Worrying about success is a massive waste of time and energy, yet a lot of us fall prey to this anxiety on a regular basis. Back in the day I used to worry constantly if I would ever be able to live up to some abstract ideal of personal success. I didn’t even know what that ideal was or what it meant to me, yet I was relentlessly putting enormous pressure on myself. Needless to say, it was draining and I couldn’t enjoy much of anything.
While these inquisitions into my own worthiness do still creep up every once and again, I have reframed what success means to me and have developed a simple action-focused mindset that helps me maintain stability and confidence, and vastly improves the quality of my life.
The article below (edited for clarity, and to remove some stylistic writing choices that I have outgrown), originally published back in 2016, happened to be the foundation for that transformation. Revisiting it over the years has proven beneficial, and the simple ideas contained within still ring reassuringly true for me. I hope that you find them useful as well.
— Artem, 2020-01-11
“Do I have what it takes?”—this (fundamentally flawed) question, along with its many permutations, is at the core of anxiety about success. It positions you against something defined as it, and it requires you to have something that you, supposedly, do not. And so, the worrying begins.
But here’s a thought: worrying about success is the number one obstacle to success.
And here is another: the antidote to worrying is action.
We’ve all heard this before and it’s not what we like to hear. If blaming things on factors beyond our control externalizes the problem, action places all the responsibility back on ourselves. And we do not trust ourselves! How could we? Unlike our friends and colleagues from whom we diligently hide the majority of our vulnerabilities and unhealthy patterns, we know for certain that we are not always as strong as we’d like. We know that we are prone to bouts of laziness, wandering attention, and lack of consistency. We despair when even after sustained periods of action we get no meaningful results. We think that maybe we are just not cut out for it, that we don’t have talent, or that inconvenient circumstances are always getting in our way.
But this is normal and it does not mean that our dreams are naive and have no hold in the big world. We just need to develop some confidence. And how do we get confidence? Action.
If somebody asks you to pass the salt, you don’t worry about whether or not you can do it. You don’t start having a mini panic attack thinking: "I haven’t watched any tutorials on salt-passing in a really long time." No, you don’t think any of that. You just say: "Sure thing, ma dude," and you pass the shaker. Mission accomplished. Success!
Yeah, I know, passing the salt isn’t writing a symphony, and maybe the latter takes a few years longer to figure out, but why was passing the salt so easy? Because moving through space is the most advanced skill you possess, second perhaps only to breathing and blinking. You’ve been working on this skill for [insert age] years, every single day. In all kinds of different environments you’ve been grabbing, throwing, kicking, hanging, biting, squeezing, punching, scratching… In winter, in summer, on skis, in the ocean, on planes, vertically, horizontally, upside down, under the covers with your roommate’s twin sisters... You get the idea. You got sweaty, and through constant repetition and fine-tuning you became a master. Even couch potatoes are pretty good at passing the salt because they’ve gone through the motions enough times.
Long story short: Repetition. Adjustment. Gradual improvement.
But how did we get so good at moving our bodies? How come we didn't quit mid-way like we do with so many other things?
Well, I have a theory.
Apart from the sheer number of hours that we've spent working on our motor skills, there is another huge contributing factor to our success: we learned to operate our body long before we learned to worry. As little clumps of baby fat and poorly-coordinated limbs, we put one foot in front of the other again and again and again, without the slightest hint of doubt about whether putting one foot in front of the other was possible. In fact we didn’t think of the act of walking as walking at all—it was, literally, a step-by-step process. Even when we fell down we didn’t see the falls as discouraging. We cried because it hurt, but it was just part of that strange experience of placing one foot in front of the other.
In the absence of worrying about the outcome, failure doesn't make us wish to quit—it pushes us to get better.
The complete inability to worry about whether success is attainable—what a perfect recipe for success!
Yet, as adults, we are all about the big picture and not the step-by-step process. When we walk, we walk somewhere. When we work, we want our work to be immediately effective. We try to cover the distance between point A and point B in one perfectly calculated, flawless leap. When that inevitably fails we despair and begin to worry that maybe we are just not all that good after all. But success is not based on one perfect step. Success is focusing on how to better place one foot in front of the other.
Just imagine if instead of having fun learning to walk as babies we’d sit around and complain about how we can’t start walking just yet because the 5th ring of Saturn is not in proper alignment and we are not under the right atmospheric pressure. We’d never be able to take a couple of steps! But since all present-day humans know how to walk we pretty much have a historically proven strategy for success: stop worrying, start doing.
But how do we stop worrying? How do we get off that damn forum on which we’ve spent the last three hours looking for encouraging comments that invalidate our fears and reaffirm that whatever it is that we want to do is indeed possible?
There are two things: (1) We need to identify the loopholes in our worrying cycle to destroy it, and (2) we need to build our confidence through action.
Number one (you’ll like this one): Basically, when it comes to doing something, there are two options: you either do it…or you don’t. You cannot possibly be starting a company, and not. You cannot be practicing the piano, and not. So you are either moving forward, or you are not. We get lost when we forget about this, so we have to remember, whatever it takes, that ACTION IS SUCCESS. Period. Doing is success. Success is doing. If you aren’t doing, you are not successful. If you are doing, success is already yours.
Success is not a destination. Success is moving forward. So what if you aren’t the greatest yet? As long as you are doing, you’re not not doing, which means that you are successful. Inevitably.
But what if your worst fears are indeed true? What if your worrying is only the confirmation of your lack of abilities necessary to succeed? You want to break into an industry but it’s cut-throat and your chances are slim? This could be true. And it’s scary. But ok, your chances are slim, so what? Are you going to stop? If you are, then why are you still reading this? And if you are not, then why are you spending so much of your precious time worrying if you are going to make it or not, if you are going to do it anyway? Here is a very simple fact: your choices are few—to do or to not do. Worrying does not fit into this plan. There is just no reason for it. From now on, from here on out, hereafter, and for the remainder of eternity, worrying if you can do or be something is once and for all proclaimed bullshit. Worrying is a waste of time. Bye-bye worrying.
Number two. Lack of confidence. Yes, here it is, the catalyst of failure often disguised as “the circumstances aren’t right,” “it’s too late,” “I have no talent,” etc. We worry about these things. A lot. The arguments are multifaceted and they go deep, and maybe talent is a real thing. Fine, I’ll give you that, BUT! Ever seen those dudes with no legs who skateboard? I don’t mean like sit on a board and roll around in circles, but legit legless dudes who shred in skateparks and land gnarly tricks, rails and all. Yeah, you’d think that if skateboarding required any talent, having legs would be it.
"You ain’t got legs? Sorry to hear that, bro." *chuckle*
But those limbless sons of bitches are stubborn, passionate, brave! They know they ain’t got no talent for skateboarding, so they say screw it, and they take the talent that they do have (their determination), and… they reinvent the game. That’s right. They carve out a niche for themselves so they can go all the way to the top. Best legless skater! Woo-hoo! They find ways to bypass their missing skills. They REINVENT THE GAME.
(Psstt, could you pass the salt, mate?)