“Successful people wake up at 4AM every morning.” “Successful people dress to impress.” “Successful people go to college.” “Successful people read every day.” “Successful people routinely work 60 hours a week.” “Be like this successful person!”
This blog post is brought to you by every mutually contradictory and patronizing piece of “Successful people do X” advice you’ve ever received.
The advice blogosphere is full of tidbits like these and articles about how you can be like Jeff Bezos and Tim Ferriss. It’s full of people – let’s call them the “success mimics” – who have become so like the successful people they admire that they are sort of forgettable. Their advice is forgettable, too (“Successful people get 8 hours of sleep every night”), except when it’s absurd (“Successful people don’t turn down breath mints“) or contradictory (“Successful people know that working hard isn’t working smart.” “Successful people hustle – 80 hours a week, baby.”)
I keep tabs on these things, being part of a program for young people who want to achieve things with their lives. The “success story” an important genre for us, it’s fun to read (i.e. it’s like crack), and it’s one that has an important role to play in personal growth. But I think things are getting out of hand.
While the rest of the world is crowdsourcing the world’s longest list of successful people traits and trying to make themselves clones of Elon Musk, consider the following reasons for opting out.
Imitation Makes People Miserable and Boring
The school of success mimics often talk about the importance of growth mindsets and intrinsic motivation, but they’re preaching the opposite every time they hold up successful people as idols. If you’re trying to lead a life like Thomas Edison’s, you’re basing your feeling of self-worth and efficacy totally on the habits and routines of a dead guy.
You’ve fallen into a trap when you’ve fixed a firm outward focus for your standards and your way of life. Now you have to keep seeking that guidance and validation from the biographies and journals of your heroes if you want to feel like you’re on the path to success. You worry if you don’t go through the same struggles as Ben Horowitz, find the same investors Mark Zuckerberg did, or graduate from YCombinator like Alexis Ohanian did.
Measuring your success based on the crowd’s measurement of success (even if that crowd is the non-conformist crowd) will leave you always just short of the mark. You weren’t meant to mimic other lives. You were meant to have an internal compass. You weren’t meant to imitate the “top performers”. You aren’t a “performer,” and the world is not a stage after all – the most important parts of your life will take place in your own head, with no one around to see them. Which leads me to the next point.
Successful People Don’t Care – No One Cares
Odds are more likely than not that you’re trying to be like successful people in order to get some kind of external recognition or reaffirmation. No one wants to be seen as the person who has the habits and priorities of the unsuccessful – God forbid! It’s just not fashionable.
This attitude is easy to fall into, but you need to get rid of it.
Here’s the truth: the “successful people” aren’t watching you. No one is going to give you points . You won’t get a pat on the back at the end of your life if you follow Tony Robbins’s meditation routine or Mark Cuban’s business advice. Bill Gates isn’t going to welcome you into some inner circle of successful people who have it all figured out.
“Successful” Is A Pretty Useless Categorization
It would be nice if life was simpler, but it isn’t. “Successful people” as a category is mostly relative because “success” is a relative concept. We can only say someone is successful if they’ve achieved their goals. So the question is this: whose goals and whose standard of success do we accept?
The only people most of the “be-like-successful-people crowd” seems to agree are successful are people who have spent decades in a career and have ended up with some degree of material wealth and/or fame (because they have have followed the advice in my ebook, which you can sign up for at the link below – at least, that’s how it usually goes).
Here’s where a reminder may come in handy.
MONEY, FAME, AND A FANCY TITLE ≠ THINGS THAT MATTER.
It doesn’t make a difference if that money, fame, and title comes in its “cushy corporate” variety or its “cool startup” flavor – these can be great things, but they don’t ultimately say much about a person’s own internal sense of fulfillment. And an internal sense of fulfillment can be tricky to measure, because, as I mentioned before, no one but you will ever know if you have it.
Everyone will claim that they already know this, but it’s still odd how most advice articles citing successful people focus squarely on you can make more money and climb more ladders by leading like Steve Jobs or following Gary Vaynerchuk’s work routine.
Success Is a Means, Not an End
In the Nicomachean Ethics, the philosopher Aristotle talks about happiness as the only end which is an end in itself, “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.”
When most people talk about success, they’re talking about achieving goals at a secondary or tertiary layer below happiness: money, fame, the satisfaction of creating something, the satisfaction of changing the world. These can all be good things, but it’s not true that they’re all things that will make you happy.
If happiness is your ultimate end, you should think differently. Instead of trying to know what kind of juice smoothie YCombinator founder Paul Graham drinks every morning before he writes those fabulous essays, you should try to get to know yourself. Find out what you hate and stop doing it. Find out what makes you come alive. Once you’re on your way to knowing what makes you happy, maybe you can start defining the wins and the successes that get you there the most often.
In the meantime, what should you do about “successful people” and the success mimics?
My friend T.K. Coleman says it best in The Experts are Wrong. Also, They’re Right! (to which I owe some common structure/themes in this post):
“Self-help is about helping yourself in whatever way you can. If something helps, let it help you. There’s no need to make a religion out of it. If something doesn’t help, drop it. There’s no need to keep doing something if it isn’t working just because an expert says it works…
When you can focus on doing what’s best for you without feeling the need to have strong opinions about what the “right” way is, you’ll have more energy left over for the real work of becoming the best possible version of yourself.
So use what you know about the world. Use what you know about people. There are some things that are universal about happiness, that can be learned from the stories of others (I for one, will continue to learn from them). But the most important of these should be the realization that basing your self-esteem on your ability to conform to the habits and expectations of the “successful” will suck the life out of you.
Be successful – and then happy – by your own standards. Success stories can be good servants, but they’re terrible masters.