The Illusion

Successful people get what they want more often than the rest of us.

What could be more obvious than that?

After all, we could say that, in many respects, that’s the definition of success: the ability to get what we want.

If we don’t get what we want, we’ve failed. If we do get what we want, we’ve succeeded. And the people who get what they want most often are the most successful.

End of story.

So we take this idea and use it to compare ourselves to “successful people.” And it’s no secret what happens. We come away feeling frustrated and discouraged.

Just look at them out there “getting what they want” at almost every turn while we sit here struggling to make it and mounting up failure after failure.

And we ask ourselves, “What am I doing wrong that is causing me to fail?”

Who hasn’t found themselves asking this question at one time or another?

While there are many ways to answer this question, none are likely to be very helpful.


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Because the question is based on a false premise. It’s based on a fantasy. An illusion.

The truth is, successful people don’t get what they want more often than the rest of us. In fact, they often get what they want less often. Yes, less often. Why? Because they’re willing to try many more things, which means failing at more things.

Study the lives of Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Gene Simmons, and countless other successful people and the pattern becomes clear.

Of course, this is very hard to see when we listen to their stories. Their stories, whether told by themselves or by others, make things seem so tight, clean and linear. They set their mind to something and, by god, they do it.

It sounds romantic. It sounds inspiring. But it doesn’t sound anything like our lives.

But the problem isn’t our lives. The problem is we’re comparing our lives to stories.

Life can be random, frustrating, confusing and unsatisfying. A story can’t be any of these things or else it wouldn’t be a story.

Sound obvious? Of course. The problem is, when we’re stuck comparing ourselves to “successful people” and wondering what we’re doing wrong, it is anything but obvious.

Successful people aren’t that much different than the rest of us. Their lives are filled with the same types of frustrations and failures as ours are. And yet, somehow they still come out on top.

How? Here’s my take:

First, successful people know the difference between stories and real life so they don’t waste precious time comparing their messy lives to perfect stories. They recognize the illusion as an illusion.

Second, they realize that there’s profit to be had from every failure. Every failure leaves them with more wisdom and more experience that can then be used as an asset on which to build their next success. From this perspective, every failure leaves them richer.

Again, this may sound obvious, but too often it’s not.

Remember the situation we started with: the “obvious” notion that successful people get what they want more often than the rest of us.

And then remember the question it led us to ask: “What am I doing wrong that is causing me to fail?”

There is only one reason we end up here; we end up here because we’ve gotten caught up in an illusion.

The better question to ask is, “How can I profit from my failures?”

When we can answer that, we stop being failures. And that’s when others start telling stories about us.

Originally published October 25, 2008
Photo credit: Mila Zinkova / / CC BY-SA