Failure is Part of It

There’s a scripture I’ve been meditating on for the past year or so.

It’s found in Acts 16:16-34 – when Paul and Silas are jailed in Philipi, for causing a riot. And by riot, I mean, for preaching the gospel and casting a demon out of a servant girl.

My biggest challenge with that scripture rests in their behavior after being accused and subsequently jailed – for no wrongdoing.

These guys sing while they’re shackled.

It’s as if they were so convinced of their bigger mission that the circumstances of the world could not stop them.

What happens next remains nothing short of incredible, too. When the earthquake batters the prison and breaks their chains, they don’t run. The jailer fears for his life. But Paul stops him.

He saves the jailer’s life. Then proceeds to share the gospel with him. The jailer invites them to his home, and they share the gospel with his family. Then he baptizes them all.

What an incredible story, right?

Man Makes Plans and God Laughs

This story makes me uncomfortable about my own response to circumstances that are not part of my plans.

When things don’t go according to plan, that’s failure, right? But perhaps not for certain.

I think back to some of my big failures. They were earth-shattering.

Granted, some of those came when I was not living out my potential. Which presents another big challenge.

When we face personal failure and inevitably start pointing fingers, all too often, we’re the main person worth of blame. At least, that’s been my experience.

But what about deviations from the plan when we are living out our potential? (Or at least making our best attempt to do so, given what limited knowledge we have.)

Meditating on Worst Case Scenarios

From time to time, I enjoy contemplating worst case scenario outcomes. It challenges me to evaluate my own intestinal fortitude, if you will. But facing the worst also brings me peace.

“Could I survive that?”

“How would I react?”

“Am I strong enough to endure that?”

…I wonder.

I like this exercise, though, because it allows me to explore just how uncomfortable a situation might be in advance – then contemplate what steps I could take to prevent sure disaster.

Separately, facing the worst case scenario and mentally enduring the struggle, enables me to make peace with my fate – recognizing every outcome less bad than that as a victory, in a sense.

Inevitable Failure

A final word on this topic, failure.

It is inevitable.

We all fail. But the good news is, we get to choose our battles.

It’s comforting to pretend that we can avoid failure altogether, if only we just play it safe enough. But that’s wrong. Dead wrong.

We will fail. Even if only in our own eyes – by failing to try.

What’s much more useful than attempting to avoid failure, then, is dedicating ourselves to fighting the battles that matter most to us.

That way when we fail, at least we can do so with the dignity of self-respect.

Be Attentive to the Opponents You Set Out to Defeat

I dreamed a strange dream last night. What’s even stranger, perhaps, is that I woke up in the middle of the night and the first thing that came to mind was a possible interpretation.

In attempt to extract the meaning, I’ll share it here.

I was sitting in a lawn chair in a backyard surrounded by family and friends at a celebration of sorts. In one hand I held a glass of wine and in the other a garden hoe – prepared to ward off snakes that had been spotted.

The first snakes I encountered were small. Easy to exterminate with one hand and a swift swing of the rake. But with each snake I addressed, the subsequent snakes grew larger and faster. Eventually, a rather large and swift snake appeared. As I swung at it one-handed, it lunged at me forcing retreat. I realized I stood no chance against my foe while defending myself one-handed.

There are a couple layers of meaning I’d like to address.

First, let’s talk about snakes – the opponents of your friends and family, threats to your way of life, enemies which would devour you, challenges which may poison us if left unaddressed.

I’m choosing the word opponent here, because it’s the word that woke me up last night. I don’t mean competitor as people we’re attempting to beat at some contest. The word opponent stood out to me vividly in my half-sleep state as ‘the problems which we choose to wage war against.’

Those challenges could be anything – from small personal development challenges to large cultural issues. Anything from attempting to get better with money or relationships to attempting to resist totalitarianism.

Threats that start small may grow in size if not entirely eliminated, or left unaddressed. This is my takeaway about the increasing size and speed of snakes.

If you don’t address issues, they grow into more formidable opponents.

Ok, so here’s the big one – the issue of fighting one-handed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about symbology lately. Earlier this year, I finished Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Living and Beyond Order. Now I’m reading Maps of Meaning. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently thinking about the “snakes” (primordial threats) that lurk around the corners, and extracting meaning from our every day stories. Not to mention thinking generally about “rules for living”.

