Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Success as it Really Is

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

-Soren Kierkeguarrd

We have an expectation about life. We function as though we live in a linear graph, as if we were living according to a mathematical formula, with "x" being effort and "y" being the results :

x = y

We believe that if we put in an amount of resources (money, time, effort), we should have an equivalent return. If we live smart, the graph of our lives is a neat, straight line leading steadily upwards.

If we have children, we think we just need to adjust our formula. Maybe with three kids, we have to use:

3x = y.

We need more effort, because of the children, but we still expect direct and predictable results. If we're lucky, we'll enjoy benefits that are greater than our initial investment. As the saying goes, we reap what we sow.

This is what we expect when investing in the stock market, buying a home, and working on a job. We believe that success is a predictable and controllable event. Self-help books encourage us to think this way, too, as they show us what to do for the results we want.


When we look backwards over history, we can view historical events as the logical accumulation of investments and decisions. In retrospect, past events can seem likely and probable. Another linear graph. Another straight line.

The problem is, that's not the world we live in. The greatest historical events seemed highly improbable, even impossible, to the people who lived them. They were completely unexpected.

Think of the fall of Rome. Nobody, and I mean nobody, expected Rome to disappear. The idea that barbarian hordes would erode its boundaries and bring it down would have sounded like nonsense. And who thought that a group of rough fishermen with an itinerant preacher (who was crucified for creating a disturbance) were the most significant people in the Roman Empire? Even more, that their ideas would become the most important of all in the history of our planet and their writings the most widely read of any books? The very idea would have been insane.

The struggling and rebellious American colonies (a frequent destination for criminals and troublemakers) would one day become the greatest nation on earth and a torchbearer for freedom. Who expected that?

The first World War was supposed to end in a few weeks. It wasn't over for thirty years.

Do you know anyone who predicted the Stock Market Crash of 1929? How about our own 9-11? What did we all feel as we watched two planes hit our skyscrapers? Utter shock. We watched it over and over. It was incomprehensible.

When we look back, we understand it as the result of investments and decisions. We say, oh yeah, that's why this happened. But at the time, what was being noticed, what was being measured, what was being analyzed? Nothing that would lead us to think that the unthinkable might happen.


In our everyday lives, we live in small worlds that are much the same. We work with the expectation that our success is a predictable, manageable commodity. It can be achieved through the right curriculum, the right methods, and the steady application of disciplined effort. There are days when this works fine.

On other days, we're assaulted by the unexpected. We cannot believe that this is our life. How could this be happening? Our sense of reality and of justice is completely overturned. Why is it that we are thwarted once again? Can nothing run smoothly? Why can't we just build a nice little life? Is that so terribly difficult? Before long, we are thinking that something is wrong, either with our plans or our children or ourselves. Something must be wrong, for it to look like this.

Nothing is wrong.


You are living in a world full of surprises. Everyone is surprised, frequently. We're all scrambling, at least a little bit, to find our way and to cope with things we hadn't anticipated. We're almost never on top of it all. What I've come to understand is that success doesn't feel that way. It doesn't mean being in control. It isn't a calm, orderly process to achieve outcomes.

To be successful, you'll have to stretch yourself and do new things. That means you'll be learning on the job. That means you'll make mistakes. That means there will be many events you did not predict. Your brain will be full of learning how to do all of the new things required of you. The rest of it, you can't anticipate.

Success will feel like juggling, like being in over your head, like a breathless obstacle course, more than you had ever suspected it could. Because success means stretching yourself, trying new things, and growing in more than one way, you will rarely feel successful if you truly are.

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