Ignore Everything You’ve Read About Success (Except This)

Photo: Tais Policanti/Getty Images

Look, I know you want to be that big badass with the sweet-ass house and all the fancy letters after your name, but let’s be honest for a second: There’s no formula for getting that. Here’s what I can offer you instead.

Step 1: Ignore every step-by-step system for success, including probably this one.

Insane, spectacular success is achieved by doing something exceptional and extraordinary. To achieve something exceptional and extraordinary, you must — by definition — do something that few or no other people are doing or are willing to do.

Therefore, wild, insane, spectacular success can only be achieved by actively going against what others have done and believing you can do things that others believe they cannot do. Which means that anything that can be codified into a step-by-step system on the internet is full of shit and not going to help you achieve this kind of success.

Do you think Steve Jobs ever sat around Googling “How to revolutionize the way everyone communicates?” Fuck no. Do you think Thomas Edison went to the library looking for books titled How to Build Things That Can Change the World?

No, they got to work on things that felt important and things that few to no other people could conceive, much less think about.

The problem with a lot of these paint-by-numbers systems that you come across in these articles is that they suffer from what’s known as the “narrative fallacy.” The narrative fallacy is the human tendency to weave explanations of cause and effect into sequences of events that don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another.

For example, if you read a biography about Warren Buffett or Albert Einstein or Eleanor Roosevelt, you will inevitably spend much of the early chapters learning about their childhood. These early chapters are filled with cute and profound-sounding vignettes about their parents, their teachers, and a series of events that “caused” them to later become the kind of geniuses that they were.

There are two problems with this:

  1. There were millions of other little boys who experienced the same shit as little Albert Einstein, yet they did not become Albert Einstein.
  2. Just because two events in a notable person’s life appear connected does not mean they are connected. The biographer connects them because they form a great narrative, not necessarily because they reflect reality.

Think about it. For every event that makes it into someone’s biography, there are thousands of small, private events that are, in sum, likely just as influential as what you actually see, if not more. These narrative devices, while they make for great books and articles, don’t actually help us suss out what drives incredible levels of success.

If there really is a first step to achieving wild success (and there’s probably not), then it would be this: Ask yourself, “What is something critically important in the world that few people are aware of or not working on?” Then get to work on that.

But understand that even that is no guarantee. Because, let’s be honest, our definitions of “success” are a bunch of fairy-godmother, made-up bullshit. Oh yeah — I went there. Fuck your dreams. Fuck your dreams with a cherry on top. Let’s get real.

Step 2: Understand that “success” is just something you and everyone else made up. It’s not even real.

Look, most of your dreams aren’t really dreams but merely imaginative overcompensations for the feelings of inadequacy you are trying to avoid in yourself.

Most people with an overwhelming desire for wealth or fame aren’t motivated by the pure joy of having wealth or fame. No, they have a hole in their psyche that they are trying to fill with enough stuff to not make them feel so inadequate anymore. Maybe they got pushed into too many lockers as a kid. Maybe their parents were never around. Maybe they always felt like the stupid kid in class and had that one teacher who was Satan incarnate.

Whatever it is, none of us get through childhood without emotional scars. Those scars cause us to see the world in a skewed, unbalanced fashion — as though everything is magically tilted against us in some imaginary way. They cause us to overestimate the value of things like sex or money or adulation or prestige, which in turn makes us do stupid shit. Ultimately, our definitions of “success” become skewed based on this funhouse mirror view of the world.

Let’s say your dad was always broke and spending his money at the casino, so you grew up with an unconscious overemphasis on money and material wealth. You feel like unless you’re bringing down at least eight figures, then you’re a broke, miserable failure and no one will love you. Before you know it, you’ve become a grade-A dick casserole who would screw your own grandmother out of Christmas money because interest rates are low and you can get a better ROI if Granny cries herself to sleep at night.

And while it may feel like your definition of success — in this case, lots and lots of money — is objective and reasonable, it’s really just you playing make-believe in your head. Plenty of people have totally different definitions of success that have nothing to do with money — they lead happy and healthy lives. Many people who are rich feel as though they are miserable failures and that it’s never enough.

The point is, there is nothing inherently “successful” about money or fame or love or anything else. It’s our minds that make it so — we each make up what “success” means for ourselves, and then we spend our lives measuring ourselves against that definition.

And let’s be honest: Most of us don’t actually define success for ourselves; we simply adopt the definitions that are handed to us by our family, environment, and culture.

When you’re a kid, you see everyone around you obsessed with honor or prestige or education or self-indulgence, and you kind of just go along with it. Meanwhile, so many years go by that you forget that you went along with it. You start to believe that this is how the world operates — this is what success is.

And when you’re confronted with people who have different definitions of success or people who point out all of the ways that your precious little definition actually doesn’t make much sense, well, it kind of freaks you out. I mean, if this thing by which you’ve measured yourself for so many years doesn’t really exist, what the hell have you been doing all your life?

