Thoughts on Success

October 2, 2016

The capacity to imagine the future is a powerful feature of the human mind. But, like many matters of the mind, it can also deceive us.

One pattern that I've noticed in myself and friends repeatedly is that the idea of success in anything is much more pleasure-inducing than the success itself. When you are thinking about a new undertaking, it's easy to imagine yourself at the end of the journey, having achieved everything you set out to achieve, and bask in the glories of this imaginary world.

However, if you pursue the goal seriously, you'll soon be relieved of this romanticized vision. Most worthy goals are not easy to achieve. The road to success is treacherous and rocky, and it'll almost certainly take longer than you expect. That's when the people who initially basked in their imaginary success hit the next natural phase: disillusionment. This is where most people give up. They can no longer convince themselves that their glorified future is right around the corner. Disappointed, they will start inventing excuses about why the goal is no longer worth pursuing.

A few, however, will readjust their worldview and keep going. They'll realize that the initial expectations were unrealistic. That they were only looking at a rosy picture of a world that does not exist. They'll realize that, with enough hard work, they can, indeed, achieve what they wanted to, but that perhaps they need to be more disciplined, more systematic, and more patient to get there.

By the time someone is successful at any endeavour, they've been dragged through the mud and arrived at the destination with their head bloody but unbowed. At that point, there is no longer a romanticized view of where they're at. While they may be grateful that they've made it, the pleasure that they thought they'd get out of the achievement is replaced with an attitude of "this is mine and I'm taking it".

Being cognizant of this is important for two reasons - one cultural, one personal:

On a cultural level, outsiders who have not walked the same path as the successful person only perceive the end result, and so often, they'll feel resentful. That is totally understandable. The pain, sacrifice, and hard work that goes into achieving success is always invisible but the result is not. In Australia, there was a name for this phenomena: Tall Poppy Syndrome - where people who are perceived as "above the others" are cut down to size. Unchecked, this can lead to a culture that punishes achievement and enforces mediocrity.

On a personal level, if you allow yourself to get sucked into your daydreams of a glorious future where you have achieved your goals, you're probably setting yourself up for disappointment and possibly failure. You'll do much better to stop yourself from fantasizing about the future, and getting down to work. Know that you'll be doing this work for a long time. If it's something worth doing, that won't be a problem.

The downside of this is that much of the motivation people have to take action toward their goals seems to come from exactly such daydreams. But as a Navy SEAL once said: if you're relying on motivation to achieve your goals, you've already failed - motivation is transient and fickle. You need to use discipline if you want to get it done.