The Myth of Success and Failure (and the Feedback Loop)

The fear of success is real. First of all, we have to cut loose all the "friends" who had a stake in our ongoing misery. They'd never admit it, but our stagnation has been a comfort to them. So you have to leave the wing clippers behind.

Jon Reed notes, 1/19/08: As the book gets close to publication, I wanted to share this updated chapter with you. This has always been one of my favorite pieces in the book. For the most part, the chapters on the web site are the original drafts, not the spit-and-polish finals. But for web site visitors, I’ve now added the final “book version” of “The Myth of Success and Failure.” This replaces the original version that was posted on the web site on November, 1, 2006 and was the version of record until today.

We are limited by success and failure. Boxed in by perfectionism, the fear of failure haunts us. Less well advertised is the fear of success. But Nelson Mandela was right: what we fear most is our own potential.

What appears to be a “failure” rarely is. Most failures are useful feedback loops, carrying valuable information about what we are good at and what we are not. When we develop a comfort level with that loop, not getting too down when the phone stops ringing and not getting too high when somebody kisses our behind, then we can move into a continual state of improvement.

The end result? We stop taking the world so personally. Ironically, it’s the freedom from approval that results in superior work. Those who are comfortable out on that limb, unconcerned with conventional success, have a strangely better chance of finding it. The system is far from perfect, but the material world does tend to reward people who have become exceptional. And you become that way through a very unromantic and non-magical process called trial and error.

Dig into the biographies: most people worth admiring confronted failure early and often. The sports world is filled with “cut from the team” stories. As a freshman, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round. So many great champions made their run after a worthy foe exposed their weaknesses.

Many who fear failure are very “successful” by professional standards. But they are not successful at the thing they love the most. The guitar is still in the closet. The “someday” business never got further than a half-finished business plan which now sits under a houseplant. As mortgages kick in, we become competent at careers like office management or software sales. We cling to those competencies like life rafts. But when it comes time to taking a chance on something we always wanted, we hesitate. Suddenly there’s a LOT more at stake. Sometimes it’s better to be a legend in our own minds than to be exposed as mediocre.

I have friends who are writing legends, but only in their own minds. They waited too long to start the feedback loop; now they are afraid to begin. Daunted by the brilliance of their favorite books, they can’t go further than a blank computer screen. The older you get, the more painful that empty screen becomes.
I spent so many years afraid to start writing that I almost didn’t start at all. So we find other projects to obsess about, like the crabgrass problem in our backyards. Fill our lives with enough clutter, and we are reassured: “I don’t have time to write a book.” Isn’t that better than finally making the time to do it, only to write a bad one?

What we forget is that being “bad” is part of becoming good. Legend has it that Stephen King tossed his first book in the trash – yet another example of why we must focus on meeting our own standards first. The critics and the doubters will kick and scream either way. The more you succeed, the louder they tend to holler. The solution? Keep improving.

The fear of success is an even more baffling phenomenon. When I bring it up, the barstool response is: “Fear of success? What are you talking about?” But the fear of success is real, as well it should be. Success comes with a price. Before we can go after the big dreams, we have to cut loose all the “friends” who had a stake in our ongoing misery. They’d never admit it, but our stagnation has been a comfort to them. So you have to leave the wing clippers behind.

It may be freeing to take the leap, but there are reasons to fear success. Even when change is for the best, there is a sadness to the process. It’s hard to cut the old gang loose, but more often than not, stepping into our own potential means doing just that.

But our problematic friends are nothing compared to ourselves. Living audaciously means junking comfortable habits. A night of drinking with our peeps is a lot more appealing than a night in the lab, working on ventures that highlight all our shortcomings. Being the best we can be is hard work. More often than not, we are our own worst enemies. We fear success because of how much it demands of us. If we are capable of so much, then why do we settle for so little?

It’s not easy to face the ways we held ourselves back. In college, I turned my back on a writing career, playing it safe with a pre-law curriculum instead. Trying to reclaim this career in mid-life is taking everything I can muster. I can feel sorry for myself all I want, but that is the price of my particular ticket.

I hope this book can make a difference in two ways: by inspiring people to act, and by giving them a “game plan.” Too often, we’re naively encouraged to chase our dreams but not provided with a strategy that takes into account what we’re up against. Hopefully, concepts like the feedback loop will convince some folks to give it another shot: armed with a better strategy, we should have a better outcome. And in terms of tactics, there’s nothing in this book more valuable than using the feedback loop to move beyond perfectionism.

The marketplace provides invaluable feedback each time we enter it. But the big reward of the feedback loop is psychological. Eventually, you get into a groove. You get used to putting your work out there. While you are curious about what people think, you are no longer defined by it. On a certain level, you just don’t care anymore. Not because the feedback isn’t useful – it is. You don’t care because you are free from the paralysis of attaching your self-worth to a project. You understand that success is a process, and the process happens by putting work out there, even when it’s flawed.

In Zen terms, you embrace the “beginner’s mind” and learn to love the learning curve. The more at peace you are with your own awkwardness, the more you can learn. (At least that’s what I tell myself each week at my “back to square one” guitar lessons.)

The feedback loop is the market’s way of letting you know which ideas resonate. What we hear back is not always what we wanted to hear, but we ignore the loop at our peril. To this day, the most common emails I receive are from SAP consultants looking for career advice. I would prefer that my writing on unsung 80s metal gods was what people responded to most, but it just hasn’t happened. My music journalism is the best writing I have ever done, but the feedback loop has been clear: the market values my SAP writing more.

That feedback can be a horse pill, but it is invaluable. So what do I do with that information? Does it mean I stop writing about unsung hair bands? Nope – couldn’t if I tried. But if I think a hair band book is going to put me on a yacht, I am pretty naïve.

So, I will continue to use my SAP knowledge, which the feedback loop has certified as marketable, to finance other projects. I’ll keep doing the hair band tributes, but not too often. The more money you have in the bank, the more you can err on the side of your own interests. But I’m at a point where I still need to find a middle ground between my passions and what the market will pay me for. This book is another experiment along those lines. I’m not sure what the feedback loop will prove.

Some might argue that you should ignore the marketplace because “money can’t buy happiness anyway.” They may be correct, but only to a point. Studies on happiness have shown that beyond survival, money has a diminishing return, becoming less important than community, family, and romantic love. But money is still a big part of happiness; it reduces our dependence on amoral institutions beyond our direct control. In a market economy, money defines the terms of engagement. Money allows us to finance ambition and send a few kids to school.

“Life on our own terms” might be at the heart of the working definitions for both success and happiness. So there is a connection between success, happiness, and finance. The exact formula is different for everyone, but in a market economy, removing finance from the equation is philosophically questionable. There is also something to be said for mastering your craft. That kind of expertise tends to lead to whatever people call “success.” Money is usually a happy byproduct of that process. By the time we’ve mastered our craft, we should be able to live off of it. If not, then we probably ignored the feedback loop. That’s OK, we can still make changes – if not to our focus, then to how it is marketed.

You can often redefine your area of mastery to make it more marketable without giving up the essence of the project. Real-life Example 1: you are a photographer who prefers doing your own exhibits. You start doing some weddings on the side to pay the bills until your exhibit work starts to sell. Real-life Example 2: you run a popular Web site. You decide to keep the content free but to place advertisements on it. You might prefer to go ad-free, but this gives you a better chance of funding your life. Strike your own balance.

A truly successful person is someone who has rejected success and failure in favor of an ongoing process of mastery. If you can do that while being good to those around you, you’re already one of life’s rock stars. By the time others start calling you successful, it won’t even matter anymore. If making it big is overrated, then it’s time to glamorize the humble process of becoming the best person you can be, beyond success and failure.

Want to buy Free From Corporate America or see reviews of the final published version from readers like yourself? The printed book is now available on with product reviews.

You can also get a discounted version of the final book in eBook (PDF) format, or you can pick up a copy on the Kindle. The published version of the book is significantly enhanced from the web version available on this site.

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