Sustainable growth, improving in the face of success, and realistic costs. That’s what I’m going to talk about today. I’m going to put down my thoughts about why we can improve sometimes but other times it feels hard, why the biggest barrier to your future success might be your past success, and why you can “be anything you want” – if.
Before I get into it, I need to define a term I’ll be using a lot in this piece. The term is “juice.” Whenever you’re working on something, a lot of resources get used – time, money, effort, calories, social capital, decision-making fatigue, mental energy, sacrifices, and so on. Rather than write all of that out, I’m going to collectively lump all of that together under the term “juice.” So when I use that term, that’s what I’m talking about: the wide variety of resources, both tangible and intangible, that are required to make things happen.
Part I – The Scramble
When you’ve got nothing, success is easy. That’s because when you’re literally at rock bottom, nearly anything counts as “success.” If you’re broke and you go out and make fifty dollars, that’s a huge win. And I don’t mean to say that in a derogatory way or diminish it – it is a huge win. If everything about your current situation is bad, you won’t waste any juice on maintaining any part of it, so 100% can go towards forward movement.
But the more you gain, the more you have to care about what you’ve gained. If you work incredibly hard to turn a plot of arid land into a farm that can grow crops, that’s a huge win. But now you have to maintain that land – the farm will go south fast if you don’t pay attention to it. So you can’t put the same amount of juice into the next acre as you did to the first one.
When you push off against the side of the pool while you’re swimming, you get a great burst of speed to start. But then you’ve got to propel yourself while also staying afloat.
I recently had an interaction with a company that fell well within my area of expertise, and within that sphere, they were doing a lot of things wrong. But overall they were successful – clearly they were doing something right in other areas. Because I don’t ever want to think I have all the answers, I started digging a little deeper; maybe I was the incorrect one after all. But no, I’d found that similar experts had said similar things about this one area, even though the company was doing pretty well overall. So why weren’t they fixing this one thing?
Because 100% of their juice was fueling the maintenance of the things they’re doing well. They’re spinning plates. Their growth has been very rapid, but that means they don’t have a lot of their processes locked down, efficient and automatic yet. They’re scrambling. That doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out and ultimately be successful (they might!), but it does mean that future growth is going to be very, very difficult until they do.
In other words, their current success is hindering their future success, because instead of having juice to spend on growth, they’re spending it all on maintenance. You’ll always spend some percentage of juice on maintaining your existing successes – nothing will ever be truly automatic – but you want that outlay to be as low as possible, so you have enough left over to keep growing.
Part II – That Which Is Unseen
Frédéric Bastiat (a brilliant 19th-century economist) wrote about how it can be extremely difficult to grasp the reality of things that don’t happen but could have. If you slack off on maintaining your car and then have to pay 100 dollars for a repair as a result, you feel that very sharply. But if you slack off at work and as such don’t get a hundred dollar bonus that you otherwise could have, you don’t feel that nearly so much – maybe not at all. In both cases you’re a hundred dollars poorer than you could have been, but your mind treats those scenarios very differently. In other words, we feel the pain of losses much more sharply than the pain of foregone gains.
We’re always on the lookout for losses, but we’re nowhere near as good as spotting the places where we’re foregoing extra gains. This is true always, but it’s especially true if you’re already doing pretty well! If you’re dead broke, you’re looking out for any opportunity to make money. But if you have a comfortable income, you’re not as tuned to the opportunities where you could be making more if you changed things. If your business is generating good revenue, you’re not as aware of the places where it could improve.
Part of that is because you’re spending juice on just maintaining what you’ve got, so you have less for new ideas. But another big chunk is that we tend to think, “If I’m successful, I must already be doing everything right.” We let our egos get in the way. It’s good to be proud of your accomplishments – it’s just bad to be too proud. Leave yourself enough humility to improve.
Another reason we’re bad at that is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that only people more successful than us can teach us anything. And as you get more successful, naturally that pool of people shrinks down. But someone doesn’t need to be an expert to teach you something. Even if you’re successful, you’ve found one of potentially thousands of paths to get where you are. Other paths might have taught you different things. You took Path 1, so now that you’re here you’re successful, but you’ve reached a plateau because you’re great at Thing A but not so good at Thing B. Someone who took Path 2 might not have been as successful because they never learned enough about Thing A, but along the way learned a lot more about Thing B than you.
So before you’re quick to say “Who are you to tell me how to run my business, if you’re not as successful as me,” ask yourself – are you the maximum level of success you could possibly be, or is there room for improvement despite the fact that you’ve done well? And if there’s room for improvement – then you don’t know everything, and thinking that you do is holding you back.
Part III – Everything You Ever
When we tell kids “you can be anything you want,” we’re trying to be encouraging. To let them know that their destiny is their own. My favorite Dr. Seuss quote (and one of my all-time favorite quotes, period) is:
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
It’s not only true, it’s an important lesson to teach. But I think it’s incomplete – we leave out an important bit. I’m not the brilliant poet that Dr. Seuss is, so forgive me, but:
Some roads are expensive
And others are cheap.
Some paths are quite shallow
And many are steep.
You can still be a winner
When you’ve just lost the game.
You can take any path,
But they don’t cost the same.
To put it in a much geekier, less-poetic way: We don’t really teach our kids about opportunity cost, and we should. Yes, you can be anything – you can be a schoolteacher or an astronaut. But by any measure, being an astronaut is much, much harder to accomplish. If we measure success only by the end result, we’re getting a very skewed view of reality.
If I offered you a choice between a new Kia Forte or a Ferrari 458, which would you want? Most people would probably take the Ferrari. But if the choice instead was between a Ferrari 458, or a Kia Forte with $200,000 in the backseat, which would you choose now? Sure, a Ferrari is cooler than a Kia. But that’s measuring only the end result. The two hundred grand that the Kia didn’t cost might have bought a lot of cool stuff. That’s “that which is unseen.”
The lesson here is absolutely NOT that we should tell kids not to strive for things that are hard or require a lot of juice to get there. But everyone – kids and adults alike – should recognize that sometimes the thing you think you want costs way, way more than things that would make you equally (or more!) happy.
Putting this all together: Maybe you’re pretty successful. Maybe you wish you were more successful, but for some reason the trajectory has slowed for you. When you were broke and hungry you got motivated and took off like a rocket, but now the steps are longer and you’re not growing like you used to. You had an idea of where you wanted to be by now, but it was based on the rate of growth you saw ten years ago and that rate has slowed, so now you’re not where you thought you’d be.
It’s time to look around. Look over your past successes – are they fueling you, or draining you? Is it taking a lot of your juice just to maintain them, or are they giving you more? If it’s the former, then go reinforce or even rebuild them. Delegate your authority. Someone I used to work for just named a new CEO for his company so he could focus on a new project – that’s bold and correct, and not everyone can do that.
Doing that will help you in another way – it’ll put the spirit of the hustle back into you. You won’t be resting on your laurels, you’ll be back to doing something new. And with that will come the learner mentality again; you’ll pull yourself away from thinking you know everything, because you’ll face more failures, false starts, and setbacks. That will keep you humble and humility will help you learn. That which is normally unseen will reveal itself to you.
And then you can take stock. Success is a journey, but at some point you have to decide what it really means to you. You have to define the terms of your own happiness, and that’s going to involve a little price comparison shopping, too. There’s all different kinds of happiness, and they all cost different amounts of juice. But there’s a particular kind of happiness out there that’s ideal for you – you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes. You can find happiness that costs just the right juice.