The issue of fighting one-handed is something I’ve been dwelling on lately. Not in those specific terms. But it’s come up in attempts to improve my own life, and in conversations with others who are trying to make progress along a certain dimension.

A common theme I’ve encountered is how ineffective “we” (humans, generally speaking), tend to be at making progress in our own lives when we don’t take the problems we’re attempting to solve seriously enough.

Your opponent becomes more dangerous when you don’t respect it.

Take any big or small issue in your life. When you shirk things off altogether, or only make half-assed attempts to set the world in order, resolution evades you.

The only effective way to meet your opponents on the battle field is with your full attention and full proclivities in tact.

If you want to protect your garden, don’t fight snakes one-handed.

Tips for Living Out Your Values in Unprecedented Times

Okay, so let’s just get it out in the open. I hate the phrase “unprecedented times”.

We’ve always been in unprecedented times. There’s never been a set of circumstances identical to the ones we live in now.

So it’s about as shit an excuse as any to drone bomb the bejesus out of personal freedoms and sacred traditions.

Whew. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, where was I? Oh. Right. How can you live out your values in times like these?

Well, it ain’t easy. That’s the truth. It’s never been easy to live out your values. Not even if you’re evil. Because you’ll always meet resistance.

And the key to living out your values is planning for resistant.

We’re all great at living out our values when they’re uncontested. But it’s when the rubber meets the road – when it really counts – that’s when fit hits the shan.

Planning for the hard times in advance is the key to holding true when things aren’t easy. Let’s start with a simple example to illustrate.

A couple months ago I tried the “Whole30” diet. I’m not big on diets, but I am big on intentional living. This was a deliberate experiment to explore the relationship between what I eat, my energy levels, and mood. So for 30 days I basically cut out all processed sugar and grains.

And the results were, I felt great. But it was not without its battles.

The battle had less to do with temptation to stray and more to do with preparedness, as I learned about 3 days in.

Midway into the first week, I kept getting hungry in the afternoons. I meal prepped for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I forgot about snacks. So when hunger struck and I only had shit food around, I started waffling about sticking to the plan.

TLDR; I had every intention of avoiding certain kind of foods. But I set myself up for failure by not preparing for when I got hungry. I held out against the urges, and planned better for the following weeks.

In a nutshell, that’s the key to living out your values in hard times.

You’ve got to prepare for the hard times in advance. And honestly, you’d be stupid not to. It’s inevitable that we’re going to meet resistance. So it behooves us to plan for it.

No, we’re incapable of planning for everything. But that doesn’t mean we can’t set ourselves up to be less likely to fail.

Here are a few tangible examples of what I mean.

You’re setting yourself up to fail living out your values if you’re not financially secure.

If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, then you have almost zero leverage. In fact, worse, everybody else has leverage over you.

Your employer controls your purse strings. As does the government. And your credit card company. And any other lender you owe money to.

Don’t put yourself in this position. Even if you’re not completely debt free. At least build up 3-6 months of cash reserves so you can afford to tell a boss and the government to go to hell when they do something insidious – like force you to undergo an experimental medical procedure or lose your job.

If you’re dependent on your employer to pay your bills, then the house of cards is just waiting to tumble down.

If you don’t want to fall into the Grand Canyon, then don’t go to Arizona.

About the only thing useful I took away from a professor in college is that quote. I think it’s fabulous advice.

If you want to avoid certain doom at a specific thing, then don’t put yourself in the position to do it.

In the lecture he introduced this concept, he was referring to a friend who was about to get married. His friend said something like, “I hope I never cheat on my wife.” To which, he told his friend he was an idiot (allegedly). But he made the point, “You can’t wait until you’re drunk sitting in a hot tub full of half-naked girls who aren’t your wife to start praying you’ll be faithful.”

Part of living out your values means anticipating and preparing for situations that put you in jeopardy. But another huge part means avoiding situations where you knowingly and willfully put yourself in jeopardy to begin with!

Accept responsibility for your fate.

This is the big one. It’s on you. It’s always been on you.

You can look around for cues from others about how you should live. Or you can use your noggin’ to figure it out what matters.

But it really doesn’t matter what set of values you claim to have.

All that matters is whether or not YOU are willing to hold the line. You probably won’t die for somebody else’s values. Hell, you may not even die for your own.

But the nifty thing is, it’s on you to decide. And you’re the one who has to live with the consequences of your decisions – good or bad.

Approaching 30

I turn 30 later this month.

