, and doesn't seem to be comprised of talent, or some other kind of intangible object that they have, but you don't. It seems much more about luck and who you know, than anything else. You're disappointed, but happy to still have a ticket to the show, even if some of the magic has gone.
The interest in that thing you made dies down, so do the compliments, so does the attention. But you've got a taste for it now. You want more. You've milk the glory of that last thing for all its worth. Then you sit down to try and work on the next thing. It's harder than you remember. Where before you worked away with hope, more than expectation, now on the back of this previous success, every time you sit down to do more of that hard work you release whatever you release will have to perform that much better before you'll conclude it was a success.
You feel pressure. People are expecting things from you now. You know they liked that previous thing you did, so you start there. Back you go and you try to create something new, but you can't and what you actually end up with is that old thing, rehashed. You don't mean to. You release it anyway. You just think you're giving people what they want right? More of that thing they previously liked. It doesn’t succeed like before. You’re bitterly disappointed.
Satisfaction is like milk, it has a very short shelf life
Maybe because the satisfied human is like the Neanderthal that relaxes after a big feed and settles downto sleep by the fire, only he sleeps too deeply and doesn't hear the approaching lion.
Always wanted to have your own business and now you do? Should feel great, and it will for a while. But then you'll meet lots of other people who have their own business and you'll get on well with them, since you have a lot in common.
You'll become friends. Soon you'll look around and realise almost all your friends have their own business. You're not comparing yourself with your old school friends any more, you're comparing yourself with this newer set of peers.
Probably they've been running their businesses longer and are more successfully than you, and now you feel disappointed, but also motivated to close that gap. If they can do it, you must be able to, right? You get back to work, you’ve a new goal. You’ve forgotten about that previous one you achieved and which kicked off all of this.
Vanity, burnout, depression, anxiety
I think there are two ways to get out of this cycle. The first you know a lot about as it gets all the focus – keep doing. More. Keep chasing your expectations and satisfying them by making more, making better, chasing the fame and the glory. It's a well-trodden, but still very rocky path, littered in vanity, burnout, depression, anxiety.
But there is another option. You can work on decreasing your expectations. To reduce them to a manageable size. To practice being thankful for what you've already achieved.
David Sedaris used to lay his book on the kitchen table, then practice walking in and trying to surprise himself by seeing it. This thing he'd always wanted, his dream, laying there on his kitchen table. Stoicism has the idea of negative visualisation. It's a kind of meditation, in which you take time every day to imagine losing all that you care about.
The idea being, just spending time with the mere possibility of that, should make you more grateful when it doesn't happen. Take a break from the To-do list, spend some time with the Already Done list.
Happiness and success are not like beauty. They're not in the eye of the beholder. They're personal conclusions which we all too readily crowdsource or are too quick to hang a rope of our expectations. It’s with the lowering of our expectations that a more achievable, lasting happiness can be found.
What do you think? Let us know about your concept of success in the comments section below...