most humans i know learned how to be successful in youth. successful in sports. successful in school. successful socially. for me, i didn't learn the rules of success until i was in my thirties. this isn't to say i didn't experience success before i was thirty because i did. i found the woman i was meant to marry (and got married). i saw routine promotions in my work (several of which were surprising to all involved). i managed to stay out of trouble (sometimes luckily so). but all of those successes kinda fell into my lap or bumped into me. aside from getting married, they weren't through any directed intentionality of my own. then one day, on the tail end of an emotional breakdown of sorts, i wondered how much success i might have seen through my decades of life if i actually tried to be successful, if i directed my energy towards something, instead of just lucking into the occasional boon here and there. that rumination was the start of a long and slow campaign of discovery and growth for me.
learning to achieve as an adult gives you one distinct advantage over people who learned it in youth. it is akin to the advantage people who become fluent in a second language have over natural speakers. a natural speaker of a language knows how things should be, but they don't necessarily know why, or rather the specific laws that control why things are the way they are. the rules that govern adjectival placement in a sentence is a good illustration of this—why you would say "the big red house" and NOT "the red big house". virtually everyone knows this but most people don't know why or how they know it, they just do. but when you intentionally learn a second language then you are forced to very specifically understand its rules, else you won't succeed.
i found similar gains when i took to studying how people became successful. i needed to understand the math behind success so i could apply it to my actions. when you ask people who succeeded at things when young, they are not always able to verbalize the specific ingredients to it, or at least their responses are vague in nature. it was akin to when i was asked to teach a class about what i did professionally. it would seem trivial to talk about what you do all day every day but there is a shocking complexity to verbalizing something in a coherent and cogent way, something that is second-nature to you, to a room of people who don't know the first thing about your world.
after years of research i would describe the basic model of success as such:
no secrets here. all three points are most obvious. every human alive has lots of #1. the stumbling tends to start with #2. and the thing, in my experience, that really separates the doers from the dreamers is #3.
- desire/want/motivation/curiosity (there are lots of flavors of this)
- discipline (to my knowledge there is just one kind of this, it definitely comes in different sizes though)
- routine progress towards the goal (herein lies the most slippery and unpredictable ingredient)
regarding that elusive #3 there is no one method used here. there are as many approaches as there are success stories. that said, list and checklist are definitely a recurring weapon of choice on this stretch of deserted highway.
for instance, many argue that finding success has just as much to do with, maybe even more to do with, eliminating bad things than it does with doing good things. or put differently, you can cover a lot of ground by simply stop doing things that might be holding you back. want to lose weight? between the two below options, which do you think would get you further?
so the first and possibly most important step in turning something around would be a list--not a list of the things you should do but rather a list of things you should stop doing. while you are wrangling with those demons there will be lots of time to create those pro-lists of things that will accelerate and amplify your gains.
- eat more vegetables
- stop eating two desserts
in addition to the stop-doing-this list, the what-have-i-done record is, i would say, the next most valuable tool to making ground on a goal. seeing past gains is sometimes the only thing that can offer light (or hope) on a multi-year journey towards something that may have many days, weeks and even months of no progress.
with nothing more than those two tools you can cover lots of important, intimidating, and life-bettering terrain. and in what might possibly be the best and most surprising news of all, you don't even need a three thousand dollar computer, a clouded app, an mba degree, or a leather bound journal. a pencil, a post-it note and a conviction will take you anywhere you want to go.
image by bella dearmitt.