My recent article, When to Quit, received quite a few comments and attention. Some people congratulated me for standing against the success hype currently within the self-help community for pointing out that sometimes working hard simply isn’t enough to achieve your dream. Other people criticized me for the same point. Unfortunately I think both these comments missed the real essence of the article and the true point I was trying to get across.
I’m not a believer in the falsely supported belief that all goals are achievable if you just try hard enough. I pointed out how this myth that circles most personal development material, although well intentioned, can be destructive if it is misused. But the point of my article wasn’t that you should give up on dreams that are difficult or even have a small likelihood of success.
The message was simply that it doesn’t matter whether you ever reach your objective because life isn’t about objectives. Whether your goal is to become president of the United States or something more humble like owning a successful small business, achieving that goal is just a inconsequential blip in the current of your life. What really matters is the path that leads to it.
Unfortunately some people twisted my message to indicate that because they don’t believe their dreams are very likely, they should give up. There are many flaws with this kind of thinking only the foremost being that it focuses on the outcome and not the path. Hopefully I can clarify some of those misconceptions in this article.
How Most People Pursue Dreams
Most people pursue dreams using a fairly simple equation:
Investment Necessary / Chance of Success (Must Be) > Satisfaction Gained
Simply read this equation means that the investment divided by your approximate chance of success should be at least as great as the satisfaction you would achieve from reaching the outcome. So if becoming a president would require decades of personal investment and the chances of success are incredibly low, you would need to really, really desire the outcome in order to pursue this path.
Just one problem: the formula is complete garbage! This formula is rooted in the completely false hypothesis that achieving the result is what will derive the greatest amount of happiness. Once you actually get your dream, you will likely revert to your original happiness level far, far faster than you had to spend investing in it.
This was the point I was trying to make in my article. That success guru’s try to fix the formula by saying your chance of success is 100% if you just put enough investment into it. Unfortunately the formula is so broken it is beyond repair. The truth is it doesn’t matter what your chance of success is because when you reach your goal it can’t possibly repay the investment in terms of the satisfaction gained.
Instead what you need to look at is the path that leads to your goal. Completely ignore your potential chances for success and instead look at the path. Will you grow along this path? Can you achieve smaller victories that lead up to your final goal to provide fulfillment? Is it a continuous path that will fill you with passion when you work towards it?
How You Should Pursue Dreams
The real way you should look at pursuing dreams has nothing to do with calculating odds of success (I’ll explain exactly why in a bit). There are only a few characteristics you need to look at for your dream to answer whether you want to pursue it and none of them have anything to do with potential success.
With this new mindset of achieving goals you can be completely satisfied even if your goal never gets realized. More importantly this mindset allows you to get out of losing yourself in a desert, chasing a mirage. Simply look at your dream and the path that leads to it. Although these characteristics aren’t rules, they are a good guide to use when deciding to pursue a path.
When deciding to pursue a dream, an important thing to look at is how continuous it is. Winning the lottery is a discontinuous path to a goal. There is no steady improvements over time it is an all or nothing endeavor. Running a successful business is often very different involving the slow continuous improvement over time.
If your dream allows for degrees of achievement, each with their own rewards of growth, fulfillment and passion, then these paths are generally better to follow. This isn’t a rule, mind your, but it is a good idea to look at when choosing what you want to do with your life. If each day you can experience little victories then it doesn’t matter whether you achieve the final goal.
The other important point with this is that if you pick a goal which doesn’t have a really continuous path, try finding another path that leads to your goal which is continuous. So if your path to becoming a famous actor is simply to audition for leads in major films, this is very discontinuous. However, if you take small steps in smaller productions working towards your goal you can make it a more continuous path.
Another characteristic of a good path to partake upon is one that is highly flexible. A highly flexible path is one where the growth you achieve in it is highly applicable to multiple paths. For example, if you wanted to work on starting your own business, you would end up growing in ways that would help you even if you later decided to pursue a completely different path.
An inflexible path is one that any progress towards it can’t really be applied in other areas. All paths are generally flexible to some extent, but the more you can transfer the growth attained to a different path later on the better.
Above all the key determinant in choosing a path is the amount of passion you have for it. Growth is universal and can be pursued in many different ways. Although growth is fundamental, passion is limited. You may grow extensively by either trying to become a doctor, athlete or millionaire but you may only have a passion for medicine.
Remember, you passion must be for the path and not the destination. If your dream is to become a famous movie star but you absolutely hate doing any small budget theater or commercials, your passion is only for the outcome. Passion must be something you can do every single step of the way, not just at the end.
Don’t Predict Difficulty
Because the path is what matters not the arrival, the difficulty of the path isn’t important. Not only is difficulty unimportant but it is foolish to try to predict. Too many people predict their chances of success as a reason for whether or not to try. In my opinion this is a completely stupid move.
At least self-help authors were right in telling you to believe you could make it if you tried hard enough. Because by telling you this at least you didn’t start trying to predict your chances of success. I do believe this was a sneaky move, but it is still better than basing decisions on your perceived chances of success.
As I said earlier most people use this equation when deciding whether to go after a goal or dream:
Investment Necessary / Chance of Success (Must Be) > Satisfaction Gained
The biggest problem with this equation, besides the fact that satisfaction comes from achieving and not achievement? The problem is that people are notoriously horrible at predicting their chances of long-term success in an endeavor.
Short-term success is pretty easy to estimate. You look in your immediate past and account for some variables and you can generally judge how well you will perform within a short period of time. Long-term success however is almost impossible to predict. Most people won’t even get in the right ballpark when it comes to how their life will be in a few decades.
Why is this so? The answer is simple. When you grow constantly you also change constantly. That change is also somewhat random and unpredictable. You might get dramatically better or only make small improvements. You might completely change who you are as a person and mature into something different.
As a result when you try to predict what your chances are of becoming a famous actor, a millionaire or a doctor you are basing it on your current skill level and some linear estimate of improvement. But in reality by the time you get close to your goal you will have changed so much that the goal might be ridiculously easy or still out of reach.
Traversing the Forest
Imagine your life as a dense forest. You can see a tall mountain in the distance and a winding path that leads to it. From your current position you can know where the peak of the mountain is but have no idea how far it is to get to. The path might wind around for hundreds of miles and end up at an impossibly sharp cliff. All you can see is the path immediately ahead of you.
My point in the last article and repeated again is simply this. Don’t ask yourself whether the mountain peak is too far away. Just look ahead in the path. Is the path worth traveling? If it isn’t find a different one. Maybe your path will eventually lead to the mountain or maybe you might miss it and end up somewhere else altogether.
Ultimately you will only stop by the mountain for a short time. You will spend most your journey winding through the paths inside the forest. Reaching the mountain isn’t important but how the path twists towards it.