Which is a weird feeling – retiring from my 20s. The past decade was a harsh teacher. Especially the first half.

Over the past 10 years, my life has taken quite a few twists and turns from what I originally expected.

By most accounts from my teenage and early-20s something, I’m a failure. I did not – nor am I on my way to becoming – a pediatric neurosurgeon. Nor a corporate finance attorney.

I’m on quite a different path. A path I didn’t know existed a decade ago.

Where my life and career are not a function of expectations – or a false sense of obligation. Rather, I have agency over the design of both. Which is freeing. But also comes at a high cost.

The weight I carry today somehow feels lighter and heavier than the weight I carried a decade ago.

Part of that is the sheer challenge of attempting to build a life and career on my own terms – rather than opting for the conveyor belt, assembly line version most people settle for.

Another part is the weight of responsibility. Which is probably the starkest contrast between who (and what) I am today compared to who (and what) I was 10 years ago.

The Big “R” Word.

It’s easy to shirk off responsibility for everything that happens to you when you don’t have a purpose in life.

That was me entering my 20s. Somebody who liked to point fingers. And play the victim card all too often. Even though I fancied myself as someone ambitious, assertive, and self-reliant.

But I wasn’t really. Defaulting to the traditional path as a plan for my life stole my agency from me. It freed me from the burden of critical thinking about what to do with my life – and more importantly, who I should become.

As I approach 30, I recognize many of the errors of my youth. Some are quite embarrassing. Even if useful lessons.

I also recognize the opportunity of the present – and my responsibility for whatever time I have left. To make more of myself than I was yesterday. More of myself than I was a decade ago. And more of myself tomorrow than I am today.

After all, what hope do we have in growing old if not that we’re getting better with time?

Dissatisfied Patience As the Key To Navigating Your Early Career

“I’m going to be the VP of Marketing.”

I could feel the tension in the room build before the words even finished leaving my lips. Sitting across the table from me was the guy who’d been hired to lead sales and marketing. He’d just asked a probing question about where I saw myself in the future.

I was 24 years old – and the low man on the totem pole of a company I’d been at less than 9 months. With one sentence, I’d thrown out the window all office social norms, niceties, and any reverence for ‘the way things are done.’

At the time I had no way of knowing how many challenges that single conversation would later create for me. I was young. Ambitious. Relentless. On occasion, reckless. But I was out to get mine. And no one could stand in my way.

Full of Piss and Vinegar

Like a young buck with a chip on his shoulder. That was me for the the better part of my early 20s. And admittedly, from time to time still is.

I walked with the air of a swagger I’d not yet earned. It was less of entitlement and more of conviction. An unshakeable belief in myself and my ability to win. Like a young fighter eager to touch gloves with the reigning champ.

But, like many a young fighter, I learned the hard way – it doesn’t matter how hard you punch in the first round of a 12-round match. A career, like a boxing match, is a game of endurance.

I made a lot of mistakes early in my career that can be attributed directly back to my youth. My eagerness. My ego. My impatience.

I wanted to be recognized for what I knew I could become. Before I’d proven it. And that’s a tough sales pitch no matter how good you are.

You Are Your Greatest Opponent

Ambition travels with a lot of baggage. Especially in the early days. Left unchecked, it breeds a weird kind of schizophrenic paranoia.

It breeds doubt. Anxiety. Pressure. And a laundry list of conspiracy theories:

  • Is somebody else doing better than me?
  • Should I be farther along than I am?
  • Could I be working harder than I am? Longer hours?
  • Do other people know how hard I’m working?
  • Is my contribution known and evident?
  • Am I getting credit for my efforts?
  • Should I be making more money?
  • Am I being taken advantage of?
  • Is my title impressive enough?
  • Do my coworkers respect me?
  • Am I a fraud?

Imposter syndrome is a function of pretending to be something you’ve not yet fully become. It’s natural in any transition period. But mostly it wastes precious energy. It redirects mental and physical resources toward perpetuating myths rather than converting those into value in reality.

I learned that the hard way.

A Better Coping Mechanism

Along the way I picked up several valuable lessons. Here’s one of them:

Opportunities come easier when you’re doing good work and paying close attention – than when you’re trying to convince people to create them for you.

At several points in time, my work became a cry for attention. I’d go above and beyond simply because I believed it to be my best way to get noticed. It was not about doing good for the sake of good work. It was a shell game.

