A couple of months ago, I asked you not to fear failure, saying that embracing failure — or at least the possibility of failure — was essential to success. But, of course, in the end the goal is to succeed, and fear of failing isn’t the only thing that keeps us from succeeding.
I speak from experience here. Six or seven years ago, I was the picture of success — a straight-A graduate student, top of my class, a job I loved, a relationship that I was happy in, the whole enchilada. And then, those successes started slipping away. Nothing obvious at first, but gradually I found myself stuck in a rut academically, my relationship dissolved, things just weren’t going my way. I wasn’t failing, per se, just losing my grip on the successes I had won.
In the last couple of years, I’ve been reassessing some aspects of my life, trying to figure out what had happened so I could rebuild. To some extent this has worked well — I have a job I love (although I need to develop it into a career, not just a job), I have a book coming out in my academic field, I’m writing quite a bit, and most importantly I have a new relationship that is going strong. To get here, I’ve had to figure out what I was doing wrong in the years in between, where I had lost my footing, and I think I’ve figured out a thing or two in doing so.
If you’re not reaching the kind of success you imagine in the areas that area important to you, one or more of the following things might well be true of you, too:
- You don’t have a goal. A lot of time we find ourselves “spinning our wheels”, struggling through a day-to-day routine that isn’t getting us anywhere because we don’t know where we want to go. Sometimes we had goals when we set ourselves on a particular path, but we’ve changed along the way and those goals are no longer that important. Sometimes we simply did what was expected of us without ever stopping to think about what we eventually wanted to accomplish for ourselves. Whatever the case, figuring out what your goals are and, just as importantly, whether your current actions are helping to achieve them, is important.
- You don’t have a vision. Setting goals is important but isn’t enough to drive you to the finish line; it’s important, too, to be able to imagine yourself as the achiever of your goals. How will you feel, what’s the payoff, why is it worthwhile to follow these goals and not some other ones? If goals are the end result of a journey, your vision is the fuel to get you there.
- You don’t have a plan. If goals are your destination and a vision is your fuel, your plan is the map to get you there; without a plan, you have no idea what immediate steps to take to achieve your goals. Planning means taking stock of the resources you have, the resources you need, and the steps you have to take to put those resources into action. The world is full of people with goals they have never accomplished because they didn’t have a plan — don’t you be one of them.
- You’re too certain. Too much certainty creates inflexibility. If you’re sure that your plan is correct, and refuse to accept the possibility of error, you may well find yourself stuck when an unexpected change comes about, or when your plan takes you in an unexpected direction. However strong your plan and however sure you are of your goals, make room for periodic reassessment.
- You’re not certain enough. At the same time, too little certainty will paralyze you. If you refuse to take a step because you aren’t positive it will move you towards success, you won’t make any better progress than if you had no goals at all. Keep your eyes open and be willing to change, but have faith in yourself, too.
- You don’t learn from your mistakes. A lot of people take their mistakes as signs of their unworthiness. They take setbacks as proof that they were never meant to achieve anything in the first place, and that they were stupid to even try. Mistakes are crucial to success — if we take the time to analyze them and learn from them. Even when they bar us irrevocably from attaining a goal, the lessons we learn from our mistakes help us to make new and better goals.
- You reject outside influences. A lot of people see the influence of others as a weakness, or worse, a restriction or even “pollution” of their innate creativity. This is, in a word, hogwash. We are first and foremost social beings, none of whom has ever accomplished anything without the help of others. Welcome and accept other perspectives on your strengths and weaknesses, your successes and failures. Accept help graciously when it’s offered. This doesn’t mean you should take every piece of advice offered you, but you should listen seriously and openly and weigh carefully the input of others. And learn from their mistakes, when you can.
- You worry about being copied. Often we close ourselves off from other people not because we’re afraid that they will influence us but that we will influence them, that our brilliant ideas will be taken up by someone else and no longer be solely ours. So we avoid sharing our passions, and spend our energy jealously guarding our “secret” rather than simply moving forward. In the end, we turn our passions into burdens that become difficult to carry instead of a joy.
- You use up your reserves. When I’ve found myself at my lowest points, it’s always been for lack of a reserve — whether of money, of time, or most crucially of energy. In part this was the fault of inadequate planning and over-certainty — I should have reassessed my situation more realistically before exhausting my resources — but whatever the cause, it’s a dangerous place to be. A mistake that could be easily recovered from under normal circumstances becomes overwhelming when you’re too broke or too exhausted to respond adequately. Keep track of where you are financially, materially, and emotionally before you find yourself too worn down to continue.
- You fear success. Forget fear of failure, it’s fear of success that kicks us the hardest. It’s the darnedest thing, too — the kind of thing that you don’t imagine possible, until one day you realize that you really don’t know what to do with yourself if you ever accomplish your goals. On the other side of success is the unknown, and believe it or not, the unknown is often scarier than the known world of struggle and unfulfillment this side of success. When I realized this, one night as I drifted unhappily to sleep, it jerked me straight up in my bed!
My father, an avid collector of seemingly random quotes, is fond of saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. (I’ve never had the heart to ask him why he keeps saying this….) At some point, you have to stop doing whatever you’re doing and figure out why you’re doing it, especially if it doesn’t seem to be getting you where you want to be. When you do, I think you’ll find that at least one of the above applies to you. Whatever your reasons, though, the important thing is to realize that it’s in your nature neither to be a failure, nor to be a success, that success is something we make rather than something that happens to us — and when you realize that, you can start to make the changes that move you from “insanity” to success.