Sand slipping between fingers by Silke Remmery

Success is a Time Bandit

By Riley Major, 2018-08-21

Success is a funny thing. Everybody has their own idea of what it means, and often they’re wrong.

Sometimes they think something will make them happy when it won’t; other times they underestimate the costs. And regardless, once you achieve your goals, you just end up making new ones. You’re never done; you’re always pining.

Humans are good at adapting. Eat enough salty food and it doesn’t taste salty anymore. Spend some time around something stinky and eventually your nose stops wrinkling. Get a new phone and marvel at its speed and features, only to take them for granted and complain about its faults in a few weeks.

It’s human nature. The last bite of a candy bar is never as satisfying as the first. Your first few jumps on a trampoline lift your spirits, but eventually you’re exhausted and your head starts to hurt. You rejoice in seeing your kids after being apart but soon you’re wishing they would just go play by themselves for a minute.

Unfortunately, this happens with money, too. A dollar isn’t worth the same to a prince as it is to a pauper, even though it has the same buying power. While this might make wealth transfer an effective tool for increasing societal happiness, it also means that once you start making the money you thought you wanted, you end up wanting more.

That’s why your vision of success is a moving target. As you succeed you keep moving the goal posts because what you have is the new normal.

As you learn, you automatically adapt to your new level. It never feels like an accomplishment because you continually take for granted what you already know. And the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. So you continue to face the same daunting challenge of the unknown, and it feels just like it did at the beginning. It’s demoralizing, and an important part of teaching is motivating students by forcing them to take stock of how far they’ve come.

Yet we seldom apply that philosophy to “success” in general. We don’t look to our mentors to tell us how great we are, but rather to help us be greater. And unfortunately, adulation from others has the same diminishing returns as everything else. Your first Like on a post is a thrill; after a few hundred you’re looking for how to turn those notifications off. A growing following doesn’t provide the validation you seek. There’s always someone with a bigger audience to compare yourself to.

So chasing success is in some ways a losing battle. You’ll never consider yourself to be successful. But it does provide some motivation; it does provide a reason for being, if you don’t have anything more fundamental to drive you. But don’t forget the cost.

Striving for success in any traditional sense— more money, more power, more prestige, more impact— requires work. You have to differentiate yourself. You have to do more. Sure, there’s an element of working smarter rather than harder, but generally hard work is a necessary (*but not sufficient*) element of “success”.

Unfortunately for our cherished idea of a meritocracy, hard work is only a part of the equation. The other part is luck. Luck takes a lot of forms— like the right idea at the right time or a serendipitous confluence of people and opportunities. But sometimes “luck” is about where you happened to be born, what you happen to look like, how healthy you happen to be, what abilities you happen to have, how much your parents happen to help you, or who you happen to know.

And even if you win the humanity jackpot— you’re in a place with stable resources, relative safety, and access to technology, giving you a head start over billions— you still have to work to distinguish yourself. You have to trade your most precious, finite resource— time— for the *chance* to advance toward your goals. And here again, your very nature conspires against you.

As a kid, you have oceans of time. Remember summers? They were endless. Every year was a huge portion of your life, yet still only one of many dozens to come. You could afford to waste time, then. And waste time we did! Remember boredom? You had so much time you didn’t even want it all. You wanted to skip to the good stuff.

And here you are. Is it the good stuff yet? It doesn’t matter, because you’re too busy. No matter what, you want more time. As how much you have left diminishes, each bit matters more. So the irony is that the more time you’ve taken to acquire your skills— the more valuable you’ve made the gift of your time— the more valuable that time is to you.

Are you sure you want to spend it on something as elusive as “success”? And then what? Success has maintenance costs; you have to keep paying time to stay on the top of your game, until your eye catches on the next big thing and you resume your chase. Because once you’re here, you’ll want to go there.

So what’s the moral of all this? Is it all doom and gloom? No. It’s simple, really. Appreciate what you have. But try not to do it by comparing to others who might not have it. Instead, think of what you can share— even your own time— because someone else’s appreciation of it will rekindle its value to you.

Photo credit: Song Lyrics by Silke Remmery

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