Success By Surprise
Posted: January 8, 2018
Now that we’re just over a week into the New Year the annual “resolutions cycle” has fully run its course. You’ve probably seen your own versions. The posts made on social media tend to follow this pattern:
- Blaming a calendar year for all the personal troubles.
- Stating that the next calendar year will definitely be much better.
- Admitting to already failing at achieving the resolution.
Twelve months from now the cycle will repeat. Hope quickly turns to disappointment. Somewhere between now and then we all seem to forget that we’ll be pretty much the same people on January 1 that we were on December 31.
I’ve always tried to steer clear of traditional resolutions. In fact, I usually avoid anything that looks too much like “goal setting” as it’s taught. Goals have never seemed all that effective to me. I’ve been told the, often patronizing, advice that’s supposed to make them better. The “SMART” approach, taught in business schools and self-help seminars everywhere, extols the virtues of setting goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely (with a due date). While that is something that can be regurgitated during a test, it has never been effective for me personally. And, based on the aforementioned social media posts, it’s not that effective for many people that make resolutions either.
Another age-old (and equally patronizing) piece of advice surrounding goal setting is to reward yourself for successes. When making a goal you’re supposed to include a reward for when or, more accurately, if, it is achieved. This always struck me as redundant. If the benefit of achieving the goal itself isn’t enough of a reward, then I can’t imagine it was a very good goal in the first place.
In general, all this classic advice seems to go against human nature. While we like to think of ourselves as rational beings with our own best interests at heart, we still don’t save enough for retirement, don’t exercise regularly, and drink too much. (And that is very much the royal “we” I used there.) There’s a whole field of science called Behavioural Economics that uses psychology to determine just how flawed our decision making is and how to nudge people to better choices. While my interest in the actual science of that field is, at best, a hobby, it has certainly informed how I approach making decisions and achieving my objectives.
Looking back on my accomplishments (and I know in some cases calling them that is generous) I am far more likely to set myself a trap than a reward. I figured, at least subconsciously, that I’d avoid the pain of failure more diligently than I’d pursue the pleasure of a reward. For those that have doubted my approach, I always ask: do you think you’d run faster towards a pile of money or away from an attacking lion?
As an example, when I decided to embark on 260 Minutes, I set myself a trap. I made the project public and invited people to follow along. While, yes, this had some publicity benefits, its true purpose was to ensure I couldn’t back out for fear of the shaming I would endure. The sheer joy of successfully completing the year was great, but I knew that if I had failed the snide remarks from my peers (“Hows that 55 Minutes project going?”) would have been far more painful. Avoiding that experience, the trap, pushed me through the lows of the project at least a couple of times.
Regardless of what we choose to call these – goals, objectives, resolutions – or how we go about achieving them, there’s a certain progression. You decide what it is that you want and then you go and get it. This year I’ve been thinking a lot more about instances when that first step never happens. You have a success or an achievement and only realize in hindsight that it is indeed a success or achievement. It’s something that you would never have set out to do but are still grateful for it, you may even take some pride in it.
These surprises are a result, I think, of our naivety. When entering any industry it’s easy to see the biggest picture. In show business, you can see television appearances at major festivals around the world or on late night shows. In other industries, it could be the most prestigious position or the largest paycheck. While those big things are crystal clear from day one and tend to form our stated goals, the hundreds of steps along the way are nearly invisible to you at that time. They are all important and they can show you that you’re making progress even when the biggest goal is still far from being achieved. This sense of accomplishment can sometimes be a much-needed shot of motivation.
These surprise successes will, obviously, be different for everyone. They’re not necessarily pinned up on dream/vision boards. For me, this year, these surprises have included access to knowledgeable people in my industry (the types of people that can/will answer questions when I have them), acknowledgement and compliments from peers whom I respect, and the opportunity to see how different shows are created and produced. When I was starting out as a performer there is no way I could have guessed at the specifics of these or any other tiny steps but I know now that they’re leading me onto something much bigger. I’m using the start of this year to take inventory of them and it has made me incredibly grateful.
If you’ve set yourself resolutions for 2018 (and haven’t yet completed the usual “cycle” by giving in to failure) be on the lookout for these surprises. They could help keep you on track and excited to see your lofty objectives through – as they have for me on more than one occasion.