Fighting Self-Handicapping: Success Is Nonlinear

After mentioning self-handicapping in a post about cognitive biases a couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with someone about it, and we shared our angst about how easy it can be to self-sabotage.  How difficult it can be to make sure we truly keep “doing our best.”

Self-sabotage is tempting, because doing our best is scaryReally scary.  Because what if our best truly isn’t good enough?  What if we do our best and we still fail?  Then doesn’t that mean we’ve failed?  Whereas if we don’t do our best, we can always tell ourselves that if we had tried a little harder . . . well, maybe we could have succeeded.  It wasn’t that we weren’t good enough, we assure ourselves.  We just didn’t try quite hard enough.

The problem with this mindset is that, other than a few very specific goals (such as maybe, say, professional baseball), success is entirely nonlinear.

For instance, say you want to succeed in business.  You do your best.  Your first business venture still fails.  Well, then, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed at business; it just means your first venture failed.  So you try again.  You make new connections.  You come up with new ideas.  You get more funding.  You can still succeed.

Same with writing: if you get a rejection, if your first book is a flop, hell, if your twelfth book is a flop, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a writer.  Success can be nonlinear.

The same is true for almost any path.

In Hollywood we have a saying that it takes twenty years to make an overnight success.  A large percentage of the time, success has so much to do with stamina, and not giving up, and doing your best over and over and over again and chipping away and moving forward.  It’s not about big breaks.  It’s not about one and only shot that you make or you don’t.

I try to remind myself of this if I ever have the urge to self-handicap, to not train as hard as I can, to not work as hard as I can, to not market as much as I can.  Because if I keep on doing my best, that “best” work will accumulate, and get even better, and then build up some more.  And occasionally it will line up with some good luck if I’m in the right place at the right time, and I’ll keep moving forward.  But there should never, ever be a time when I do my best and don’t succeed and that somehow translates into me throwing up my hands and saying, “I give up!  My best just isn’t good enough!”

Because success is nonlinear.  So there’s no reason not to go all out, as hard as I can, for as long as it takes.

5 thoughts on “Fighting Self-Handicapping: Success Is Nonlinear

  1. InMyBook

    Success is non-linear, as you point out, but doesn’t it also depend upon a person’s definition of “success” in a particular endeavor?

  2. slhuang Post author

    Well, yes. :) I meant, when pursuing whatever bar of “success” you happen to have set for yourself.

  3. the failed poet livejournal com

    This is definitely something for me to keep in mind. I think I have a greater-than-average tendency to self-handicap, so this is a great reminder. Thank you.

  4. slhuang Post author

    No problem. :) And I totally sympathize — half the reason I wrote it down was so I could have a concrete reminder for myself!

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