Step 3: Succumb to the existential despair that comes with the realization that your self-definition is completely arbitrary and self-invented.

Most people resist this realization — that their definitions of “success” are made up — for a couple reasons. One, it potentially invalidates a lot of what they’ve spent most of their adult life pursuing. Two, it’s really fucking upsetting to realize that the thing you cared about so much might not actually matter. And three, because if the things you’ve spent your whole life caring about may not actually matter — holy shit, what if nothing matters?

Yes, coming to the realization that your definitions of success were simply arbitrary and made up, by either you or the people around you, can spark an existential crisis. So many people have this experience in their forties and fifties that it has become known as the “mid-life crisis.”

You spend your whole life defining success as a good job, a nice house, 2.5 kids, and a dog. You work for 20-plus years to get there, and then one day, you wake up and realize that you have achieved everything you ever wanted, yet you’re still the exact same sloppy, smelly motherfucker that you were 20 years ago. You don’t feel successful. You don’t feel different at all. You still get just as annoyed and anxious as you used to. You still question and doubt yourself constantly. You still feel frustrated and insecure — it’s just that those frustrations and insecurities have changed shape.

“Fuck, all that work — and for what? What do I do now?”

When you ask this question, there may not be a right answer, but there certainly is a wrong answer.

The wrong answer is: way more of what you did before.

A lot of people who have defined success as money their entire lives hit middle age, wake up with a shitload of money, have an existential crisis, and come to the conclusion that the answer must simply be more money. This is how you end up with millionaires who live in permanent emotional poverty — a sense that no matter what they do, it’s never enough.

This “never enough” conclusion follows pretty much every worldly definition of success — money, status, prestige, fame, power, accolades. There will always be more to achieve. It’s like living on an extremely exhausting treadmill, except that the treadmill is stuck on an elevator to hell.

Step 4: Eat some popcorn. Drink a beer. You’re going to be okay.

When thrown into the maw of an existential crisis, it’s easy to feel as though the world is coming to an end. This beautiful ideal that you spent so many years holding up as the bastion of purity and sanctity has fallen and revealed itself to be yet another illusion of your own fantasies. As a result, you feel directionless. You begin to question everything. You fall into despair. You feel as though there may be no point to anything at all.

But then something happens. Life goes on. That bonus check from work comes through, and while you still recognize that on some cosmic scale, money is meaningless — it feels kinda good. Birthdays come and go. Vacations are still fun. That new show you watched with your partner was pretty awesome.

Hold on a second. Life is actually, like, pretty good.

Slowly but surely, you begin to realize, “Wait, I don’t have to chase this idea of success to have a good life!” And this epiphany is soon followed by another, more profound epiphany, “I can adopt whatever values I please!”

And then your mind gets to work. What is your definition of success? What is the yardstick by which you will measure your life?

For some, it’s an ideal — being a good parent, having integrity, practicing honesty, treating others with dignity.

For others, it’s a perspective — success is being fully engaged and appreciating each moment as it arises. There is joy and excitement to be found in any experience, and success is choosing to orient oneself towards it.

For others, the definition becomes incredibly mundane — waking up and going to work each day, cooking meals for friends, being a nice person.

And amazingly, these mundane definitions of success somehow seem more effective than the ambitious world-changing definitions you previously held. They are easily achievable. They are enjoyable. And when repeated indefinitely week after week, year after year, incredible things start to happen.

Step 5: Focus on what matters now.

Great achievements happen not just through grand visions of the future but rather by doing what feels most significant and important in the current moment.

Let’s return to the Steve Jobs example as he’s a pretty good example of what most would consider wild success. Jobs didn’t sit around thinking, “What will make me as famous and successful as possible?” No, he got to work on devices that would improve his life today. The focus was on solving day-to-day problems for people.

We think of huge leaps in innovation or creativity as these massive moments of inspiration. But, in reality, they come from simply questioning assumptions that are in front of us all.

Scientific breakthroughs often happen in this way. As Thomas Kuhn discusses in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the biggest breakthroughs in science rarely come from veterans within the academy. That’s because scientists who have built their career and prestige on the current paradigm of understanding are less likely to challenge it.

The biggest breakthroughs come from outsiders — people who have no career or prestige, people like Einstein — who look at the current assumptions and simply say, “What if this wasn’t true? What could be a better explanation?”

What we generally perceive as wild success typically begins as something small, something unexpected in the moment. And, as Jobs once said, while we can look back and connect the dots, the way forward is never clear at the time.

Ultimately, people who adopt terrible definitions of success usually do so because they are trying to give their life a sense of meaning and purpose. But, it turns out, the way to give your life a sense of meaning and purpose is to simply be engaged with the problems of the now, to work tirelessly on what stimulates and excites you today without lofty visions of what prestige might exist for you in the future.

This isn’t just a more emotionally healthy definition of success, but it’s the definition that actually gets shit done.

A version of this article was previously published on Mark Manson’s blog.

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