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How to Find the Right Level of Success for Your Next Project
There are three different levels - and you don't have to choose hard mode goals for everything
As you’re thinking about that next big project you want to tackle in 2020, it’s important to consider just how big that big project will be. Which means you’ll need to define not only what success looks like, but the level of that success you want to achieve.
[The information below is a modified excerpt from Chapter 4 of Start Finishing.]
A chief challenge in converting an idea into a SMART goal is figuring out what success looks like. We tend to bifurcate our outcomes into success or failure, but this is an oversimplistic view. There are levels of success, and which level of success you choose should weigh heavily into the plan you make to achieve that goal.
Before we go into the levels of success, one of the best things you can do when you start planning is to assume you’ll succeed rather than assume you’ll fail. While we all want to be successful, many of us start planning as if we’re going to fail. We spend a lot of energy and time imagining what failure looks like, so much so that we build a plan that focuses on preventing failure rather than setting up success.
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The end result is that we choose smaller goals and less ambitious projects that ultimately don’t fulfill us because they never require us to channel the courage and discipline to do what we’re most capable of. Consider the best-work project in front of you and how planning to prevent failure feels different than planning to succeed.
The Three Levels of Success
Since we’re focusing on success, I won’t focus much on the levels of failure. Let’s consider three different levels of success:
1. Small Success
Since tests are the easiest analogy, consider a small success as getting the minimum score needed to pass. The thing about small successes is that we’re never really proud of accruing them, but a string of small successes done with coherence and intention can lead to much greater success down the line. So even though we may not be proud of them, they’re still successes and worth celebrating.
2. Moderate Success
A moderate success exceeds the minimum requirements for success. While you may not be shouting from the rooftops about a moderate success, you’re likely to be proud of the outcome. Moderate success is the highest level of success you can achieve with just your own effort, resources, and advantages.
3. Epic Success
If you’re not a Millennial or younger, you can substitute extreme for epic. An epic success greatly exceeds the minimum requirements for success and is a “tell your momma” moment. It’s your version of getting on The Oprah Winfrey Show or winning the Super Bowl. Epic success requires you to build a team to help you get there.
Considering the levels of success while goal setting helps you align your expectations and resources. Small successes don’t require nearly as much effort and focus as epic successes, but many of us want epic success with small-success-level effort and focus. Additionally, having epic success across all dimensions of our lives requires intention, awareness, boundaries, courage, and discipline at mastery levels not yet reached by most of us.
Applying the levels of success also wards off the low-level insanity, anxiety, and overwhelm that so many of us grapple with every day because we’re expecting higher levels of success across all dimensions of our lives without doing the work to get to those levels of success.
If you aim for a small success from the beginning, you can actually be satisfied when you achieve it. If you aim for epic success from the beginning, when things get hard — and at this level, they will get hard — you can remind yourself that it’s not hard because something’s wrong with you but more simply because you chose to play at a level that really makes you show up.
What Using Levels of Success Looks Like
Let’s make this less abstract so it has more grip. Consider the fuzzy goal of running a marathon. A small success might be finishing the marathon, which could include walking parts of it and finishing before the event ends. A moderate success might be running the whole way. An epic success might be winning your category.
It’s pretty obvious in this example that there’s a big difference in what it’s going to take to succeed at these different levels; depending on your level of fitness and ability, you might be able to just show up on a random Saturday and accomplish the small-success level, as that happens often enough to be possible. To get the epic level of success, you’re going to have to do a lot of running, training, recovery, and life-changing to make it happen.
The marathon example also illuminates the contextual nature of the levels of success. A competitive runner likely would consider the aforementioned moderate success to be just barely a small success for them. Someone who’s never run before or who has a disability or injury that makes running challenging might consider the aforementioned small success an epic success.
A corollary to this is that what was once one level of success to you may be a different level of success later on in your life. For example, at one point in my life, doing twenty-five pull-ups was a small success for me; twenty additional years and about as many pounds later, twenty-five pull-ups is pushing the upper band of moderate success for me. In a similar vein, a decade ago, publishing a book would be a moderate success for me, but now it’s a small success. Hitting the New York Times bestseller list is an epic goal. (If you purchased the book, you’ve played a part in helping me get there — so thank you!)
Another personal example may help here. Before I understood the different levels of success, I was completely daunted by the prospect of finishing my dissertation. Success meant writing a groundbreaking dissertation that argued an interesting, original, and compelling point that would set up my later research program and earn me a position at a great university.
Pressure much? ????
But when I later considered that I could research and produce a scholarly work and I no longer needed it to get me a job or set up a later research program, it became much easier to see how I could get through it. I had unconsciously chosen an epic success as my target, but I wasn’t in a place in my life where I would put epic-level effort into the project.
Your Levels of Success Need to Focus on Where You Are
Our head trash — in this case, comparisitis — often clouds our judgment of the levels of success, especially when it comes to intentionally choosing small successes as our target.
It’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of using other people’s successes as benchmarks for our own, regardless of our desire to do what other people do to earn their level of success. We usually don’t see the work other people do or have done to get to their level of success, and even when we do, we somehow think we can and should be able to catch up or take a shortcut to get there.
And when we’re not comparing ourselves to other people, we’re comparing ourselves to some idealized version of ourselves that has it all figured out. That person can and would achieve greater levels of success than our current self, and we use that person’s fictional success as a yardstick to hit ourselves with.
Here’s the deal: What other people achieve is irrelevant to where you are and what level of success makes the most sense for you.
That idealized version of yourself doesn’t exist and what it might achieve is also irrelevant. Where you are and where you want to go is all that matters, and no one but you can choose what level of success is resonant.
The grace of the levels of success is that you can choose goal levels that align with what matters most for you. Some dimensions of your life may matter more to you than others; in those dimensions that matter less, choosing small successes makes sense.
Even within a dimension, some projects and responsibilities may be less important, so you can deemphasize those with small successes, or what my friend and author Michael Bungay Stanier calls “acceptable mediocrity” in Do More Great Work.
Choosing a Small Success Isn’t Playing Small
Even when it comes to the idea you’re thinking about turning into your next project, you may still want to consider choosing small successes as your target. Why? Well, where you are in your life and career right now may be such that you know you can’t commit to epic or moderate success, and it’s more important to you to get some momentum and wins than to put your best work off for someday when things settle down.
What I most want to ingrain here is to match the level of success with your level of effort and commitment.
The higher the level of success, the more you’ll need to do to achieve it.
Yes, it sounds obvious when stated that way, but it’s far too easy for us to visualize and expect a high level of success without also committing to a high level of effort and commitment. Tying success to commitment also helps us retroactively; if we get a lower outcome than expected but also put in much lower effort than we planned, it’s easier to thwart head trash about our competence because it’s really about our effort.
Consider the idea you have for your next project. What would each level of success look like for that idea? Considering those different levels of success and what else you have going on right now, what level of success is most resonant with you?