Define Success

I was chatting online with a few people the other day (yeah, I guess you could say it’s getting kinda serious) and one of them asked an interesting question.

“When,” he asked, “is it the right move to quit? Not like ‘I give up’ but more like, ‘this isn’t working for me’.”

We were talking about writing online, and he was clearly having some second thoughts about his site. A few people had answers for him — mostly along the lines of if you’re not enjoying it any more why bother? That was more or less what I said, too.

Of course “only do things if you enjoy them” is terrible advice. There’s a lot more to it than that. I’ve found myself lost in the weeds more than once in one project or another. There comes a point in almost every endeavor when you’d rather not continue. This is true even of very enjoyable things. Three quarters of the way through the tub of ice cream, there’s a moment where you have to sit back, maybe undo a couple of buttons, get your nerve up for the final effort.

Hard work is a part of everything worthwhile. So quitting something because you’re not enjoying it isn’t always the best call, because that way nothing really great gets made.

There has to be a better way to decide when to quit something and when to forge ahead. I’ve learned that an essential component of that decision always has to be defining what success means for the project in question. Jamie Ryan has a good article about this which particularly relates to writing online. I’d encourage all writers to read it. He actually doesn’t arrive at a particularly satisfying conclusion, but he comes up with some good possible metrics for success which might fit you.

Of course, knowing what success means to you isn’t the whole answer. You still have to figure out if what you’re doing is bringing you any closer to your goal. But I’ve found that there’s tremendous clarity to be had in lifting your gaze to the future and envisioning the possible paths to the outcome you want.

It’s also often motivational, in those times when you’re slogging away without immediate reward.

The real challenge

Looking around yourself in confusion, weeks or months into a project, is probably the default for a lot of people. I know it is for me.

My problem is almost always that I get excited about something and work some kind of weird mind game on myself to avoid actual rational thought before I’m completely committed. The projects I’m really passionate about, from the start? I don’t generally take the time to define success in concrete terms. I’m almost always going off my gut.

This is good, because I get a lot of momentum, and sometimes that carries all the way to the end of the thing. Amazing! Problem is, it often doesn’t, and then I end up quitting feeling dumb, or grinding it out till I’m not embarrassed to hand it off.

So my new thing that I’m trying to do is define what success is at the start of everything I do. Everything from projects down to individual conversations. Man, it’s tough. Lizard brain says no. But when it pays off, I’m saving myself a lot of effort.