I learned that working to get noticed is a passive approach to creating opportunities for yourself. It’s manipulative. Both to yourself and the person you hope to convince. It screams “I’ll do good work when I want something.” But there are only so many carrots you can dangle in front of someone before you run out of carrots.

Instead, I discovered a different approach. It’s offered me more satisfaction, more control, and more opportunities than I can count.

The secret lies in approaching life with a dissatisfied patience.

Ever since I discovered this mindset, I’ve been happier. More fulfilled. More content. More deliberate. And not surprisingly, more effective at creating opportunities.

How To Practice Dissatisfied Patience

Instead of worrying about opportunities outside my control, I try to focus on the present circumstances.

  • What opportunities do I have to improve things I already have domain over?
  • Is there a way to improve a process to free up more time?
  • Are there any ongoing problems I have the ability to solve – for myself or for others?
  • What activities do not require anyone else’s permission?
  • How could I take [X project] to the next level?

In other words, I try to shift the focus from future uncertainty to a local present. Instead of worrying about what I think I could become, I focus on what I can do to do my very best here and now.

When I stopped waving my hand around like a madman hoping to get called on, and instead just focused on doing good work, I discovered I got called on a lot more often.

This did not mean losing the fire in my belly to do more, to be more, or to achieve more. Instead it meant channeling it – so that if and when an opportunity does present itself, I’d not only be ready, but I’d be the obvious choice.

How To Increase the Likelihood of Your Desired Outcome

There’s no such thing as a sure deal. But you can almost always increase the likelihood of your desired outcome.

Consider a simple example for starters: Your monthly bills amount to $1,000. You’d like to cover these costs because you enjoy the comforts of having a roof over your head and food on your table. You recognize an income would enable you achieve your desired outcome.

So you acquire a full-time job that pays $15 per hour ($600/week or $2,500/month). The job does not guarantee your outcome. You still must show up and successfully administer those responsibilities the job requires. Both earning the job opportunity and doing the job both increase the likelihood of achieving your desired outcome.

Begin with the End in Mind

The surest way to achieve what you want in life is to start by defining it. Unless or until you have a sure aim, you waste energy by moving without definite direction.

Start by identifying the outcome you desire. Then work backwards.

In the example above, identifying a desired outcome is easy. You have bills which will be due each month. And you know the exact amount you need to succeed: $1,000 per month.

By defining your specific desired outcome, you’ve set the boundaries.

Define the Range of Probable Inputs

Beginning with your desired outcome sets the parameters you must work within to achieve success. Coming upon $1,000 before your bills are due this month becomes your “floor.” Any set of activities which leads to at least $1,000 per month will satisfy your desired outcome. Any set of activities which leads to less than $1,000 is out of the question.

Setting the floor allows you to eliminate “null” inputs – activities which will not satisfy your desired outcome. For instance, a null outcome would be working only one part-time job that pays $8/hour. The activity will advance you toward your goal but by itself will not satisfy your goal. So you can eliminate it as a possibility.

Setting the floor also enables you to draw a boundary around “negative” inputs – activities which will reduce the likelihood of your desired outcome. For example, increasing your monthly expenses by $1,000 is a negative input. You can eliminate activities that work against your goal.

Reduce Uncontrollable Variables

Within the scope of activities that lead to $1,000 per month, you have a lot of options. Some jobs may even offer the possibility of far more.

But what you’re after is certainty. What set of activities is most likely to achieve your desired outcome. In considering all the different possibilities, you also want to identify those which offer the fewest unknown or uncontrollable variables.

For instance, you may discover a job opportunity which promises $25 per hour of pay. On the surface this seems like a great input to consider. But if after a closer look you learn the opportunity offers wildly unpredictable hours and no guaranteed minimum – you cannot be certain this activity will increase the likelihood of your success.

You’re not just looking for possible success. You want inputs which offer you a highly probable, repeatable outcome. So you can eliminate any set of activities that do not guarantee the opportunity of at least $1,000 per month.

Test, Observe, and Adjust

As the saying goes, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” There will almost always be more than one path in front of you which offers high probability of achieving your desired outcome.

Keep this in mind as you work toward your desired outcome. If you come across a set of activities that allows you to achieve your desired outcome more efficiently, or offers you more satisfaction in the process, take it.

The more you practice working backwards from your goal, the more effective you will become at filtering activities that increase the likelihood of your success from those which do not.

