Two Lies We Believe about Success

There are two stories we often hear when it comes to pursuing our life’s work, two lies we believe about success, and neither is very satisfying.

Two Lies We Believe about Success

These are the stories many parents tell their kids. Maybe they’re the ones your parents told you. Chances are, you probably heard at least one or the other at some point. And sadly, these are the very things that hold us back from achieving our dreams.

But what if neither was true?

Lie #1: You can be whatever you want

In this all-too-common tale of the self-made man, we see an individual defying the odds to achieve success. And all it takes is sheer tenacity. If you follow the plan, the logic goes, you will succeed.

But something about that has always bothered me. When does life ever go according to plan?

The truth is you cannot be whatever you want. We all have limitations and obstacles, certain impediments and weaknesses. But maybe those things that we often think of as bad really aren’t all that good? And what if being whatever you wanted wasn’t the point at all?

Lie #2: Only special people succeed

In this story, you don’t really have control over anything. If you aren’t given some special circumstance or opportunity, then you must be doomed to failure.

This is called fatalism, and in this paradigm, life has little meaning and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Whatever will be, will be. Your destiny is inescapable.

But where is the adventure in that, in having everything scripted out for you? And what do we make of the countless stories of people lying on their death beds, full of regret?

Surely, there must be another way.

A surprisingly satisfying alternative

When I was working on my latest book, I stumbled upon some stories that turned these ideas of success upside down. What if you couldn’t be whatever you wanted? But what if hidden in your worst weakness was your greatest strength?

This new way of approaching life with open hands aligned with most success stories I encountered in interviews and biographies. By no means was it a one-size-fits-all approach to discovering meaningful work, but it revealed a familiar pattern amongst those who have found their purpose.

One story was the tale of a five-year-old boy who beat brain cancer, then ran a dozen triathlons, hiked Machu Picchu, and became an Eagle Scout. And he did it all being legally blind, with more impediments than most of us can imagine.

When I asked young Garrett if he thought any of that good stuff could have happened without the bad, he said absolutely not. It wasn’t that having cancer was good necessarily, but it was a means of bringing focus to his life, forcing him and his family to make the most of every moment.

We can learn a lot from that, especially when it comes to figuring out what to do with our own lives.

Understanding the journey

Many people are considering their life’s purpose, wondering if they were born a destiny. Are we imbued with an innate reason for living, or is it something we have to create ourselves? The truth is that the route to your life’s work is not what you have been told.

Finding your calling is not some carefully-laid plan. It’s not a goal you set and plow through life to achieve. At the same time, it isn’t a series of random events, either. It’s a mix of mystery and intention, both practice and introspection, and it tends to happen in stages.

The process begins with awareness, with “listening to your life” and looking for common themes that emerge. Then it leads to action, where you learn that your purpose won’t just come to you — you’ll have to work for it. And then, you move into legacy, the phase in which you realize your vocation isn’t about you but rather the impact you have on others. And all of this becomes your life’s work.

Everyone has a right to do work that matters. In The Art of Work, I lay out a path that emerged after studying the lives of countless people, reading their stories and interviewing them myself. This is the way that many others have walked for thousands of years, so it can be trusted.

There’s something beautiful about following in the footsteps of others while still being able to make the path your own. Understanding the process before you will help you make sense of your journey and know the next step to take. It’ll also reinforce a lesson I learned over and over while writing this book:

What makes a life extraordinary aren’t the chances we get, but what we do with them. [Tweet]

We all have opportunities we’ve been given, although sometimes we don’t realize it. And we all have a chance to do something incredible with our lives as Garrett did. The question is, are we willing to embrace what we have or keep waiting for something else?

I hope you don’t wait another second and get started today.

Don’t forget: Until Mar. 23, you can pre-order my book at no cost to you when you just pay a flat rate shipping (if you live in the US or Canada). International people can order here. You can also download a sample chapter to learn more.

Do you ever find yourself believing these lies about success? Share in the comments.

22 thoughts on “Two Lies We Believe about Success

  1. Jeff, the “only special people succeed” message is one I struggle with. We know we shouldn’t compare ourselves and our journeys with anyone else’s, but we just can’t seem to help it in this age of social media (or at least it’s a big struggle for me). In reality, most of us probably have a bit of a skewed view of what “success” means. Instead of looking to numbers, influence and relationships are far more powerful indicators of our awareness, action, and legacy.

  2. Hey Jeff, I’ve had to deal with lie #2 for almost all of my life. But now, I realize that the real problem is that we let other people define what success means to us. Of course, if your bank balance is the only parameter by which you measure success, only a select few will be at the top. The same holds true with any parameter one chooses to define success by.
    I love the solution you offer. Of starting the process with “awareness”. Becoming self aware is the first step to redefine what success means to you, individually.
    To quote Leo Babauta, “If success can be anything, then it is nothing.”

