Success is a strange idea. Unlike most words, it means something completely different to each of us. We measure and define it as individuals and groups, and yet it’s still something we all strive for: we want to be successful.
But what does that mean in a world where the future has arrived a decade earlier than anyone expected?
Language is a powerful tool for shaping our reality. The truth is that our old understanding of success brought our world to the brink, and we have a unique opportunity to write a new definition that empowers us to develop an understanding of success that helps us create a world that is more fair, just, and sustainable.
It’s time to write a new success story; but first, we need to understand how we got to this point, and unravel the success story that’s been written on our behalf.
GROWTH MEANS SUCCESS, RIGHT?
Way back when, our ancestors didn’t have to grapple with the fluid meaning of success. Their only goal was survival, and that did not change for centuries. Granted, we got more efficient at ensuring our survival by farming and developing weapons to fend off predators, and the means to travel to find more comfortable conditions – but it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that we started to see success as anything other than staying alive.
Mass production opened up an entirely new world, and saw a dramatic shift in priorities. In a very short time frame, we went from a time of scarcity, to abundance. And rather than worrying about how to survive, we had the security to start to expect a certain level of luxury, comfort and convenience from that life.
And we were hooked.
The growing demand for an easier life fuelled an industrial explosion. Newly-formed companies scrambled to cash in on the exponential demand for everything: we needed bigger farms to feed more people. Factories grew to manufacture the appliances and machines that made life comfortable.
There were undoubtedly positives to this growth: expanding markets meant that there were jobs that lifted families, communities and countries out of poverty, allowing for us the time to develop the technology we needed to make some of our most important scientific discoveries.
But there was a dark side to this early success. The feeding frenzy and growth was making a lot of people incredibly wealthy, and so greedy that the elite prioritised growth over everything else. Profit came first, regardless of the impact on people, animals and the planet.
And somehow that wasn’t the worst consequence of building an increasingly industrial society. As the manufacturing world become normal, ordinary people were conditioned to actively aspire to keep the machine moving. We were educated to find, and fill, a small role in a bigger process.
Crucially, we measured our success by how seamlessly we functioned within those boxed-in roles. The better we complied, the more we earned – allowing us to buy the badges we were told we need to declare our superior status. Our success could be measured by how much stuff we could buy.
It’s a dangerous, dark spiral that has fuelled ruthless competition – not only between cold-hearted businesses who refuse to take responsibility for ravaging our natural resources, but also between ordinary people who have been told that we have to do whatever it takes to beat everyone around us in our endless race for to get “more”.
We simply have not been able to shake the belief that we live in a time of scarcity. But we are fortunate enough to live in an age of true abundance and opportunity. And what’s more, we’ve been given a chance to rewrite our story and start again.
WRITING A NEW STORY
The pandemic is a tragedy and I do not mean to take anything away from anyone who has a lost a loved one to the virus, but it has presented us with a unique gift. For the first time in modern human history, we have a chance to pause, and reassess who we are, what we are doing, and what we’re going to write in our chapter of human history.
I believe that rewriting that story of obsessive greed starts with redefining what it means to succeed right now, and by implication, to fail – because this is the generation that will take the planet down a new path – even if most of us don’t feel like world-beaters at the moment.
There’s a reason for that lingering, vague negativity that’s become like a shadow for many of us: we simply don’t have the usual parameters in place that we rely on to navigate reality. American neuroscientist Dr Andrew Huberman suggests that we can handle almost any challenge if we have a clear understanding of its Duration, the Path ahead, and the Outcomes of the struggle.
Think about a strict diet you’re trying to follow. Normally, we set the time frame (Duration), plan our meals and exercise regime (Path), and focus on how much weight we’d like to lose (Outcome). It’s the same when we earn a degree: we know that for the next 4 years (Duration), we’ll be expected to navigate constant testing and exams (Path) as we get closer to earning a qualification (Outcome).
These three factors make almost any experience manageable, but right now, we don’t have any of them to anchor our thoughts. The pandemic has no expiry date, and every day is a fresh step towards an unclear outcome – and that’s not likely to change.
So, how do we navigate forwards? It starts with understanding failure.
At the beginning of the year, people working freelance, who invested in their passions and explored multiple career paths were labelled as unreliable or even lazy – simply because they did not fit the manufacturing mould. Now, that approach allows us to cultivate our curiosity and build a futureproof personal brand as we enter an era that’s all about the business of you.
Don’t let the lack of “DPO” trick you into believing that you have failed just because your life has been changed by circumstances beyond your control. Instead, we can all use this pause to focus on the memories that tie us to the past: to make sure we’re energised and excited to move forward, we need to heal ourselves from past hurt that’s holding us hostage, as well as the memories we didn’t get a chance to make
Painful memories can force us to repeat harmful patterns that hold us back: so we need to confront them, feel them, and heal from them. Then, we need to work through the five stages of grief in reference to the plans we had made. Many of us are still holding onto what was “meant” to happen, and it’s another anchor to the past. We need to let go of those future memories, too.
Free from those memories – and the past we’ve left behind – we can start to write ourselves a new story – but it’s not as easy as just choosing to start a new chapter. We need to be resilient enough to conquer our complex world with confidence.
REDEFINING REALITY WITH RESILIENCE
One of the biggest shifts that we’ve seen as the result of the pandemic is a movement away from complication, towards complexity.
It’s a subtle but important distinction. We’d built a world by using our growing access to information to predict and plan our next step. Think about the way investors (used to) make decisions: they’d look at historic performance data, read consumer trend reports to try and suss out what’s happening in the market, and try to find patterns that protect their investment. Even though this meant sifting through a lot of complicated data, they could do so with confidence, because we had developed the mathematics and technology needed to recognise and process those patterns to the point where a large part of the process was automated.
Our world is simply too complex to do that: it’s all become too random, volatile and chaotic, and we cannot plan ahead when totally unpredictable events may lie just around the corner. Unlike complication, complexity cannot be processed because any patterns that emerge aren’t repeated. In a complex world, uncertainty rules: today, investors have no precedent to base their planning on, and the result is a jittery, reactive, cautious market.
In this multi-variable, unpredictable world, what we need is resilience; but I don’t mean that we must simply develop the ability to bounce back to “normal” repeatedly when setbacks knock us down. Instead, we need to be able to move forward as experience help us evolve constantly, learning from every moment instead of just getting back up again unchanged.
There are three phases to being resilient. First, we must Respond to the circumstances we face – whether that means dealing with a delayed order or shifting a business into a new space. Next, we need to Recover as best we can, while coping with uncertainty around demand, supply, labour markets and credit availability. And lastly, we need to Reimagine the way forward, understanding that consumers, employees, businesses and industries are all changing.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER?
We do not need to accept the success story that we’ve been told for decades; in fact, it will continue to damage us and our planet if we do.
We have the chance to create a new definition of success: a definition that replaces ruthless competition with curiosity and collaboration to uplift everyone rather than simply funding the few.
To pursue that possibility, we need new businesses that can overcome complexity, and drive a new doctrine – not of growth at any cost – but of adaptable resilience.
So I urge you to use this time to heal your past, mourn the memories you could not make, and become the resilient writer of a better collective future where our success is shared.