At any given point in time, you’ll likely have more than one desired outcome in mind – each with varying priority. When this happens, you can evaluate each desired outcome and activity sets in isolation – or, you could redefine the parameters: only consider activities which satisfy all your desired outcomes.

Just remember, it all starts with defining the outcome (or outcomes) you want. Then work backwards.

Don’t Let Somebody Pissing In Your Cornflakes Keep You From a Balanced Breakfast

I had a helluva week last week. A lot of shit outside my control almost derailed my week, my work, and my attitude. Except then I remembered an important truth and it turned everything around (well, almost everything). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A Case of the Mondays

By the time I sat down at my desk and fired up my laptop last Monday morning, my inbox was already overflowing. I had a long to-do list. And I was fired up.

I love Mondays so spirits were high. It was going to be a great week. I could feel it.

Minutes after logging on, my laptop bit the dust. I don’t just need a laptop to work. My laptop is my work. My business runs almost entirely online. I spend 60% of my day banging on a keyboard. And the other 40% on video calls.

The nearest Apple store was 20 minutes away. So I jumped in the car fully prepared to go buy a new device. But holding out hope it might be an issue tech support could fix quickly.

I showed up to the store minutes after it opened. But a surprise was waiting for me. Just that morning, the store began operating on scheduled appointments only – even if you just needed to buy something.

In order to get in, you needed an appointment, a clear temperature, and a mask. (Did I mentioned I forgot a mask?) The rep at the door told me the soonest available tech support appointment was 10 days away. But I could get in to buy a laptop if I was willing to wait 2 hours. The day is saved!

I jumped in the car. Drove 5 miles the other direction. Bought a mask. Drove back. Waited in the parking lot for an hour. Got in the store. Purchased a new device. And good fortune struck – they let me drop off my broken laptop.

By the time I got back home, it was 3:30 pm. I’d spent pretty much the whole day chasing my tail. I was frustrated. But I told myself to chill out.

“Take a breath, Mitch,” I advised myself. “You can’t win ’em all.”

Fail Friday

I planned to drive to Denver Friday. Part of the team was flying in. We planned to work together that afternoon, then do happy hour that evening. I looked forward to seeing everybody.

But fate had other plans.

I booked a rental car Thursday afternoon. It cost $60. What a steal, I thought. I pulled up to the airport at 6:30 am. Which is where I learned about my mistake. Apparently I’d booked the wrong date. No cars available. Time to make a hard sell.

“Ma’am, I’ve got to be in Denver today. I’m willing to get creative. What’s it going to take?”

Her fingers flew over the keyboard. She began negotiations over her walkie talkie.

“I can get you to Denver today as planned,” she said. “But it’s going to cost you.”

She swiped my card for three times the anticipated cost. Then directed me to the pickup station. I counted my blessings and skipped off happily into the sunshine. Well, kind of.

I jumped in the car and hit the road. Two stops before Denver. First, to grab a coffee. Then to swing by the house for a few personal effects. I love a good morning commute. I had an audiobook loaded up. This was going to be a great day.


I pulled off at one of those fancy Super Targets with the Starbucks inside. Just happened to be on the route back home. I was feeling extra froggy too. Because I ordered a Big Boy Coffee. (Venti Blonde Roast with a Blonde Shot).

I marched back out to the car ready to go. And that’s when I discovered I was in for quite a ride. Just not the ride I expected.

I tried to unlock the car. No dice. All they’d given me was a key with a chain. No fob.

Once. Twice. Three times I tried. That lock was not budging. I circled the perimeter. No other keyholes. Four. Five. Six times I tried again.

I took a deep breath. This is just a cruel prank. I’m going to turn this around.

And that’s when I noticed a bright pink sticky note on the keychain.

“Won’t unlock when locked” the note read. Brilliant!

So I dialed the front desk. Who redirected me to a roadside emergency line. Sat on hold for half an hour. Called back into the desk. Explained the situation. Transferred my call. Then again. Then back again. Finally a voice that said help is on the way.

A half hour passed. Then another. I began pacing around the car. The Super Target Mom’s club was beginning to show up. Concerned stares directed my way. I kept pacing. Once. Twice. Three times I circled the car. Four. Five. Six times. I felt like Joshua and the Israelites circling Jericho.

