Treat success and failure the same in 2018

The problem with most metrics of success is that they're absolute when they should be relative.

By Bruce Grierson

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Sat 30 Dec 2017, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sat 30 Dec 2017, 10:29 PM

Take one last look at 2017 in the rear-view mirror. What's the final accounting?
Perhaps you'd pledged to be a few pounds lighter, a few dollars heavier. To have climbed a rung or two at work, donated more.
I give myself a C, by these metrics. Perhaps you did better. But even if not, I propose that a poor showing on this particular report card doesn't mean much. Because the report card is flawed.
In 2018, here are some better ways to think about the progress you're making.
It can be a downer to realise we're backsliding as the years pass: getting slower and creakier and heavier. Even if you try to eat right and get to the gym, the machine of your body can't do what it used to.
The problem with most metrics of success is that they're absolute when they should be relative. We should be measuring ourselves against others our own age - or better yet, against our expectations for ourselves. Not long ago, the microbiologist Leonard Hayflick was asked what had changed since he began his career 55 years ago. Back then, he said, "a respected scientist rarely thought about profiting from their work. Since then, the attitude has changed 180 degrees. Today, if a scientist does not have some commercial interest, they are considered to be a failure."
His point isn't that scientists or academics who bring their work to market are sellouts. It's that the very labels "failure" and "success" are ridiculously contingent on the culture's idea of what should be rewarded. If our efforts don't turn a buck or make us famous, we get the message that our work failed - even though it might be the best work we've ever done.
A better metric of success is the so-called jury of your peers. How do your colleagues feel about your work? Your "true fans"? If you're in any kind of creative field, that's the only feedback that really counts - the approval of the people who get what you're trying to do.
"True fans" is a coinage of Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly. These are the small group whose trust you have earned, and will now buy everything you make. They take the trouble to tell you how much they love what you wrote or designed or built. Feeling appreciated is worth a tonne. (It even has health benefits.
Those 1,000 true fans - who will talk you up, and stay loyal to you when the masses have moved on to the next fad - are enough to earn you a decent living, by Kelly's math. So even if you didn't hit a home run in 2017 - didn't make the bestseller lists or go viral on YouTube or win a major award - you were a success so long as you have 1,000 true fans in your corner. It's okay to have niche appeal. Why do we keep trying to win the approval of people we don't care about?
Ultimately, it all comes down to people. Author and business expert Ramit Sethi recently amended his New Year's Eve ritual. For many years he did the usual Dec. 31 accounting: Did the year unfold as he'd hoped? Did he get to where he wanted to get? "Well after awhile that sort of loses it - cuz there's no roadmap, right?"
So Sethi changed things up. Now there's only one measuring stick. It's not money, or prestige or possessions. It's the people in his life. "Who am I meeting, and what's the quality of those relationships?"
Sethi keeps a running list of everyone he encounters all year. On Dec. 31 he looks at the list. Is he at the level he wants to be with everyone? Some friendships he decides to deepen, some to let go. Your circle of friends and acquaintances is not a stock portfolio that you just sit on, in Sethi's view. You need to manage it.
On New Year's Eve ask yourself: Did I do well by the people I care most about? If not, how can I make amends?
So there it is. I hope some of this provides consolation, if 2017 didn't deliver for you, by other people's ideas of success. Forget those. Pick one or two metrics that are most important to you and put your energy there. I have a friend who measures the success of a year by her number of owl sightings. That's hard to beat.
Bruce Grierson is a social-science writer based in British Columbia
-Psychology Today

More news from