I previously wrote about how I think the most important challenge right now is figuring out how to scale the process of people living up to their potential. Why do some people go on to change the world, and others go on to jobs that inspire shows like The Office? The more people we can tip towards living inspiring, full lives where they bring light into the world, the better off we are going to be as a species.
So the first thing we need to do is develop a theory of success. Here’s my working hypothesis: success is very, very simple. The biggest obstacle to success, I think, is making it more complicated than it needs to be. Here’s what success looks like:
- Be totally honest with yourself about what you really want. If you don’t know what you want, take a wild-ass guess and go with the best answer you can come up with.
- Logically think through what needs to happen to achieve your goal, and then figure out the most immediate, direct step that you can take right this minute towards achieving it. If you don’t know what the next step forward is, the next step forward is asking someone who does know. If you don’t know anyone who knows, the next step forward is asking someone who might know someone who might know. And so on.
- Take the step.
- Go back to 1 and repeat.
I really think that’s all there is. Human beings are goal-achievement machines; we are built by billions of years of evolution to be good at it. If we just point ourselves in the right direction, and keep moving forward, then naturally along the way we’ll figure out what it takes to get there. It’s the north star method of navigation: even if you know nothing about geography, seafaring, or transport, if you just keep on following the north star, you’ll eventually find the top of the world.
So if it’s that dead simple, why is it that only a small percentage of humans live a life of wild, overwhelming success? The problem is, this process, especially steps 1 and 3, can be very scary. Fear by itself is not a problem: if you know you’re afraid of something, you can still force yourself to do it anyway, and there’s nothing like taking action to dispel fear. But fear tends to hide itself in rationalization, and that’s another thing people are very good at: making up a million reasons why things are more complicated than they actually are. The vast, overwhelming majority of human behavior is sideways motion: stuff that feels like taking action, that feels somewhat related to the goal, but is really just scuttling around in a circle. If you look at any large institution, such as a Fortune 500 company, or Congress, probably 99% of the activity that occurs is sideways, and only 1% is the forward motion that keeps the company’s stock price from plummeting and the union from dissolving. And as we see every time a company goes bankrupt, sometimes that 1% isn’t enough.
One very common thing I succumb to a lot, that I’m trying to train myself out of, is the trap of listening to good ideas. Every time someone successfully takes a step forward, a good idea enters the world. But just because that idea helped that person take a step, it doesn’t mean it will help you take a step. For instance, there’s a lot of great entrepreneurship blogs with tons of advice on how to build a great tech startup. I enjoy reading them, but they are all a distraction from actually moving forward my own company — “entreporn” is the clever name for it. Good ideas are wholesome-sounding, constructive behaviors — maybe I should develop a social media strategy! — that aren’t critical path at this moment for achieving your goals. Chasing after good ideas is fun, and a nice distraction from the scary stuff that success actually entails.
Anyway, there are a million other varieties of rationalization; I bring that one up in particular because it resonates with me personally. But I’m sure everyone can come up with their own. Luckily, at some level, you always know when you are listening to rationalization vs when you are following the north star. You have to train yourself to listen to this knowledge, but once you get the knack of it it is infallible: are you scared and intimidated by the course of action you are considering? If so, you are on track; if not, please try again.
So the process of achieving success is simple. However, it isn’t easy, and it is very easy to lose sight of it and wander off course. So I’m interested in solutions for helping people stay on their trajectory. I think the biggest thing is having other people hold you honest. It is much easier to see when someone else is lying to himself about what he really wants, or taking a roundabout path when there’s a more direct one staring him in the face, than it is to see it in yourself. So what I want to do is figure out a way of making the process of watching each other’s backs scalable; can we build communities that have built-in processes for keeping people on track? Would you want to be a part of such a group?