We live in a world of incredible connectedness. Cell phones, texting, and social media all make it so easy to see and hear the parts of others that they wish to share. A byproduct of this connectedness is that we are exposed to a lot of noise we have to filter through our own perceptions, ideas, and identities.
While there are many wonderful things about being so connected, one of the negatives is that there is a lack of context. It is either one side, or a small part, of a larger story.
If we let it, this noise can become a frame for how we see others, how we compare ourselves to them, and how we define what success and failure mean to us.
Defining success and failure
While there will be parts that overlap, success and failure mean different things to everyone. There are a million puzzle pieces that make up each of us and the things that are important to us. Money, fame, freedom, recognition, privacy, safety, flexibility, security…the list is endless. And yet our culture is bombarded with media that creates parameters for what it means to be successful.
It perpetuates a narrative of materialism and luxury. We idolize the rich and famous and aspire to become more like them. We don’t analyze what it means, why we feel this way, or if it is even in alignment with our true goals and values. It is easy to get lost in the cacophony.
As an entrepreneur, I get asked how many staff I have, where my office is located, how many hours I work per week, or how much money my business makes, etc. These all have built-in assumptions about whether my business is valid, whether I am a success. The questions come from a stereotypical definition of what a “successful” entrepreneur looks like.
While I don’t think the people who ask these questions are intentionally trying to make me feel bad, they are using a scale that has been built by others to define my success. Sometimes, when it is at its loudest, I listen to the noise that says that my answers to those questions find me wanting. I know many others that do as well. It hurts, it amplifies the jerk in your head, and it makes you question your worth.
How can we quiet the noise?
How can we combat outside ideas of success, and instead define and protect our own measures for success? These are some things that I try to do:
- Accept that great success is fraught with failure.
- Understand that the goalposts are always moving.
- Be intentional by setting goals and action steps to help you achieve your success.
- Surround yourself with people who will support you through both your successes and failures.
1. Accept that great success is fraught with failure.
Every once in a while I will have a moment (maybe even a few moments) where I feel like a complete and utter failure as an entrepreneur. It is usually after a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, or perhaps a series of them. I will assess my state of affairs, take a good long look in the mirror, and wonder if I am truly cut out for this.
The feeling always passes, usually ushered away by a good cry, an Old Fashioned, and the wonderful people in my life who remind me that things are much better than they seem. Then a new day begins and I get back to doing my very best at kicking ass and taking names.
Failures are the building blocks of every success
As much as we wish we were infallible, we are not. We all need to cut ourselves a bit of slack when things go sideways or else we carry those building blocks on our backs instead of stepping off them. I think all of us need to be reminded that sometimes:
- A failure is not a direct reflection of you as a person.
- It is ok to fall apart, as long as you can pull yourself back together and move forward.
- You can not control everything and sometimes things just don’t work out.
- Failure is our greatest teacher and will make us better if we pay attention.
I think the last point is the most important. There are countless stories of famous public figures like J.K. Rowling whose Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by 12 different publishers, or Steve Jobs who was fired from his own company, or Michael Jordan who didn’t make his high school basketball team, who experienced countless and significant failures that all eventually lead to something great.
The theme here is that the true measure of a person is not in how many times they have succeeded, but in how many times they have failed and pushed forward. In the words of Winston Churchill,
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
2. Understand that the goalposts are always moving.
Success, like failure, is fluid. Some of the things that would have got me down early on in my business, like a client not paying their invoice on time, are now mild annoyances. Similarly, the successes that would have felt huge at the beginning are now passed by as normal occurrences.
For example, I remember the first time we deposited a cheque that was more than the entire revenue of our first year in business. It seemed like such a huge accomplishment….fast forward a few years and now…now it is just Tuesday.
The truth is, our goalposts are always moving, but we often fail to truly acknowledge when we have reached one of them because they have already moved and we are on to the next thing.
Acknowledge your goals and successes by being intentional about reflecting back on what you have done.
Regular reflection can help put things in perspective and help you to mark both the successes and failures that will help you grow. It is easier to quiet the noise when you know which pieces matter to you.
Get clarity on what success and failure mean to you, not someone else. It's easy to let the days go by, running on the hamster wheel of life, without truly considering what we are doing and how our actions are contributing to our success or failure. This is how other’s definitions of success slip into our heads and make us question where we are at in our lives. We can protect ourselves by having clarity on who we are and what matters to us. Then we can take set goals to make sure we are working towards it.
Turn off some of the noise.
When all else fails, consider taking breaks from some of the places where you hear the things that tend to shake your confidence in yourself. Social media is the big one, with constant streams of people posting pictures and articles about how amazing their lives are. Will the world end if you stopped refreshing Twitter every 20 minutes? Would it really matter if you deactivated your Facebook account?
While you may not want to disconnect completely, you could also just reduce your consumption to a few times a week, instead of multiple times a day. Regardless, removing or reducing the sources of some of the noise might make a big difference in helping you gain clarity on how you are actually doing.
3. Be intentional by setting goals and action steps to help you achieve your success.
One of the things you can do to help manage and acknowledge your success is by being intentional about setting goals and monitoring them. Similar to the idea that if you don’t have a destination in mind, it doesn’t matter which direction you go, if you don’t have any specific goals, it doesn’t really matter what you are working on.
We all have desires and things we want, but they are not necessarily goals. Here are a few tactics that can help you to set goals that will help you define your own success:
Make SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely).
When you think about your goals, saying something like, “I want to keep my accounts receivable low” is not enough. How do you know when you have achieved it? Instead, you could turn the goal into something like, “Collect payment within 45 days on all invoices, for each of the next 6 months.”
Set action steps for each goal
Steps to work towards the above goal might include:
- Confirm invoicing schedule exists for current projects or clients
- Add calendar reminders to ensure invoices are sent as per project/client agreements
- Add calendar reminders to send follow up emails about unpaid invoices
- Add calendar reminders to make phone calls about unpaid invoices
Then you can put a date on each one for when you want to complete them by, in relation to the larger end goal date.
Revisit your goals regularly to track progress or evaluate if they are the right goals.
Making progress is a motivator on its own. There are few things more satisfying than being able to check off progress on something. That, by itself, is a success as you move towards your main goal. Also, sometimes your goals need to shift or change as circumstances change, and that’s ok. For example, a family member get’s really sick and suddenly your timeline for your blogging goal needs to be adjusted so that you can be involved in their care. Life happens and so be flexible. To quote Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
Share them with a mentor or coach to help keep you accountable.
It can be really helpful to share your goals with a mentor in your life because it can become a motivator for you to make progress on them. Your mentor can also be a resource to walk you through challenges or obstacles you face as you work on your goals.
4. Surround yourself with people who will support you through both your successes and failures.
My series on Building a Mentorship Network emphasizes how important it is to have many different types of people in our lives to support us in many different ways. We will all get lost, we will all get knocked down, and we will all do stupid things that come back to kick us in the ass. We will also all create something wonderful, do something great, and be part of something worth sharing.
At any given time we all need someone to be there for those moments. Those people don’t need to share your definitions for success or failure, but they need to be able to celebrate or commiserate with you in turn and help you block out the noise.
More than ever we are surrounded by the blaring other people’s lives and how we compare. While not necessarily a bad thing, it can be challenging to separate from the external noise and hold true to ourselves without despair. Instead, if we can accept our failures as part of the journey and reflect on what is most important to us we can set the stage for what success means to us. Then we can set the goals and actions we need to take to achieve our successes, with the help of a strong support network. It’s not easy, but we don’t have to listen to the noise that tells us what we should do, or who we should be, but rather decide on our own, and drown it out.