  3. I couldn’t agree more that the key is listening to our life and the lessons that are often hiding away in plain sight. I also agree that the bad has been completely necessary in my own life to get me to where I am today. The death of my mom, addiction, dysfunctional first marriage…all of it has brought me to where I am today. I am deeply grateful that even when life does not follow a script (and it never does), God finds a way to redeem it and turn it into something beautiful.

  4. ENJOYING your articles, Jeff! #HUGS

    I shall just paraphrase my Facebook comment here: A lot of adults who preach Lie #1 revert to Lie #2 as their child grows and begins to experience a ringing in their soul.

    “You can be anything you want” transforms into “You can’t do that…how will you make money? No one else is doing it. Do you see your cousin committing such fallacies?” *sigh*

    Why are children allowed to dream while adults are compartmentalized? 😉



  5. This is a great article. Thanks for the willingness and courage to share what it really looks like to follow one’s calling–a mysterious and difficult path, but one that’s always worth it. Without question.

    I also really like your idea of “legacy,” and that ultimately our vocation is never about just us but the impact we have on others.

    On a day when I’ve been struggling to see clearly where I’m headed, this article provided a guiding light.

    Thanks, Jeff!

  6. This is so true Jeff. I found out after I retired that I would really would have liked to work in the legal profession. I satisfies that desire by volunteering as a legal advocate for women. I was told I was stupid and couldn’t do anything. I liked to write so I hid my writing for years. I would send the stories in Christmas letters and people would tell me that they could hardly wait for my Christmas card and the stories I would write that were in them. Now I am interested in getting my stories out there for others to read and you have been such an inspiration to me.

  7. I talk about this a lot when I speak to kids during author visits. This is my take: We can do the things we love, that make us who we are, with our whole hearts, whether this leads to a career or not. If we do something that satisfies us deeply, there is no losing, just a richer life.

  8. I like this notion of “listening to your life.” Reminds me of the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” The main character thought he was supposed to be a composer, but actually he was a teacher. Thanks, Jeff!

    1. I just finished reading The Art of Work and Jeff actually uses “Mr. Holland’s Opus” as one of his examples about listening to your life! You are spot on John!

      1. Cool! I’m on page 72 so I don’t think I encountered that reference yet. But I’m not surprised that Jeff used that movie reference, it reflects the theme of his book quite well. And I’m really enjoying the book. What a great mix of different people!

  9. You are helping me surmount the hurdle of, “its too late for me,” in this article. Also, Great first chapter! of your new book, Jeff, I paid for the advance copy of your book a couple weeks ago, but didn’t receive it. What do I do to check up on what happened. Cynthia Grills

  10. Jeff, you’ve summed up what I’ve learned from my life over the course of the years living in the US as an immigrant. A few years ago, I was unable to find a job battling immigration-related issues, and while I was staying home, I started my blog. What was originally just a drop in the sea of other blogs about food and exercise has now grown to be a (small) force of its own, inspiring people all over the world to become better versions of themselves. I am truly humbled by this experience, and can’t wait to see where this journey takes me next. Thank you for this post!

  11. Love this, Jeff. What comes to mind is the need to practice conscious surrendering. Stay engaged with the journey, trust there is a path always under our feet and love the challenges as beautiful lessons that ask us to stand more authentically in who we are.

  12. Mindset by Carol Dweck is an excellent book about how when we adopt a growth mindset we can begin to realize our potential. However, taken to the extreme it would be easy to believe that you can be anything you want to be. Thanks for shedding light on the reality of this, Jeff. Awesome post.

  13. Thank you for debunking two very powerful myths… I loved this quote which summed it all up nicely, “The question is, are we willing to embrace what we have or keep waiting for something else?” I talk to so many people through my own blog who feel like giving up on ever making a difference because life dealt them something really hard… but it doesn’t occur to them to really embrace the story they’re a part of right now… great post! Can’t wait for my copy of the book!

  14. I have learned that nothing I’ve done has ever been wasted in my life. I have used all of it eventually – the good as well as the bad. The thirty-five yearbooks I edited taught me how to make book covers. Letting go of a full-time teaching job that I’d done for 25 years freed me to write, and gave me plenty of material. Problems have become opportunities.

  15. Very good points, Jeff, and I can’t wait to read your book! You are right, it is only when we recognize the opportunities that lie in front of us that we succeed. Thank you for finding the path to success and sharing it with the masses!

  16. I just wrote a book called “Lessons Earned – Cancer as a Catalyst” which examines how illness propelled me to grow and become more aware of who I was meant to be. I found an amazing amount of energy going into each moment which changed my life and gave me a tremendous sense of purpose .

  17. I’ve never stopped thinking if it would ever happen; if I’ll ever live out my calling, to write. The ache is often stronger every morning; eating away at my heart like some uncaring parasite.

    I guess you’re so right about what you always ‘say’, Jeff: That our calling never leaves us.

    So, to wake up each morning, park my bottom before the keyboard to crank out words on the screen; that yearning has never left me.

    And funnily, it keeps burning in my heart daily.

    Where do I start? Of course I do know. But taking the risk of losing a job to which I’m obligated to do seems hard. I guess like one of your students said, there must come the time to make this real.

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