Another half hour passed. Temptation started a conversation. I could be in and out of Target with a lawn chair, beach umbrella and a six pack in no time I thought to myself. Tailgating Target – all these shopping moms would love that, I bet.

I considered smashing the window. Insurance will cover it, right? I wasn’t in the mood to cause a bigger scene. So I waited. And I paced.

After two hours hanging out in the Target parking lot, a mechanic showed up and picked the lock. I decided to cancel my trip. Returned the car. Stopped by for a refund. And summoned a $30 Uber ride home.

“I’m still going to make the most of this day,” I told myself.

I was down but not out.

From Pissed Off to Pacified: A Tale of Two Parking Lots

I spent combined 4.5 hours sitting in parking lots last week. Just waiting.

Circumstances outside my control put me in those parking lots. But I had a choice to make. I could wait angry. Or I could let it be.

Both times I defaulted to frustration. But why? Frustration did not change the situation. Except to make waiting more painful.

I failed to shake it off Monday. I let a situation beyond my control ruin my day. And I marked an “L” in the win-loss column on the day.

But Friday I remembered an important truth. One that turned everything around. I could not change the situation. But I could change my attitude.

So instead of pacing angry. I decided to laugh.

I laughed at the statistical improbability of renting the one car that didn’t unlock with its key.

I laughed at the ridiculousness of being stuck in a Target parking lot for two hours on a Friday morning that was not Black Friday.

I laughed at the idea of driving down a highway with a smashed out window. And I laughed at the image of returning the car and telling the story.

I laughed at the thought of a Target Mom calling the police to report somebody breaking into a rental car in the parking lot. And I laughed at the hilarity of a hypothetical front page local newspaper detailing the arrest and the silly circumstances that led to it.

And finally, I laughed at myself for getting mad over something I could not control.

Sometimes life throws curve balls. You can whine about it. Or you can learn to adjust. Things do not always go as planned. (Imagine how boring life would be if they did?)

But you always have a choice about how to respond.

Putting Yourself In the Way of Success

There’s a story about a guy named Edwin Barnes who desperately wanted to go into business with Thomas Edison (you know, the 10,000 ways how not to make a lightbulb guy).

Anyway, ol’ Barnes didn’t have a penny to his name and he’d never met Edison. But he focused so hard on his goal he convinced himself it was inevitable. All he needed was one shot to speak with the inventor.

So one day Barnes stowed away on a train and just showed up out front of Edison’s workshop declaring he’d come to go into business with him. Impressed and taken off guard, Edison offered Barnes a job – an hourly wage job doing “work unimportant to Edison.”

Haters might say he failed. But legend has it Barnes saw the job as the start of his business partnership with Edison. He put himself in the right place. All he needed was the right time.

Five years passed. Still no sign of opportunity beyond his hourly wage job. But Barnes did not flinch. And that’s precisely when his moment came. 

Edison released a new machine which his salespeople claimed to be unsellable. The invention fascinated Barnes. Who approached Edison with a proposal. 

“Tom, just give me a shot and I’ll sell this widget like ice-cold lemonade on a Mississippi summer day.” (okay, so I have no idea what he really said, but you get the picture)

And sell it he did. So successfully, in fact, that Edison entered into a business agreement with him to sell the machine all over the country. Which made him rich beyond imagination.

But this story isn’t about getting rich. It’s about the power of intention mixed with deliberate action.

Barnes did not wait around hoping and wishing that a great career opportunity might just happen to him.

He fixated on a specific outcome. Then he put himself in the way of opportunity.

Post inspired by Napoleon Hill’s Think & Grow Rich. Originally published via a weekly newsletter I write about how to live a more self-directed life.

Success vs. Fulfillment

I think it’s difficult to find real success unless you prioritize fulfillment.

Sure. You can get rich. Gain status. And win the praise of others. But if you’re unfulfilled, does it even matter?

When I think about my own life and how I’ve defined success over the years one thing seems constant – the goal posts always move.

Each achievement challenges further achievement. Incomes goals, career goals, status goal…you name it. Anytime I’ve been prioritized “success” over fulfillment, I’ve found it fleeting.

On the flip side, when I’ve prioritized fulfillment, I’ve found something altogether different to be true – an ability to be content without sacrificing future ambition.

A Personal Tale

When I graduated college I set a pretty ambitious goal for myself: double my income every year.

