There’s always something to howl about

Failing up: The big secret to “the secret to success” is this: The “secret” is completely obvious to everyone.

I got a speeding ticket today. Oops.

The other week, I had what could have been a nice real estate transaction fall apart because I skipped a fundamental step, thinking it unnecessary, only to trip on it later.

Worst of all, a new software project I’ve been working on is failing, taking the SplendorQuest server down with it — as you may have noticed. I’m having to take it apart now — which just by itself has been a major undertaking.

O! Woe is me!

Not. I got a speeding ticket, which took about five minutes out of an otherwise hugely productive day. I worked in the car on my iPhone while the cop pressed hard to make carbon sets with a ball-point pen.

I blew a great deal, but every time I do something like that, I learn from my mistake and do better from then on.

And even as my one mad-scientist project burns down the lab, I had another one go live this week with, so far, very impressive results.

What’s my point?

First, if you’re doing something you’ve never done before, there’s a good chance you’ll fail — which is completely obvious to everyone.

Second, the only possible way to succeed at anything is to press on regardless, even at the risk of repeated failures — which is also obvious.

And third, “the secret to success” consists of focusing on the second proposition and not the first — which, yet again, is news to no one.

I can be thick, I know it, but I’m actually having to think about this stuff. My whole life, I’ve done huge things, big, big tasks, and I’ve never thought much about the motivations driving my work. I want my work done — that’s what drives me.

Until just lately, I had never thought about the way I work in the context of the formal idea of “goal-setting.” I’ve heard and read enough on the topic to know what people are talking about, I think, but I never made any connection to my own life.

For one thing, the goals were so abstract they seemed meaningless to me. Who doesn’t want to go to Europe? Who doesn’t want to drive a nice car? Who doesn’t want to lose weight? But those aren’t goals. They’re desires or longings, at best, or just plain whims.

As I’ve harangued, a meaningful goal has to be specific, detailed and objectively explicit. That stuff rolling around in your head is nothing until you give it form in the world outside your mind. You can’t hold yourself accountable without an accounting.

But there’s more to be learned here, I think: A goal that actually matters — a goal that can actually be achieved — has to be achievable from where you are now. “I want to learn to fly jet airplanes” might mean just as much, in the context of your real life, as “I want to climb Mount Everest.” Try these instead: “I want to take flying lessons” and “I want to practice on the rock-climbing wall at the health club.”

Huge abstract goals might make for fun imaginary movies, but if dreams like those are ever to come true, you have to start with goals you can actually attain right now, with your circumstances and your finances the way they are right now.

And all of that is obvious — but so is this:

Your reason for clinging to huge, abstract, unattainable goals is to camouflage your unwillingness to pursue the goals you can achieve. “If I can’t be a movie star, I’ll be damned if I’ll audition for the community theater!” File that one under: Things Losers Say.

Big things are normally just vast accumulations of little things. Want to write a book? Finish the first chapter, then start working on the second. Want to write a really big software project — perhaps one that can bring a very powerful Linux file-server to its knees? Write one big loop and a lot of little loops. Do you really want to fly a jet? You’ll start by flying an aircraft that looks and sounds like a Volkswagen with wings. Tell me you didn’t know all of this already and I’ll call you a bad liar.

Ontology is being. Teleology is shoulding. They become one as egoism, which has no meaning except from the inside out: Human identity is desiring and evaluating — choosing. Our being is shoulding. Goal-pursuit is how you manifest your future self, which will in turn motivate your future goals.

And that’s beautiful…

Consider these propositions:

1. “I want to achieve better cardio-vascular fitness.”

2. “I want to run every day.”

3. “Running every day is who I am. When I don’t run, I feel less like myself.”

Proposition 3 satisfies the conditions set by proposition 1 — but proposition 1 is not attainable as it is expressed. By contrast, proposition 2 is all you need to do to get to proposition 3. You start off running because you want to run every day, and you end up running every day because that’s who you are.

And you already know all of this. You know it because you’ve lived it over and over again. For everything you can do that most people cannot do, you got to the third state — a kind of easy, habituated virtuosity — by way of the second state. You didn’t set an impossibly huge goal. You set one attainable goal after the next, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.

But you failed you way up — you got better as a result of your efforts, and what began as something unfamiliar and perhaps unwelcome came to be so much a part of you that you cannot imagine your life without it.

Everything you have — that you value — you got that way. And everything you want can be had that way, too. All you have to do is set attainable goals, one after the next, and then keep failing your way up.

But you already knew that, didn’t you?


4 Comments so far

  1. Al Lorenz September 24th, 2010 10:25 am

    The gist of life, reinforced eloquently.

    Thanks Greg!

  2. Greg Swann September 24th, 2010 11:37 am

    Bless you, Al. Thank you.

    When I decided I wanted to learn Latin, I wrote study software for the Macintosh, one app for testing for declined forms, one for drilling vocabulary. I made the vocab software so it could run unattended, optionally, so I could study hands-free while working out. The point is this: When your goals are integrated with your real life, the life you are already living, everything fits together.

  3. Robert Worthington September 24th, 2010 4:47 pm

    Greg, one of my favorite books is failing forward. Sounds like you could have co-authored that book! You even gave me a pick me up! Thanks.

  4. Mike Pedersen September 24th, 2010 7:24 pm

    This is a very insightful post Greg! I’m a big believer in the mental side of success. You become what you think about most. We are a result of the choices we make all day every day. It’s not the event, it’s how we respond that counts. Like you working on your iphone while the police officer was writing up your ticket (I loved that one).

    Thanks for taking the time to write such an inspiring post.