Success Isn’t Binary

A lot of people I have talked with assume that success is binary, which means everything that isn’t success must be failure. But the opposite of success isn’t failure. Or, it doesn’t have to be. And, that’s a distinction that can make all the difference. Unfortunately, it’s one that many people never learn to make.

Most people measure success by whatever the equivalent is in their job to that of shooting an arrow and hitting the center of the target. There’s very little margin for error: you either hit it or you didn’t. If that’s the case, everything else is a failure. That belief is often what makes us afraid to try, because success is narrowly defined as only the best possible outcome. In most cases, though, success is incremental. You try something and it works, you take a step forward. You try something else, and it doesn’t work, so you learn something and look for more things like the first attempt. Actually, success is built on failure…just think of Edison and the light bulb. Thomas Edison is often held up as the “fail fast, fail often” poster child. After all, he’s the “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” guy. He’s legendary for having tried a reported 1,000 times to invent the light bulb, saying, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Lost in that story is the fact Edison didn’t try 1,000 different things. He tried one thing: To invent a light bulb. He didn’t change direction. He didn’t change strategy. He didn’t pivot. His 1,000 “failures” were simply attempts to do one thing. Sure, he was failing fast and failing often — but that’s because he was trying fast and often. His success was the result of perseverance. Eventually, you get to wherever you were headed.

The success of the “Slinky” toy is an example of this…because where persistence is concerned there’s always a big break, even if the moment is only apparent in hindsight.  Like all entrepreneurs, the inventors had high hopes… and like many entrepreneurs, those hopes were dashed. As one of the inventors wrote, the Slinky was a “pure dud.” After years of sales failure, conventional entrepreneurial wisdom would say the inventors should have moved on. Taken their lumps. Absorbed their lessons learned. Failed fast, failed often, failed better, and failed forward. Instead, they stayed the course and their big break came in 1945 when the inventors convinced a Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to let them build a Slinky display during the Christmas season where the sight of Slinkys marching down a ramp caused a sensation. In less than two hours their entire inventory sold out.

When others give up, leave, or stop trying, the last person left is often the person who wins. Other people may be smarter, better connected, more talented, or better funded — but they can’t win if they aren’t around at the end. Granted, sometimes it does make sense to give up on ideas. Or projects. Or even businesses. But not because you’re “supposed” to give up in a relentless pursuit of whatever might be next. If you still believe in your idea, your project, or your business, don’t see failure as a signal to stop. See each failure as another step in the process of trying, learning, adjusting, adapting, and trying some more. After all, you haven’t truly failed until the moment you decide to give up. Especially on yourself.

This brings up another reason success isn’t binary: in many cases, it’s impossible to understand the best possible outcome. In fact, there are a lot of things that don’t qualify as a “success,” but shouldn’t be defined as failure either.

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Copyright ©John Trenary 2018

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