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Success. . . we all want it, and yet, it’s so unclear exactly what it is.
Success does not come in standard definition, and worse yet, it’s a constantly moving target. As soon as you grab hold of it, whatever it is to you, it runs ahead of you and looks back at you smirking.
Plus, many of us walk around with a sense that time is or already has run on out on our success timer. Are you 30 and still trying to find that right career? 60 and shocked to find yourself job-hunting again? 44 and it hasn’t happened yet? Oh dear!
One of the gifts of running a business is that every day is a new day to meditate on the meaning of success. Yes there are some generally agreed upon success benchmarks in business (Profitability! $1M! Hiring your first employee! Raising money! Getting acquired!), but unlike a more traditional corporate work situation there are no promotions to go after, no pay raises to ask for, relatively little external validation to seek.
Thus, you’re left contending with yourself and your own definition of success and your ability, or more likely, inability to live up to them.
So let me share with you what I’ve learned about success in eight years of business.
1. Success is first and foremost about survival.
My parents are Icelandic, which means that I’m the descendant of about a millennium’s worth of people who made a life on a glorified volcanic rock sticking out of the North Atlantic. Iceland is beautiful—yes—but easy? No.
The effect of these 1000 years, plus a strong tradition of rigid Protestantism, is that Icelanders are a determined bunch of motherf-ers who love to work hard—even if that doesn’t always mean working smart.
What does this mean for you?
It means that if you are working and supporting yourself and your loved ones, you are succeeding at the most important and fundamental challenge that all human beings have to contend with. You are carrying forth the legacy of every single one of your ancestors who survived in order to give you this opportunity and you should be damn proud that you’re doing it.
2. Every day is a new opportunity to succeed better and smarter.
So if you haven’t heard this before, let me be the first to tell you that running a business is one long and relentless exercise in failing over and over. It’s brutal. But as I’ve been pummeled I’ve learned something important: Every day is a new day to get up and try again.
Imagine for a moment that your age and your past failures didn’t matter and each day was a blank slate where you get another chance to line up at the starting line and give it another go.
Well guess what? That actually IS reality. Everything you tell yourself about what you can and can’t do is you focusing on the past. Today, NONE of that matters.
This means that every day you’re given a new chance to change your behavior, to sign up for that class, to return to your classwork, to go for that run, to apply for that new job, to ask for that promotion, to reach out to your network, to do SOMETHING to improve where you are and what you’re doing.
Now granted, no one wakes up EVERY DAY excited to give it a new go. I love nothing more than to forfeit my days and just get lost in Instagram. Just don’t squander them all.
3. If you are gratified and creatively inspired by your work, you have already reached success nirvana.
I was recently at a particularly raucous concert and afterwards I was thinking about the singer/songwriter on stage and wondering what his day-to-day work life is like.
I love listening to music and—like many people, no doubt—find that music is one of the few things that can pluck me out of my daily anxieties and momentarily transport me to another, more zen-like plane.
Given that, I imagine that working as a musician who is able to support oneself with one’s music must be one of the most gratifying and creatively fulfilling jobs possible.
But here’s the thing: As much as I’d like to believe that my singer/songwriter friend lives in a state of constant creative euphoria, I know it’s not possible. Everyone has to deal with the drudgery of everyday life and of making things happen. I love my job and find an enormous amount of creative fulfillment in what I do, but what portion of my time is spent enjoying that creative fulfillment? 10 percent? Maybe 15 percent in a good week? The rest is just me banging my head against a wall alongside everyone else. Maybe my musician friend can get up to 50 percent on his good weeks? I don’t know. Seems high.
I don’t say this to depress you; I say it as a reality check. If you’re even 1 percent creatively fulfilled by your job, that’s an amazing start. Honestly, if you are even 1 percent creatively fulfilled by ANYTHING in your life, that’s an amazing start! Self-actualization is the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The target is always moving in other ways we measure success (benjamins, an office (or a bigger office), recognition, impact, Oscar nomination, Tesla) but creative fulfillment in your work is something you can have at any point in your career. Keeping that inspiration alive is the only objective and unilateral success there is. So really, your job is to continue to chase and make space for and cultivate that feeling of creativity—in whatever form it comes.
Adda is not only the CEO and founder of Skillcrush, but also an instructor. With her self-taught tech skills, she’s worked on building sites for the New York Times, ProPublica and MTV.