Change Work May 2011

The secret of success

What happens if you've achieved everything you want to by the age of 30? Won't you get bored?

The age of 30 is a long way behind me now, and the only goal I can remember having at that time was to give up smoking. I managed to do that and so, in a sense, I had achieved everything I wanted.  Not through spectacular success, rather by virtue of not really wanting very much.  I suppose there must have been many material possessions I would have quite liked to have, but nothing I felt inclined to make a special effort for.  It seemed that if I went to work and did my best then things would just come to me, eventually.

Looking back, I can see that I was successful enough just doing the things I enjoyed doing.

Fast forward about 25 years and I came across something that made the whole "success" thing very clear.  It's a speech that's even older than I am - made by Albert E. N. Gray to a conference of insurance professionals in 1940.  The key idea is summarised as:

"The common denominator of success - the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful - lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don't like to do."

It still feeels like a punch in the stomach to read that - because I still judge tasks by the extent that I might dislike doing them and hardly at all by what I might gain through them.

At least these days I know that I do this and can most times stop myself from falling into the trap of creating a rational argument for not doing what I might find distasteful or frightening. Then I can focus on building up my "towards" motivation by imagining the pay-off and enjoying what it will feel like.  After that I'm able to put effort into learning how to do what I couldn't previously see myself doing.  Or, getting somebody else to do it for me!

The first step always is to commit; to do something that makes it easier to continue than to stop. Typically this would be to tell others what you're doing or to place an order or to sign up.  When the cost, inconvenience or embarrassment of cancelling outweighs the effort or discomfort of carrying on then you move forward to the next step. The added bonus of commitment is that you begin to notice the opportunities and sources of assistance that were always there but invisible to you.

If you've ever been in this state of comfortable drifting, you'll know that something has to happen, or to change, to make you take action and to commit yourself to doing what you don't like to do.

For me, avoiding the things I didn't like to do lasted a long time. So what changed and convinced me I needed to do something else? Well, there was a little bit of concern for doing something with my life as well as a sense of running out of time.  But in all honesty, I think what really shifted me was that I wasn't enjoying it any more.  Then my "away from" motivation came into effect and I felt compelled to move on. Of course I had no idea where I wanted to move on to, which is another story ...

To return to the original question, what happens when you've achieved everything you want? Well, if your main motivation comes from a desire to succeed then the question never arises because you habitually look for what you haven't already got.  If you're more concerned with enjoying what you're doing then you may feel comfortable and self-satisfied for a long time, but eventually you'll become dissatisfied and will need to get away from where you are.

Either way you have to set new goals. There is no state of final, complete fulfilment, only the journey towards it. Or, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive."