The Problem with Success

By Patrick Cummings

Process is a hard thing to sell. Nobody wants to buy the album of outtakes and mistakes, of wrong turns and misfires. They want the good stuff, the polished stuff, the mixed down and EQ'd stuff.

So that's what we're sold. In advertising, instead of seeing the sixty hour work weeks and the sleepless nights, we just see the guy and the new car and the wife who's ten years younger and three times better looking. In the papers, instead of reading about the years spent refining skills, we get Jeremy Lin scoring twenty-five. Like it just happened one day. Like he just needed the chance to play. We get the correlation, but not the causation because it's far easier to celebrate results. They're often so nicely packaged, wrapped up so neatly it's easy to imagine them just beyond our grasp.

But it's a little bit like staring at a chicken and hoping for an omelette. Without process, we have nothing.

My entire life, I've wanted to be more, to be better than I was. As a kid, I would've given anything to be a better basketball player. My twenties were a wash of wishes--to be a better writer, a photographer, to be more adventurous and less fearful. And in every instance, my definition of success was other people. I want a jumpshot like he has. I want to write like she does. But never once did I wish to work as hard as he did or for as long as she would, because the problem with success is it hides all the work.

Call it the overnight sensation syndrome, the illusion accomplishment just happens, that success is a result of talent and not effort.

But life is a scalable system. You don't become good at anything without a cross section of complimentary skills, all of which require a certain amount of mastery. In his book "The Art of Learning," chess master and Tai Chi champion Josh Waitzkin calls this making smaller circles, advising us to "plunge into the detailed meaning of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick."

The plunge requires a conscious breaking-down of the necessary elements inherent in the success. Without mastering the most basic elements, we can never hope to develop competence at the most complex levels. I'll never be a better photographer if I don't understand exposure. I'll never get a better jumpshot without understanding follow through.

Without this, we are left adrift in the ocean of our own unchecked expectations. We see the shoreline, but leave it to indifferent tides to push and pull us there.

When I measure myself against the success of another, and I fail to consider the differences in elemental mastery between us and the effort necessary to close that gap, I will always fall short. For some, this might inspire action. But for many, myself included for too many years, it can lead to frustration, self-pity and, eventually, the ultimate defeat: convincing ourselves we no longer want something simply because the universe demands we go farther to get it.

To truly understand success, we must look beyond it to the work hidden in its shadow. We must pull the work out from its hiding place and examine it. We must worship it like we do the accomplishments it gives birth to.

Patrick Cummings is the Editor-in-Chief of Again Faster. Photograph courtesy of the author.