Why success looks so similar to failure

Some people appear to be successful but inside feel like a failure. Others are just the opposite. Why does success look so much like a failure and what we can learn from it? This article is inspired by the book “Good to great“.

The towering companies that fall

In 2001 an influential book was published, based on tons of statistical research. The book described 11 companies that became great in 1990s and compares them to their peers. As expected from such a book, the logic within is inspiring and makes a perfect sense. The book focuses on leadership, corporate culture, and passion. I quote:

Seven characteristics of companies that went from “good to great”:

Level 5 Leadership: Leaders who are humble, but driven to do what’s best for the company.

  • First Who, Then What: Get the right people on the bus, then figure out where to go. Find the right people and try them out in different seats on the bus (different positions in the company).
  • Confront the Brutal Facts: The Stockdale paradox—Confront the brutal truth of the situation, yet at the same time, never give up hope.
  • Hedgehog Concept: Three overlapping circles: What lights your fire (“passion”)? What could you be best in the world at (“best at”)? What makes you money (“driving resource”)?
  • Culture of Discipline: Rinsing the cottage cheese.
  • Technology Accelerators: Using technology to accelerate growth, within the three circles of the hedgehog concept.
  • The Flywheel: The additive effect of many small initiatives; they act on each other like compound interest.

Looks great, right? The only problem: most of these companies failed miserably after a decade, such as Circuit City and Fannie Mae. Even Wells Fargo is losing against Amazon. The reason for the rise and fall of these companies is their laser-sharp focus and commitment to their vision.

In a very similar way, I have seen people rising to success and then crashing miserably. Some of my friends were very close to crashing and avoided it only by a combination of luck and timing. Once I asked my thesis advisor how he stayed relevant for so many years. He was honest. “I applied for a scholarship and got it. I was the last person to get the scholarship. If I would apply a month later, I would not be teaching you.”

The blessing and the curse of narrow focus

As a person with ADHD, I am intimately well aware of the focus-related issues. I have the overfocus variety, which means that a certain subject may capture all of my attention for a while (by a while I often mean years), and then suddenly become irrelevant. This is very unsettling. For seven years the core values of my existence were derived from science and meditation, and then without further notice, both stopped motivating me. The worst advise I was given: focus on the thing you do the best and become great in it. By the time I became really good, I lost interest and motivation. I failed.

The situation could develop differently. I could become great before losing interest. The things I wanted to achieve could become meaningless due to some paradigm shift or global market trends. I could have generated something great but with a noticeable delay from someone else, and my achievement could be meaningless. The mentor who told me “put all your eggs in one basket and watch it closely” is an extremely successful businessman. Yet his business was in peril once and was saved the introduction of the new ideas when his son joined the business. So I guess, it is great to be laser-sharp if you are the cutting edge of the team and somebody is watching your back. And if you decide to do this, better be sure to stick with it.

The best teacher in the world

My wife Anna is focused on teaching. This is the main thing she does since I met her, and the thing she most enjoys. She is not interested in writing, public talks or marketing. It does not really matter to her what others think about her efforts. The only thing that she really cares about is making the lives of her students better.

If Anna did not meet me, I guess nobody would hear about Anna and her groundbreaking learning techniques. Very few people will want to take her lessons, definitely not world-wide. For the first five years that I knew her, she made almost no money because she did not want to compromise her methodology. Fortunately, I earn sufficiently well for a moderate family. Even now, all she wants to teach is memory and speedreading, and she resists when I ask her to widen the range of services. Yet, I firmly believe that she is the best in the whole world in what she does and can stake my reputation for it.

The blanket is too short

When I was very young, I did not have enough resources to understand how to achieve the things I want to achieve, so I was somewhat bored and daydreaming. From the moment I started to understand how I can achieve my goals, I found out that the blanket of my time, my energy and my focus is too short to cover all of them. Something had to suffer. When I was too busy at work, my wife would complain to the point I was not able to do my job properly. I cleaned up the house and took care of the kid, but the intimacy was gone and I lost my job. I easily found a new job and restored relationships with my wife, but my kids started to show the first signs of neglect.

No matter what I did I could not take care of all that needed to be done. Eventually, the kids have grown a bit, Anna started to work a bit less and I found my solutions. But then the keytostudy business started to take more time and the blanket became too thin again. Only by shifting my focus to the place where the blanket is about to fail, can I keep everything functioning. Once I am successful in something and can really enjoy the fruits of success, I need to move to the next crisis to avoid personal catastrophes. And when I eventually fail, I can feel this failure much better than I could feel the previous success, as the blanket is less stretch and I can really stay in that moment.

The neighbor’s grass is always greener

There is actually a scientific explanation for this phenomena. The neighbor sees his grass from above and notices mainly the land between the grass, while we see the grass in a side projection with all its luscious greens. It is normal to feel like a failure, as we can see every effort that failed. The others are exposed only to those efforts that were successful, and they appreciate our success.

Even narcissists have a hard time understanding why they are so great and others do not exactly see them in their greatness. We, regular or oversensitive people, often need signs of support and appreciation from the people around us to feel that we are positive and important and do more good than wrong. And at the same time, we are taught to rely on our internal motivations, as we cannot truly rely on the motives of other people. For example, these other people could be busy or concerned with their own business. So we may feel that we need to get more involved, feel perfectionists, in some cases even suffer nervous breakdowns. Guess what: if you grow the grass you will always see the land under it. This does not mean it is not green enough!

Successful in what?

It is impossible to be successful in everything, even in our area of expertise. The most beautiful women in the world, great actresses and supermodels often struggle to become mothers, undergo bad cosmetic surgeries, and not so cosmetic removal of breasts and ovaries. The things that make them shine are often related to high levels of hormones, mutations, and surgeries which can also debilitate them. Best singers and actors are three times more likely to die than their less successful peers, check 27 club for details. Having so much energy invested in their careers, they are less likely to keep a stable family and raise successful children. We may envy their aura of success, beauty, and fame. But for them and their intimate environment, this life of success could be a living hell.

On the other hand, hippies usually are quite happy with their lives. They do not need much to be happy and successful as a human being. If all you need is love, then you are more likely to be successful and yet have a loving family and meaningful relationships.

I do not preach the minimalistic approach. Personally, I appreciate beautiful things, my health and personal comfort too much to settle for less. I live in a small cheap apartment, but it is in a good area and packed with things I love. What I meant to say: maybe the cost of apparent success would be so high, that it would make it impossible for you to be happy. So settling for less may be the most successful strategy.

Questions vs answers

In some other articles and courses I may provide some of the strategies to achieve balance. You can read very fast, but if you remember noting what’s the point? You can remember everything, but if you are not exposed to new information, your expertise will be very limited. Striking the right balance is difficult. We constantly ask hard questions and find the answers that work specifically for us and now. Then after several months, we ask similar questions and derive different solutions. In this particular article, I went one step further and focused on the values and stereotypes which contribute to the questions we ask. Hope this will provoke you to think differently.


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