Sometimes success is shining a light on what’s going on.

Last week I talked about sometimes success is not failing. Other times success is actively looking to break things – or at least shine a light into the dark places. Just because there isn’t noise today doesn’t mean that everything is working as it is supposed to.

Shining a light on what isn’t going right can feel wrong. You are essentially pointing out where things aren’t working as they are supposed to. The reality of it is that someone would catch on eventually in all likelihood. Usually, that happens when something really bad goes wrong.

Waiting for that really bad thing to happen is bad policy. The worst case scenario is invariably worse than uncovering and fixing the issues yourself. In the latter method, you control the noise and approach. You can control the message.

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Sometimes all you can do is succeed at not failing.

Success and failure are not opposites. It’s possible to succeed while failing and it’s possible to fail hard while succeeding. This may sound stupid, but trust me, it isn’t.

Think it through, sometimes the best outcome is to fail. If the only way to kill a bad idea is to have it fail then that can be a success.

Likewise, sometimes success leads to failure through no fault of your own. You can do everything right, absolutely everything, but the outcome falls through because of the actions of others. No amount of your own success could prevent the failure.

Then there are the days when nothing is going right and all you can do is to continue to keep everything from falling down. All you can do is just barely prevent the failures from happening. All you can do is succeed at not failing. On those days, that’s as successful as anything and likely something to still be proud of.

The only person that can stop you from being successful is you.

There is only one person in this world that has the ability to stop you from being successful: you. It’s surprisingly easy to keep yourself from succeeding by doing any of these:

  • Setting unrealistic goals for yourself.
  • Underestimating your capabilities based on your current work instead of understanding your current capabilities.
  • Not creating systems for yourself to excel over time and allowing yourself to get stuck in what you do today.
  • Not setting any goals for yourself.
  • Not being willing to accept that you can succeed and do better for yourself.
  • Letting others dictate your path.
  • Trusting in luck to get you through instead of trusting in yourself.
  • Not creating strong relationships with people you can actually trust.
  • Trusting people who are not worthy of your trust.
  • Stopping too early.

It’s never too late to start on your path but it can be too early to quit. Focus on you. Who you are, what you are good at, and what you want from your life. Don’t let the success others seem to have on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites influence your definition of your own success. I’ve never met two people with the exact same goals and dreams for themselves.

You aren’t successful until someone thinks what you do is a commodity.

A commodity is something considered easy to get and safe to procure. It’s something that people feel just happens without a lot of complicated efforts. Everyone wants to avoid being a commodity because it’s considered entering “the race to the bottom.” But anything too complicated is too difficult to sell.

I strongly believe in working yourself out of a job. There is no task too complicated to automate or eliminate. If it’s something that adds value it should be automated (or at least greatly simplified). If it doesn’t add value it should be eliminated. Over time you should not be doing any of the activities you started out with if you are doing a good job. You’ve been even more successful if you’ve made the process look easy.

If someone looks at the work you do and thinks it is a commodity, that is often the sign that you’ve successfully simplified it to the point that you can move on to the next job. If you are the only one capable of producing a commodity item, you have the market cornered by definition. When people can sell themselves on what you do and none of your competitors can replicate it, that’s the very definition of winning.

Very little is impossible to accomplish when you define the problem correctly.

So much of success comes down to how you define success. It’s a feat that is self-fulfilling if done right. One person’s success may be in completing a marathon while another’s may be walking around their block three weeks in a row. Success is what you need it to be at the moment of definition.

The same goes for business projects. If your definition of success is to be a billionaire by 30 or to create a billion dollar business, you will likely be disappointed. However, if your goal is to collect experiences that will allow you to be given more responsibility over some amount of time, you have a higher likelihood of success.

Similarly, if you update your definition of success every few months, years, and decades you will continually push the boundaries of what you expected to do. Success is not actually an event – it’s a habit. Success breeds success and is built from doing one thing at a time.

Failure is often a requirement for future success because only through failure can we understand where our problem definitions were out of alignment with what we were actually trying to accomplish.

Give yourself time to be creative today.

Art is the key to successful work. All great work contains the seeds of art. A well-structured email must be clear, concise, practiced and give meaning to a specific audience. This is not much different in concept than what a painter does on her canvas.

Art happens when we are inspired to do more than the minimum amount of work. It happens when we want to give context, meaning, and response together all while fitting into a form that may not seem conducive to these goals.

Today I created a two page PowerPoint file to more clearly describe a project we are trying to get consensus on. This project has had pages of emails sent back and forth describing it. There are more than a few detailed excel models showing how the numbers work. There have been conference calls to go through the nuance and detail. There have been face-to-face meetings to get approval and ensure we have our risks covered. Yet through it all, the team was struggling to agree on the path forward with conviction.

Often the answer in the face of detail is simplicity.

Often in the face of simplicity is to provide nuance.

Art is in understanding how to get people to shift from where they are today to a new way of thinking. My two page PowerPoint will never be in the MOMA and will likely be forgotten in two days. But for the moment it helps to move a group of people forward with a new way of seeing something.

Art isn’t just in museums.

Always be sure where you stand, don’t choose your positions based on what you think others want to hear.

Authenticity is a word that is used a lot these days when it comes to culture. Leaders that are authentic are more likely to be looking forward and are easier for their teams to predict into the future. Their grounding can serve as a base for others to act from without needing to worry about unexpected pivots.

I have been fortunate in my career to work for a number of leaders that were both consistent and predictable. Did I always like their direction? Of course not. But knowing where they stood and the direction they wanted everyone to move in provided a lot of opportunities to drive things forward and still impact the direction.

One of my favorite ideas these days is “a bad decision is often better than no decision at all.”

Leaders that are inconsistent create an environment beneath the surface of indecision where there is often a lacking of accountability. When people don’t know what path they should take moving forward and leaders are not giving clear direction things quickly begin to stagnate and stop. Yes, activity continues but it is the continuation of past decisions and just keeping the lights turned on.

Innovation requires knowing where the path forward is. My favorite example of this currently is Microsoft during the Steve Balmer era versus where it is now under Satya Nadella. For a decade they lacked a strategic understanding other than “keep Windows dominate.” There wasn’t a future mission, it was all from the past. Now they have become an innovation monster. Their advances in every area they are focused on are moving entire industries forward and their brand has a cool factor it has long been missing. That’s the power of authenticity and decisiveness.

You don’t have to know what is going to happen. It’s your job to provide the culture and environment that allows everyone else to thrive and succeed.