In an animated discussion about success at a recent business development workshop, one of the participants suggested that success was about getting a pat on the back for doing a good job, and that “success feeds the ego”.
In my haste to disagree, I blurted out: “I actually feel more comfortable with failure than success!” The ensuing silence was broken only by the thud of jawbones hitting the floor!
My viewpoint was as much of a surprise to me as to everyone else. When we make a comment which appears to have bypassed the brain, it’s often an indication of our truest feelings, so I felt it deserved closer investigation.
One possibility was that I was suffering from what Dr Valerie Young refers to as ‘The Imposter Syndrome’ – a fear that, if you’re successful at something, people will expect you to be able to repeat it, and if you’re not sure how you managed it the first time, you’re afraid you’ll be found out!
In any case, it’s dangerous to rely on the approval of others as an indicator of whether or not you’re successful, just as it’s dangerous to rely on other people’s opinions in order to feel good about yourself. What if other people were jealous of your success? What kind of feedback would they be giving you then?
It’s just as well that, as an employee, I didn’t rely on praise from my line managers as an indicator of my success. Almost all of them were good at giving negative feedback if I did something ‘wrong’, and not so good at giving positive feedback. I’d like to think I was more even-handed with my own feedback, although I’m sure that wasn’t always the case. Perhaps it’s the nature of the British to feel equally uncomfortable about blowing other people’s trumpets as we do about blowing our own!
Success means different things to each of us. For many people, success equates purely to ‘financial success’ which can be externalised through fast cars, big houses, yachts, luxury holidays to exotic locations,… I agree that financial success is important (without some sort of income, can you continue doing what you love?), and that if you have no regard for money, you’re unlikely to attract any. However, money isn’t an indicator of true success.
In my opinion, true success is internal, not external. It’s about feeling content with where you are at the present moment. This doesn’t mean that you’ve ‘made it’, or that you wouldn’t like to be somewhere else in the future. Life is a journey rather than a destination, so there’s always another challenge around the corner, and you’re always going to be on the move.
However, if you’re permanently dissatisfied with where you are now, and are continuously striving to be somewhere else, what guarantee is there that you’ll be satisfied when you get ‘there’, wherever ‘there’ is? More importantly, when will you take the time to enjoy what you’ve done so far? Isn’t it a bit like going on the holiday of a lifetime, and having to wait until you get the photos back to discover whether you enjoyed yourself?
Everything you achieve, every obstacle you overcome adds to your success as a human being. It’s our ability to conquer adversity which makes it possible for us to continue to grow and learn, and to do things better and differently. In our struggle to be successful, though, we sometimes belittle what we’ve achieved so far and forget that every achievement is another step towards even greater success, and that each step along the way is a success in itself.
The Success Principles
In “The Success Principles”, Jack Canfield describes an attendee at one of his workshops, whose idea of success was owning a home in Beverley Hills and driving a Cadillac. Despite having overcome adversity and provided a better life for his family by bringing them to the USA, he didn’t consider himself to be successful, because he didn’t have the house and the car.
Presumably, in his eyes, he had failed. But what is failure? Again, it depends on your point of view.
Some people believe that failure is falling short of any goal. The trouble is that, if we set ourselves such a high standard that it’s impossible to achieve it in the timeframe we’ve allowed, we’re bound to fall short. So we can either decide on a more realistic timeframe for our goal, or we can accept that we’ve achieved more than we would have done, had we set our sights lower. In any case, we haven’t actually failed.
It can be beneficial to set high expectations. As a way of striving for perfection, and when used sensibly, it can be a boost to creativity and productivity. On the down side, just knowing that a goal is ‘unattainable’ can be enough to put us off even attempting it. In this situation, it’s as though we don’t believe we deserve success, so setting too high a standard is a way of sabotaging our success before it happens.
It seems that, in order to be successful, and in order to be creative, you have to be prepared to fail along the way, and to treat both success and failure as imposters. If you never ‘failed’ at anything, how would you recognise ‘success’? If it never rained, would you be able to fully appreciate the sunny days?
What I’ve learned is that feeling comfortable with failure is a necessary part of being successful – and so is feeling comfortable with success!