It was easy at first. Year one. Year two. Even year three. But as you can imagine it became more difficult in time. Through my first five years in the real world, I almost succeeded too. But then I discovered something I didn’t anticipate. More money did not make me happier.

As obvious as this might sound to you, it was actually difficult for me to understand. Because I had a wrong notion about success. I believed success was a function of keeping score.

That belief really led me astray for quite some time. It had me looking out into the world at what others were doing. Comparing myself. And then beating myself up over all that I had not yet accomplished by my age. Which honestly got pretty exhausting after awhile.

Two Steps Back, One Leap Forward

A few years back I left an awesome job at a company I loved. I’d been there awhile. I’d climbed the ranks. And I was making great money.

But something had gone missing. I’d lost the fire for my work.

For awhile I tried to rediscover it. I tried working harder. I tried working less. I tried journaling. I tried therapy. I tried changing up my schedule. I tried changing up what I was working on.

But the more I searched the less vigor I felt for my work.

After months of battling with this, I found a new outlet – an opportunity to go work on something entirely different. To leave behind one opportunity and pursue the next. A new challenge, if you will.

It scared me. But (thankfully) after some prodding from a friend, I made the leap.

I went from big fish in big pond to a small pond where status had no bearing. I took a +40% pay cut. I left a team where I’d been around longer than almost everybody to a team where I was very much the new guy. I went from a role where I knew exactly what it took to succeed to a role that I was larger learning everything on the fly.

And a surprising thing happened – I rediscovered my fire for my work.

Somehow my status and income had both declined but my happiness increased. Who knew, right?

How To Find Fulfilling Work

Roman Krznarick has an awesome book on this topic you should check out. It’s called How To Find Fulfilling Work.

In the book he highlights five dimensions of fulfilling work. Here they are:

  • Earning Money (Extrinsic)
  • Achieving Status (Extrinsic)
  • Making a Difference (Intrinsic)
  • Following Your Passions (Intrinsic)
  • Using Your Talents (Intrinsic)

Basically, we all have our own motives for doing what we do. Krznarick explains how some of those motives originate by watching people – see also mimetic desire. Krznarick called these extrinsic motives. These are the things we all usually think about when we define success – like money, titles, where we work, who we know, etc.

But in the stories Krznarick researched, in most cases, people who pursued extrinsic factors actually ended up less happy. They were missing something.

Krznarick argued that the motives that come from within – which he calls intrinsic factors – are actually the key to unlocking fulfillment in our work and lives.

He tells stories about people who left 6-figure consulting jobs to work in non-profits. Or left their high-status jobs to pursue their art. And a whole collection of other examples where people “traded down” (lower income and status) to become happier.

People became happier as the moved closer to roles that used their talents, made them feel like they were making a difference, and stuff they were passionate about. In most cases, they made less money and did less glamorous-sounding work (at least at first).

As surprising as it might sound, Krznarick’s theory suggests it’s actually not the money or status that makes us happy. Rather, it’s the stuff that makes us come alive that leads to real success – success from fulfillment.

Searching For Your Own Answers

It’s nothing new for people to be searching for answers. What’s the meaning of life? How can I be successful? How can I live a happy life?

Questions like this have challenged people centuries. Thankfully a lot of people have kept good notes. And there’s so much we can learn from exploring other people’s struggles on these same topics.

I’m very much still on my own journey of personal development. But I’ve found a lot of answers – and a ton more questions – by digging deep into how other people have approached questions like these in their own lives and careers.

Here are a few resources I’ve found useful throughout the years:

How to Find Fulfilling Work By Roman Krznarick

How Will You Measure Your Life? By Clayton Christensen

Outwitting the Devil By Napolean Hill

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World By René Girard

Start with Why By Simon Sinek

Do What You Are By Paul & Kelly Tieger & Barbara Barron

The War of Art By Steven Pressfield

You Don’t Need a Job – You Need Guts By Ash Ambirge

There are countless other good resources out there for exploring questions about success, happiness, fulfillment and the like. It’s a personal journey. And these are tough questions to wrestle with. But it’s worth it.

28 Things I’m Thinking About at 28

*The following post was adapted from a fall 2019 private journal entry – which I’m sharing publicly here now for the first time.

28 Things I’m Thinking About at 28

Something about birthdays always gives me pause – almost as if it’s a biological reminder to reflect on my life – to give an annual accounting of how I’ve spent my time.

