Why Successful People Don’t Focus on Success

Hello and welcome back to my newsletter! Last week I was writing about how gratitude is more about defining our future and who we will become, not only celebrating the past. This week I’m thinking about a mind shift to focusing on projects we can control, instead of big successes we can’t control.

Here’s my question this week: If most successful people say they never predicted their own successes, what did they do to get there?

You know the 1973 song “Ooh La La” by The Faces. Yes, you do. With that famous refrain:

I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger

It’s a great song. But there’s something wrong with that lyric. No, you don’t really want your younger self to know what you know now, do you? Right now, I don’t want to know what 80-year old me knows. Not yet anyway.

We persevere on projects because we don’t know yet what is going to stick and what isn’t. And even if we try to predict what’s going to work, how do we know it wasn’t the series of projects that came first which set the stage, built our experience, honed our craft? We don’t want to skip to the end. We want to live the best version of our life that’s happening now.

Stick to Your Short-Term Choices

We don’t know what we don’t know. And not knowing is both the angst, and supreme joy, of being 10, or 20, or 30 or __ years old.

My Dad had this bit of advice I always remember: When you think of where you are right now, you can easily trace it back in time. At school I met this teacher, who gave me a job, where I met Andre, who I went camping with, and we met those travelers from New Zealand…

It’s like cairns in a forest, breadcrumbs on the path. It’s so obvious from where you stand now. The opportunities and situations of your childhood, the choices you make in your teens and twenties, the schools you attend, the clubs and sports you participate in, the teachers, coaches, pastors, and mentors you listen to, all lead to the long line of choices that bring you to now.

And while each choice takes you down a path, you can’t really foresee where it will go. You don’t know who you will meet, what you will learn. So see it through – the adventure, the school, the class, the project you’re on at the moment. Commit. Or at least micro-commit to the experience.

Dan Gilbert and his colleagues did an experiment years ago at Harvard. They created a photography course, and invited the students to go around campus and take 12 black and white photos of their favorite people and places – faculty, buildings, classmates, etc.. Then they set up a dark room and invited the students to develop their own photographs and enlarge just two of them into big beautiful prints.

Then the teacher said, “OK, one of the photos you can take with you to keep. The other photo stays with the school and goes into the archives.” Half the group were told they had to decide immediately, and the choice would be final. The other half of the group was given fours days to think about it, and they could change their mind at any time. If they wanted the other photo instead, no problem. They could switch if they wanted to.

Those who had to make an immediate, irrevocable choice, reported that they were much happier with their choice than the other half of the students who had the opportunity to change their mind over the next few days.

If you can bail out, change your mind, second guess yourself, you can rationalize that decision and it can make you crazy. Stick with your choice, and see it as a small project, an experiment, a building block for something bigger to come.

You Can Control Projects, Not Outcomes

Instead of focusing on the goals you want to accomplish, start asking who you want to become.

Reframe the story you tell yourself. Stop focusing on running a 4-hour marathon, instead become a runner. Stop focusing on publishing a bestseller, instead become a writer. Goals aren’t a bad thing, but set it aside. Instead of focusing on the end result, focus on becoming the kind of person who can accomplish that goal. Ask yourself, what are the types of projects this person would take on?

“Habits are not a finish line to be crossed, but a lifestyle to be lived.” – James Clear

Neil Gaiman, the fabulous writer, said once that when he sits down to write, he gives himself just two choices. Write, or look out the window. That’s it. There’s no choice called scroll through twitter, check email, call Mom, or clean the kitchen.

The control he sets on his writing process is: Write, or look out the window. That’s it. It’s what he can control. He wrote great books by becoming a writer, not by focusing on writing a great book.

Stop focusing on the goal itself. Become the kind of person who accomplishes the goal you envision.


Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.