Letting Go of Success

So many articles out there on how to be successful – what to read to be successful. The best advice from successful people. The ways to succeed at anything. Decisions that will “crush” your success.

Success is a two-edged sword. It feels so good when you attain it but it’s fleeting – success, like happiness is something that happens in a moment. If you try to hold onto that moment, you live in the past and suffer. If you make success your goal, you live in the future and suffer.

Holding onto success will also hold you back and prevent you from achieving new heights.

Many years ago we were delighted when we rented a car and it had that new GPS thing – we knew how to get where we were going but we had plenty of time to try something new and maybe it would introduce us to some shortcuts. All four of us agreed that we would follow the route the GPS introduced. At first the route was the same, then it warned us of an exit we hadn’t anticipated. We waited in eager anticipation to start this new route. And waited. And waited. And the driver passed the exit. We asked why, and she replied that it wasn’t the way to get to our destination. We reminded her that we had all agreed to try a new route and she said, Oh yeah, I forgot. Recalculating.

The GPS announced another new exit approaching on the right. Approaching. Approaching. And we blew past it again. Again we asked why we hadn’t taken it. Again, she said that wasn’t how to get where we were going. Again, we reminded her that we were going to try the GPS route. Brief discussion about why we would want to try something new, when we already had a successful route. Finally she agreed to follow the GPS. Recalculating.

Exit approaches. Exit passes. Let me interject and say that we weren’t somewhere dangerous where, if we took the wrong exit, we could end up surrounded by terrorists or gangs or on a dark desert highway with no gas stations. This was Connecticut, for goodness sake. The worst that could happen was that we’d get stuck in traffic, which was pretty much a given on our normal route. She agreed once more to try a new route. Recalculating.

I was in the back seat and, when she passed the next exit, I held myself in check, for a brief moment reflecting that her inability to change seemed only to be irritating me. Then her brother nearly leaped over the seat and her husband turned to her, both demanding to know what her problem was.

Her problem was that she felt successful taking the route she knew. If she let go of that route, she might have to let go of that definition of success. And because that was so important to her, we spent a whole two-hour drive recalculating while she stuck to the route she knew.

A small example, but we all see it all the time and we all do it. Perhaps you were responsible for the development of an in-house system at work; it’s successful for a while and, by transference, you feel successful, too. It’s so successful that it persuades company leadership to finally invest in the purchase of a professional system that can do so much more than your home-grown solution. But you feel threatened – if your successful system is replaced, maybe you won’t feel successful any more.

Or maybe you are successful in your current role – so successful that you get promoted to lead your department and hire or promote someone to replace you. That person has some great ideas of their own, but you worry that if they don’t do things your way, that they redefine success, things will fall apart and, by transference, you won’t be perceived of as a success any more.

Or maybe you get a promotion and insist on applying the same skills from your old job to your new job. Every detail gets your intense scrutiny, you review and revise every memo, every single decision requires your approval because, you say, this is what makes you successful.

So what can you do?

Let go. Let go of success. Let go of believing that what you’ve done in the past is the only way to be successful in the future. Sometimes it can be easier to let go by defining success in a new way – in this role, success is developing the people who work for me, encouraging them to take risks and make decisions, even if those aren’t the decisions or risks that I would take. In this role, my job is to set the strategy for how our department interacts with the rest of the organization, not to focus on what happens within the team. With this project, success is selecting and implementing a system that enables our organization to achieve our business goals, not recreate what I had created before.

In this situation, success is evaluating GPS and exploring new routes, not getting there as soon as possible.

What are you successful at? And how is it holding you back?

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