This year is no different – and in the spirit of the sensationalist, click-bait times we live in, I’ve aimed to present this year’s reflections in as thoughtful manner as possible.

So here goes nothing.

Journal Entry – 6:20 p.m. November 18, 2019

1. Alchemy

Transforming the errors of my youth into golden nuggets of wisdom and life lessons (so I don’t repeat the same mistakes).

2. Mining

Extracting more value out of life – both from my time & labor, as well as the little things.

3. Treasure

Both wealth-building (present & future) but also why – I believe I have more good to offer the world if I’m financially independent.

4. Mental Hygiene

Practicing to live better mentally – less stress, more good vibes.

5. Physical Health

We won’t live forever. Both physical and mental self-care are critical.

6. Gratitude

This is a daily battle. But I believe it’s important to remain aware of the gift life is – and for what I have.

7. Joyfulness

Happiness has been an afterthought to ambition most of my life. I want to enjoy my life in the present though. To live joyfully now – not just with hope toward the future.

8. Curiosity

I’m never as fully alive as when I’m in hot pursuit of something I must know or prove.

9. Integrity

I want to be known – I crave to – as someone who deals honestly & fairly with others.

10. Compassion

I’m at constant odds with my desire to reason & my capacity for being human – without the latter in tact, I’ve lost something of grave importance for living a full life, and for achieving my potential. Remember to be human.

11. Identity

I’ve spent most of my life figuring out who I am not – and who I do not want to be. I feel more aware and comfortable with who I am each time I make one more step of progress toward that.

12. Hopefulness

I wouldn’t know what to do with my life if I didn’t carry an unshakeable belief that there is better out there – even if I can’t fully comprehend it.

13. Confidence

There’s no sense in standing for anything except what I believe to be right – the world will try to screw us one way or the other 😉. So might as well be comfortable living with myself.

14. Balance

I have a default “all or nothing” setting. It’s tough to be at odds with that – but it’s also necessary to find and practice balance. Which includes being at harmony with myself and my emotions.

15. Friendship & 16. Family

What’s the point of any of this if we can’t share it with anyone?

17. Fellowship

We live in a time where being present is constantly at war with everything else happening in the world. I want to get better at prioritizing and cherishing the limited, precious times and opportunities I do have with those who are important to me – not just idle time together – but time well spent.

18. Courage

The world can be scary. The odds are not in favor of the good guy. And that makes it all the more critical to fight to protect our individualism.

19. Encouraging

We’ve all got shit going on in our lives – that does not excuse me from building others up. I wouldn’t be where I am had others not encouraged me. Remember to pay it forward.

20. Patient

Damn. It’s exhausting to feel like I’m always being a reactionary… I want to protect my sanity and joy by getting better at letting things outside my control play out before flying off the handle. Remember to breath.

21. Thoughtfulness

It’s easy to take others for granted. I want to get better at acknowledging, recognizing, and communicating my appreciation.

22. Originality & Creativity

I have something unique and valuable to offer the world. Sometimes it’s hard, scary, vulnerable-feeling to put it out there. But it’s worth protecting that by persevering through.

23. Perseverance

Some days are tough. But nobody’s going to carry the water for me – and even if they offered, I won’t let them.

24. Personal Agency

I alone am responsible for my life, my actions, my choices, my words…and the consequences of those. No one else can carry my blame.

25. Industriousness

It’s not enough to work hard when the time we have is scarce. I must also invent my own way to prosperity.

26. Masculinity

Everything about being a man is part of the fabric of who I am – the good, the bad, the ugly. Masculinity is something to be embraced not renounced. Bridges and skyscrapers weren’t built by manicured hands.

27. Faith

My beliefs have been challenged more in the past decade than I ever imagined. I’m still working through the gaps – maybe I always will be . But I believe my life has a purpose higher than me. I can’t perfectly describe or articulate it. But I crave understanding of that purpose – and to be lost, wholly, in pursuit of it.

28. Love

My capacity and patience for the mysteries of my heart have forever been tethered to my faith. In periods of spiritual stagnation, love has felt like something within my control – cold, distinct, in-form, and calculated. In periods of deep spiritual longing – it has felt totally overwhelming, fierce, and both entirely incomprehensible and far beyond my control and mental faculties. Yet, in spite of the ebbs and flows – love has revealed its steadfast qualities to me. Through its unwavering – and at times undeserved – loyalties from others. And thought it’s consistent, sometimes soft but never-absent calling.