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Is Success Make-Believe?


Yesterday I fell down a well. In the well there was plenty of exploring to do. It was just like you’d expect it to be. Skeletons, coins, and rays of sun which hit the water like a spotlight. No not literally – literally falling down a well would be ridiculous. It was the well of new insights.

This is a post about something that I don’t understand, because even though the words continue and are one-sided, goals remain a big driving force. A bunch of you are probably similar and have a large amount of impatience when it comes to your progress. So this post is hypocritical. And it doesn’t have much to do with adventure. But sometimes writing about stuff can be a good way to attempt to understand it, and that’s what this is. (Shoutout to the awesome for the inspiration and insights)


Loads of us have struggles with ambition vs. contentment, goal setting vs. happiness, being excited about where we are now vs. looking towards where we want to be.

Selection bias is when something is reported but is biased and inaccurate. Reported ‘success’ is plagued with it. The outlets we watch, read, and listen to all suggest that we should invent an app in our twenties and sell it for a billion dollars within 18 months. It’s mostly about winning with speed,  whilst we’re young. But fast-success is like winning the lottery and rarely happens. We gloss over slow-success – the kind that is achieved by plugging away. We gloss over the years of hustle. The years when it doesn’t work.

There’s an actual reason why we only hear about the fast, young success stories. And this is the bit that blew my mind whilst in the confines of that well: a few influential marketers caused us to celebrate young and fast, because it sells more stuff.

Madison Avenue in the 50’s. A bunch of ad execs got together and decided to sell products to younger people. Why? Because you can sell more stuff for longer to younger people. Companies make more money because younger people buy things for their whole lives. It’s not as hard to persuade a young person to buy something than an older person who’s already picked whether they’re Team Coke or Team Pepsi. It’s marketing, and it’s the reason and the root of why we are conditioned to think that it’s normal to reach ‘success’ fast and young. But it’s not actually very normal at all.

Da Vinci was born in 1452. Let’s call him L D V because everyone loves an acronym. He got a painting apprenticeship when he was 14. He then got a few freelance gigs, messed them up completely, and no-one would hire him to make stuff anymore. He had to paint dead criminals to get by. But during his dark days he kept making, kept bashing out work, kept painting. Kept creating for 16 years and still nothing happened. It was 1498 when he had a breakthrough and made something that anyone cared about. It was called The Last Supper and apparently it’s alright.

Same story for most people. Think of someone you know who you think has it all figured out now, delve into their story and I bet you’ll find that wasn’t always the case. There’s generally this long and sustained period of failure before anything happens. We’re happy to ignore that it takes years. We’ll gladly disregard the first 9,000 hours of the 10,000 hour rule because the story’s not as good if that bit is mentioned. We think overnight success when it’s closer to 20-year success.


It seems like there’s a few takeaways. We should be ambitious, because it’s a powerful driver. If bigman L D V stopped being ambitious, and stopped being persistent towards his mission, then that would’ve been bad news for him, and for the world if that’s your kinda thing.

For the grand missions, we shouldn’t worry or become too impatient if things take longer than expected, or longer than is ‘normal’. Because modern normal has literally been skewed for profit.

If we are driven by a meaningful goal then we should be happy for it to take time, and expect this time to be when people doubt. Doubt is OK if you’re committed to the long-game. Here’s some of my own selection bias: People doubted Google in 1998. Guess what, doubters? They just brought out a self-driving car which will use sensors to stop people being killed in car accidents. No-one in their right mind doubts Google anymore. They remembered to never listen to anyone who isn’t in the ring. They remembered to be stubborn in times of doubt. They remembered that critics who chime in without ever having made anything are trolls.

It’d be really easy to end here with a mega-cliché. The classic one that you know already. Featuring the words journey and destination. Urghh, sorry. Let’s not do that.

Shouldn’t ignoring the goals and taking joy from the process be the most crucial ingredient? Seeing something taking shape should be the reward. Everything else should be a side-effect that isn’t the focus. Maybe we should ignore the pressure for things to happen quickly because that’s what we’ve been brainwashed to believe is normal when it isn’t.

When the meaning behind doing what we do is the right one, the slow plod is the right path. Because without even knowing it we’ll probably look back and realise that, whilst it might seem like a process wrought with irritating plateau’s and speed bumps, we have come a long way and are taking steps forward. Perhaps that’s more important than success or reaching a goal. Perhaps that is enough?


(p.s. here’s a more adventure-centric post for Sidetracked about going for a walk in Alaska.)

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2 comments on this post

  1. Barb Barna says:

    Great post, Dave. I consider myself a 57 yr. old “work in progress” ! My grand aspirations sometimes consist of getting through the day! There is much to be said for living in the moment, and I don’t think we generally know how to do that anymore. TV has ruined our expectations of what is real, and I see it daily.
    I also enjoyed reading you story about the trip to the bus when you were in Alaska. I was holding my breath as you crossed the river :-)
    Take care!

  2. i’m gonna buy your book.

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