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Public successes and private failures
Takeaways from the week that passed by
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The most glamorous moments of our lives are littered on social media. They signal that we have arrived and made it. Instagram-friendly vacation pictures, workplace accomplishments, and humble brags masquerading as life advice are common signals of public success. Despite their social value, do they really constitute a happy and meaningful life?
I feel success is not a badge of honor. Last year, a blockchain unicorn acquired a stake in Network Capital. In the startup world, people regard it as a significant milestone. I remember the media articles, interviews, congratulatory phone calls, and social media posts about the achievement. For something that started off as a passion project, it felt like a substantive outcome 2 years after I quit Microsoft, moved countries, and started a new life.
While all the external affirmations felt good, I got a chance to reflect on what happened only on a flight from Poznan to London when I was undisturbed for four hours, had no one around that I knew, and found the opportunity to absorb what happened. The flight was held up for hours on the tarmac but I felt this indescribable sense of peace. In that fleeting moment, I felt infinite.
No one can really know what the future has in store or for how long the glow of success will last. All we have is private emotion. Psychologists define hedonic adaptation as the tendency to return to a set level of happiness despite life's ups and downs. Basically, life goes on, we adapt to the new normal, and successes and failures pass. In a classic study, 80% of lottery winners worth millions of dollars claimed to be no happier with their lives a few months after the supposedly life-changing outcome. In fact, most lottery winners end up broke. Perhaps success rubs off on them in the wrong ways.
Success is an intrinsic feeling that manifests between moments. For anyone who has ever felt successful in anything, how we feel about the achievement matters a lot more than perceptions. Surprisingly we pay greater attention to the latter. It sucks the joy out of achievements and makes success a tournament for demonstrating our persona.
What if we flipped the switch? What if we reflected more than we projected? I reckon we will be able to give the special moments in our lives the attention they deserve.
Failures are more complex emotions to deal with, especially private ones. To advance my point, let me introduce two mental models. The first comes from investor Nassim Nicholas Taleb who says that if we can look in the mirror and reliably say we made our eighteen-year-old self proud, we are successful, else not. The second comes down to the simple definition of self-respect: the relationship we have with our own self.
Combining both these mental models leads me to my definition of failure. If we let our eighteen-year-old self down and build a poor relationship with ourselves, we fail. If not, we are ok. I have met innumerable people with illustrious resumes who liberally give wisdom about life and careers. Many of them privately regard themselves as failures for either of these reasons:
1. They compare themselves with others and drown in the misery of envy
2. They feel they have ticked all professional boxes but never really gave a chance to their true self to explore, tinker and be
3. They don’t respect themselves even if the world around them seems to
Even when it comes to failures, we care about perceptions, unfortunately. Many people talk about failures that make them look good and accentuate their positive qualities like resilience, can-do spirit, and sense of possibility. The script goes something like “I was broke but I became a millionaire”, “I was rejected 10 times from X but got a much better gig on my 11th try”, “I used to be an addict, now I am a monk”.
Personally, I love these transformation stories. Learning from the difficult experiences of others has played a pivotal role in how I think about my work and my life. However, every failure does not have an inspiring ending.
Entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel says, “Failure is neither a Darwinian nor an educational imperative. Failure is always simply a tragedy.” A part of me agrees with Thiel because I don’t think that tragedies are such a bad thing. They happen to all. They are a part of life. Getting over this intrinsic urge to transcend every failure into something practical prevents us from truly realizing its significance.
I am not inviting you to wallow in your misery and let failures be. Try and try hard, but know that how you deal with private failure will define who you become, and shape your outlook toward life. Failing and feeling compelled to give it a positive spin is disingenuous. Giving it an honest shot, failing in some of your pursuits, and accepting it for what it is, is maturity.
No one succeeds or fails for too long. If you can process both emotions for what they are, you will be just fine. The key is to not feel too proud when things go well and not berate yourself when things go awry.
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Quote of the week: “The longer I live, the more deeply I learn that love—whether we call it friendship or family or romance—is the work of mirroring and magnifying each other’s light. Gentle work. Steadfast work. Life-saving work in those moments when life and shame and sorrow occlude our own light from our view, but there is still a clear-eyed loving person to beam it back. In our best moments, we are that person for another.” Maria Popova