I’m no stranger to hard work. I will doggedly grind away at whatever task is required to reach success. I’m tenacious when something I care about is at stake.
When I was a kid, I worked long, hot summer days at a riding stable to earn time in the saddle. We lived in the American South and the heat and humidity during July and August could easily knock you out — quite literally — if you weren’t careful.
I spent entire days in the sun shoveling shit just for the opportunity to get on an ill-tempered horse for an hour. It was worth it.
And when I wanted to change my career and freelance instead of answering to someone else in an office, I worked 80 and 90 hour weeks for months to make it happen. I didn’t sleep, I usually forgot to eat, and I’d go days without stepping foot outdoors.
I spent all my time and energy hustling just for the opportunity to keep hustling once I quit my job and work for myself. That was worth it, too.
Hard work is the way I learned to get results. Through tenacity and sometimes sheer brute force and strength of will, I could make things happen. I could reach success if I stubbornly refused to let go of the outcome I wanted, or threw myself and everything I had at whatever obstacle I faced hard enough to break it down.
This became such an ingrained habit for not just results but for my entire life — strive for something you want, fight for it, get it, repeat — that I quickly fell into a dangerous place of constant unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and despair.
The Trouble with Chasing Success
How is this possible? How can I accomplish big things in my life — and find everything more and more dissatisfying and myself less and less happy with every success? In fact, how can I feel less and less successful every time I achieve something?
I talked about this recently with my parents and my boyfriend. My mom congratulated me on a recent success in my work, and I shrugged it off.
It wasn’t a big deal, I said. She was just excited because she was my mom. Other people were doing more, doing better. I said I should work harder, and then, just maybe, I’d have something to feel worthy of celebrating.
They all disagreed. My boyfriend, in an attempt to help me understand the trouble with chasing success like I did — thinking it was a place to reach and no matter what I did I was still very far from reaching it — shared an analogy of what it was like to watch me set the bar so unbelievably high for myself:
“Imagine everyone has a bucket, and we all want to put water in that bucket. It’s hard to put water in the bucket for many reasons, and most people struggle. They don’t try, they don’t care, they don’t know where to get the water, they can’t ever find a way to get the water to the bucket, they can’t fix the holes or cracks in their bucket — there are countless reasons why individual people find filling the bucket difficult.”
“But you’re filling your bucket! And you don’t say, ‘Wow, most other people just don’t get this and here I am making progress. That’s great! I am a successful person!’ Instead, it’s like you put this bar across the bucket and say, ‘I put some water in the bucket. But the water still isn’t high enough to touch the bar. I am a person who fails.’”
“Never mind that the bar is meaningless because you put it there. You made it up! No one else knows the bar is even there to reach, and besides, the whole point was to just get some damn water in the bucket and that’s hard enough!”
I couldn’t argue with him. He was right. And that’s the trouble with chasing success. It’s a bar you can’t ever reach.
You can’t reach it because it’s completely made up. Even the definition of success itself is a made-up thing. It’s a social construct that shifts and changes depending on who you ask (and when).
How can you chase down an idea, a concept? It’s like trying to hit a moving target that you can’t even see in the first place.
Success Is a Moving Target (and That’s Not a Bad Thing)
Chasing success is absolutely futile. Have you ever felt like you’ve really made it? Think about the last time you accomplished something. Was that it? Was that the thing you needed to do to feel complete?
Of course not. Even if you spend some period of time enjoying the results of your efforts, you eventually settled back down into that familiar state of wanting to achieve more. Instead of getting any closer to an end point, it felt like the finish line moved as far out in front of you as whatever amount of progress you just made.
Success is a moving target. The moment you move toward it, it moves almost the exact same distance away from you.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you can change how you think about your definition of success, it can cease to be something that’s constantly marching away from you at the same pace you’re marching toward it.
I suggest we redefine success as a path we embark on, or a process that we flow into. It’s something that we can check in with to determine if we’re “successful” or not, but it’s not something we can catch and hold.
I’m working to define my own success as creating and maintaining freedom and choice in my life. If I am free to spend my time the way I want, I am on the path of success. If I can choose where to be — and how to be — I’m enjoying the process of success.
Success as a Path and a Process, Not a Place
Success is neither final nor finite.
It’s not final because you are never “there.” There is no “enough” when you talk about success because you never stop learning, improving, or creating. You can always reach a higher plane.
Chasing success will only exhaust you because it’s not a thing you can catch. Success is not something you reach or arrive at.
And that’s why it’s not finite, either. It’s not a place. It’s a process with a starting point, but no end. It’s a path you can start walking down, but to enjoy it you must progress down that path knowing that you will never reach its end.
And that’s okay, because that’s not the point. There’s no place you’re going. Merely a process that you’re taking on to experience.