Showing up is not enough

This post was republished on LifeHacker. You can read it here.

There’s a Woody Allen quote that goes: “ninety percent of success is just showing up.” Despite the title of this blog post my experience learning about and talking to successful people leads me to agree with him. But it does raise the question: what about the other 10%?

I think that the other 10% of success largely depends on what you’re showing up for.

Think of it this way: millions of people will get up tomorrow morning and show up for work. Millions will do this every day for the rest of their lives. Wake up, get in the car, sit in traffic, arrive at the office, work, leave the office, arrive at home, sleep. Repeat.

It would be an insult to these people to say that they’re not showing up. They do. So why aren’t they Woody Allen?

I’ll ask again: what are they showing up for?

Recently I was talking with someone close to me. She was expressing her frustration with her job. She works long 10-hour days, is compensated poorly and isn’t recognized for the work she does. She said to me, “No matter how hard I work no one seems to care. But you seem to have this je ne sais quoi that makes you successful. It makes people pay attention.”

I am not successful. Any small modicum of success I’ve achieved in the last couple of years of my life is completely insignificant compared to the mountains of human achievement both heralded and unheralded that go on in this world every day. I know I’m not special.

But then why isn’t she getting recognized? Why doesn’t she feel successful? She’s certainly putting in the hours.

To answer that question, let’s look at what she’s putting her hours into.

At her particular job, she’s working within a system. The system caps her success. No matter if she puts in the bare minimum amount of effort to keep her job, or goes above and beyond the call of duty every day, she’ll probably end up with similar results. She’s within a hierarchy. There’s no way to jump light-years ahead even if she’s good at what she does. There are just too many people above her who have every incentive to keep her down. So showing up every day and putting in the hours only results in limited success. There are no grand slams.

Now I’m certainly not advocating always working outside of a system. People have to do what they have to do to get by. Systems are a necessary part of life, and sometimes are set up to reward hard work. But this is certainly not always the case.

If you recognize that you’re working within a system where your success is artificially limited it’s a good idea to use your extra time in other places. Look for places to spend time where your success is potentially unlimited.

For example, take writing a blog. Writing on a blog is, as my friend Sebastian Marshall likes to say, a high upside low downside activity. Your blog success is not capped by a hierarchy, by a system, by your boss. If you write interesting things people will read them.

The scary part about it is that it’s very easy to feel like you’re wasting your time. This is because if you’re pursuing opportunities where your success is uncapped, you’re going to have to start from scratch. There’s no system, so you have to build one. Your 1000th blog post may be read by a million people, but your first one will only be read by your mom (if you’re lucky).

On the flip side, if my friend writes on her company blog she is absolutely guaranteed to get a couple of thousand readers to see what she writes. But it’s also unlikely that she’ll get more than that couple of thousand readers. And even if she does, those couple of thousand readers will remember her company, and not her. Her manager will get credit from the executives for doing a good job, instead of her.

Blogging every day for a guaranteed thousand readers may help her gain skill. It’s certainly valuable to some extent. But even if she spends hour after hour perfecting every post, it won’t do very much for her because the system she’s in is not set up to reward it.

Showing up is crucially important. But if you’re doing that without results it’s not time to throw up your hands and say “I’m not cut out for this.”

If you’re working hard and not being recognized it’s a good idea to look at what you’re working hard on.

If you’re looking for something to pursue when you get home for the day, it’s best to spend time on something that doesn’t limit your ability to achieve.

If 90% of success in life is showing up, the other 10% depends on what you’re showing up for.

Show up for things where your potential for achievement is commensurate with your willingness to put in effort. The rest seems to take care of itself.

9 Jun 2012, 11:19pm | 15 comments


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