Three Little Ideas That Will Change the Way You Think About Success

Photo by Wayne Lee-Sing on Unsplash

Can I confess something to you?

Half the time, I feel like a categorical failure.

I spend a lot of time conferring with my inner critic.

“There is a voice inside of you that says you haven’t come very far, that your achievements don’t matter; that anyone could do what you’ve done … and survival isn’t a meaningful accomplishment” — @GoodDsgnAdvice

If you spent any time listening to your inner critic, you’ll come away with the idea that you are a failure too. Only chronic naïveté could shield you from its argument.

It’s easy for it to take potshots at you. Between the airbrushed pictures of your friends on Instagram and the videos of the young Bali-dwelling YouTube stars with the rented Lamborghinis, failure is your starting point.

Yet, you can’t be mad at your inner critic.

The inner critic is what helps you become sick and tired of being sick and tired. There will be no ambition without the internal critic.

You would think it’s easy, but it isn’t. Knowing the benefit of an inner critic that charges you on, doesn’t give a soft enough cushion for the crushing finality of its bleak assessment of your existence.

My guidance for retaining my happiness in the face of my unforgiving inner critic closely mirrors Jordan B. Peterson’s guide to thinking about success. There are three key ideas:

  • Success is a spectrum
  • There are more ways to be successful than you are looking at
  • Experiences differ and outcomes will too.

Success is a spectrum

Your inner critic is a doomsday scientist — knowledgeable, but sensational. Your inner critic is a mixed bag of useful wisdom who also prefers to operate on extremes.

On the binary switch that it presents to you, you are either a complete success or a singular spectacular dumpster fire of ineptitude. However, in a world as complicated as ours, such black-and-whiteness can’t hold up. There are vital gradations to the idea of success and failure.

TV and today’s social media culture is cannon fodder for categorical thinking about success. The posts that come through the explore page and get prime time TV are constantly exceptional.

If that’s your success benchmark (and it probably is) you’d constantly feel unaccomplished. TV and social media spotlight the exceptional — the one percent of the one percent. Indeed, 99% of our lives and the people in the world are not that remarkable.

You are not an utter failure, you are only not as accomplished as an arbitrary goal post you’ve set for yourself — based on incomplete social media images and TV headlines.

Any fool can set the goal post. You owe it to yourself to adjust the goal post in a manner that supports your health and happiness.

There are more ways to be successful than you are looking at

Another approach to pull yourself out from the articulate indictments of your inner critic is to consider that there are many aspects of life at which one can be a failure or a success.

“There are many games and, more specifically, many good games. Lawyer is a good game. So is plumber, physician, carpenter, or schoolteacher.” — Jordan B. Peterson

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine life like the Olympics where the different events are different aspects of life that are “important”: marriage, career, social media following, inner peace, empathy, managing expectations, being a decent friend, spontaneity, the make of your car, etc.

Within this mosaic of ideas that form your humanity, it’s impossible to be an utter failure in every single aspect. If you don’t succeed in one aspect of the human experience, you can try another. Pick something that matches your unique talent and involve you productively.

Knowing what you now know; the only thing that’s left is finding your thing.

The trick that our internal critic plays on us is that it sets one arbitrary piece of the humanity mosaic — maybe Instagram followers, numbers of degrees or salary — and presents it as the only relevant piece. That is untrue. There are many games and in many cases, we are playing more than one game — at the same time.

If you are thinking; “but I should win at everything.” I’m sorry to break it to you; that is quixotic and will never happen.

Experiences differ and outcomes will too.

Iyin Aboyeji, who founded Andela in Nigeria popularised an idea when he began doing media rounds for the fledgling company back in 2014. The idea: “Brilliance is equally distributed, opportunities, not so much.”

The fact is; when you add up the unique experiences of other people in the world, the context in which they grew up and opportunities they have access to, and how unique those combinations manifest in people, you’d realize everyone was at different points off the starting block.

You can choose to be mad at this, but the probability that a young black male reading this will be as rich as a young white male of the same skillset reading this is slim to zero.

Your advantages and limitations are so unique that any comparison with other people is criminal.

Back to the young black male reading this; odds are good that he’ll display more mental fortitude in the face of inevitable adversity — his entire life has prepared him for it.

Gratitude is a good tool to shield you from victimhood in the face of truth like this. Don’t make the mistake of overvaluing what you don’t have and undervaluing what you do have.

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An important reminder: the goal isn’t to silence your inner critic. That critic needs to have its day in court. The goal is to make sure the motherfucker is not gaslighting you. You have more going on than it is willing to admit.

tl:dr. There are many ways to be human beyond the job you do and how many people retweeted your last tweet. Expand your range of being. The number of degrees in your bag matters, so does the number of tricks you can land on the skateboard. Being there for your family matters, so does your ability to connect people to people. Everything comes together to paint a more complete picture of your success.

You are doing fine.