Three Measures of Success
I’ve been thinking recently about the metrics we use to measure success when pursuing self-motivated ambitions. These metrics tend to fall into three major categories, which I’ll list from easiest to hardest to achieve:
- Participation Metrics: The goal here is to simply invest regular time toward the ambition. For example, if you want to become a writer, this might involve creating a daily writing ritual.
- Unconventional Custom Metrics: The goal here is now clarified to specify concrete outcomes, but these outcomes tend to be custom-built and not widely recognized as marks of success in the field. Returning to our writer example, a custom path to success might steer toward self-publishing, with much of your focus now directed on mastering the technical mechanics of Scribner, KDP, freelance cover designs, and well-paced e-mail marketing campaigns.
- Conventional Competitive Metrics: The goal here is to achieve outcomes that are widely recognized as impressive. In our writer example, this might be a big book deal with a major publisher.
The Power of Competition
When it comes to the three categories from above, I think the first category is reasonable for dabbling with a topic, but it won’t take you much farther than that, so you shouldn’t be satisfied with this measure of success for too long.
The second category is more worrisome.
These unconventional metrics are insidious because they provide enough illusion of accomplishment to keep hijacking your limited energy, but ultimately they rarely provide much return.
The reason they deliver so little is that they’re usually designed to avoid competition checkpoints — steps in the process where many aspirants enter, but only a much smaller number win the ability to continue. This might sound nice, but such checkpoints are crucial for advancement in many ambitions. It’s these competitive clashes that force you to hear someone say, “this is not good,” and therefore find the motivation to return to the woodshed for more of the inevitable hard practice, driven to produce a different outcome.
This final point is why I like the third type of metric. Pursuing highly competitive and unambiguous definitions of success for a given ambition, if you persist, will force you to improve your skills at a rapid and sustained rate. This process can be ego-crushing at times (as I know from many personal experience in writing and academia), and in the moment it’s much less satisfying than implementing some hyper-specific life hacks, but it’s this scramble to win a limited resource that forges professional talent.
So this is my simple observation: When deciding to embrace a self-motivated ambition, choose a definition of success that your aunt in Peoria would understand and find impressive. This is not about succumbing to the status quo, but instead setting yourself up to receive the brutal but useful feedback needed to eventually start producing things too good to be ignored.
(Photo by shutterbugamar)