thinking

On Success as a Burden

I had a crazy first day at work this year. After a few weeks of Christmas holidays, I came back to work energized and happy to see the awesome bunch of people I get to work with.

About two hours in, we had reached two thirds of the entire months’ sales quota. It was really weird. While money is not by far primary to what we do, if you want to run a successful company, it does, of course, need to make some money. Now we had in a few hours brought in the majority of the sales we had projected for the entire month.

But then things went crazy. I received a couple of emails that confirmed that a few really long shots we had taken had come through. And as I was going home after the day’s work, mulling over these successes, the biggest breakthrough of the day (and the last half a year or so) landed in my email. I was completely dumbstruck. When it rains, it pours, I guess.

When I was walking towards my front door I realized we had had four independent big successes, big ones to celebrate on a montly or even a quarterly basis – on the first day of work, no less!

But I wasn’t happy.

We had had financial success, marketing success, a big deal come in and a few new doors open that I hadn’t dreamed could happen. All in the scope of one single day.

And while I do know from a truck load of studies money or fame don’t really contribute to happiness, I had in fact done all this while working with what I love, with people who I really admire and cherish. So everything should have been amazing.

But it wasn’t.

After some head scratching I got an inkling of what was going on.

A ton of studies show that lasting happiness arises from pursuing activities that are intrinsically rewarding – ie. fun in themselves; and spending time with people whom you love, with whom you are respected and with whom can be your authentic self.

I would emphatically argue that we have all this at work.

But happiness requires one more thing. Your attention needs to be where happiness is generated. In other words, in your work, or in your people.

And this is how success can go sour.

If you focus on your work itself, or the authentic interactions with the people you work and live with, you will flourish. But if instead, your attention is on financial success, the praise for your product, or in that huge marketing breakthrough, it will be shifted away from your real sources of happiness.

Now you do need those successes to keep going. A company that does not have financial or marketing successes is not going to be a company very long. But paradoxically, if you focus on those successes once you have them, you will not be happy.

Your attention will zoom in on the results that you’ve achieved.

And results are scary because they are static. Life is not.

What with life being a living, flowing thing, it is almost a given that many of your successes will eventually be gone. And that is scary.

We need successes to keep going, to have a direction for our work. But we need to zoom out from those successes once we have reached them, and carry on with our work, towards the next big thing.

The key is to keep moving.

To do what you love, with people you love.

And to cherish the doing and the people.

As Lao Tzu said:

“Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.”

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