Leadership

How to go from successful to very successful (and why most people can't do it)

New York Mets' Hansel Robles pumps his fist after the final out of the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics
Jim McIsaac | Getty Images
New York Mets' Hansel Robles pumps his fist after the final out of the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics

Many people want success more than anything else. And they'll sacrifice everything to have it  —  which is often the cost of admission.

But there's a problem. Sustaining success, and going beyond success is nearly impossible for most people. Hence Greg McKeown, author of "Essentialism," questions, "Why don't successful people and organizations automatically become very successful?"

McKeown's answer is succinct: Success is a catalyst for failure.

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Being invisible is easy. When you make mistakes, you're the only one who notices. Even being the underdog is easy. If you fail, you're justified in doing so.

But when the spotlight is on you, everyone is waiting for you to fail. The external pressure often becomes too overpowering, smothering the values and vision it took to become successful in the first place.

Which is why success is often a short-lived experience. People come and go. Very few remain on top for long. For example, only eight NFL teams have won the Super Bowl back-to-back. As 49ers coach, Bill Walsh has said, "The toughest thing I ever had to do was get my team to overcome success disease."Winning a first Super Bowl, according to Walsh, is enormously easier than winning a second or third.

Head coach Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers
Focus On Sport | Getty Images
Head coach Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers

This is true in all life domains. If you succeed in business, life doesn't get easier. It gets harder.

Success is much harder to deal with than failure

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."  —  Abraham Lincoln

For most people, privilege is a poison.

Once you succeed, or have certain privileges (e.g., time, money, fame, accolades), one of two things happens:

  1. Your focus shifts from the cause of your success to its effects. Rather than continuing to hone your craft, you indulge in the benefits of your prior success, which inevitably damages future performance. Hence the saying,"Success skips a generation." The children of the successful don't learn the causes, but only relish in the benefits.
  2. Or, you experience an intensification of internal pressure to keep succeeding. Many people can't handle this level of pressure and it often ends careers prematurely. Yet, this escalation of internal pressure is what prevents a person from being consumed by external noise (i.e., distraction) that come with success. As Robert Horry, former NBA player has said, "Pressure can burst a pipe, or pressure can make a diamond."
Robert Horry speaks at the 2015 Cedars-Sinai Sports Spectacular
Jonathan Leibson | Getty Images
Robert Horry speaks at the 2015 Cedars-Sinai Sports Spectacular

Internal, not external, pressure is what makes you successful. Increasing the pressure is what keeps you going.

Success vs. achievement

The difference between success and achievement is subtle but crucial. Success is a subjective feeling about how you're doing relative to why you're doing it. Achievement is an objective measure about what you've actually done.

Yet, success is far more important than achievement. Indeed, you could have all the achievements in the world and not be successful.

You see this all the time, people who have many external indicators of success, yet inwardly, they are a wreck. They've lost their why, and thus, no longer remember the reason they are pursuing their goals in the first place.

What once was a genuine passion has now become a need for more external validation. An endless need to acquire and achieve more. Thus, rather than focusing on why, the focus becomes on what will work, and doing as much of that as possible, most likely at the expense of your values.

According to Seth Godin, "Art is when a human being does something that might not work…" When you're focused on what, you only care if it works, you no longer know why you're doing it.

Interestingly, many successful entrepreneurs admit to being happier before they were "successful," back when their motivations were congruent with their values. Achievement poisoned them, and their motivation changed.

When your motivation shifts from intrinsic to extrinsic, your performance naturally drops over the long-run. You may be able to sustain high performance for a while, often at great cost to your health, relationships, and finances.

From successful to very successful

"Success is something you attract by the person you become."  —  Jim Rohn

If "success" is your primary objective, you probably won't get it. Chasing success is like chasing happiness. You can't pursue it directly. Both success and happiness ensue from something far more fundamental. As Viktor Frankl explained:

For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.

Viktor Frankl and his wife Eleonore
Imagno | Getty Images
Viktor Frankl and his wife Eleonore

Success comes from consistency to your vision and values. Although difficult because of the added noise that comes from achievement, becoming "very" successful requires remaining consistent to your vision and values. It's so easy to become self-absorbed. Remaining ever humble and fully vested in other people and in a cause you'd give up everything for. That's rare.

When you stay consistent and true, you'll continue to hone yourself and your craft, even after you become world-class.

You'll say "no" to all of the distractions that come your way, no matter how enticing they are.

You won't let your ego inflate and forget who you really are. You won't abandon your values and the most important people in your life.

Don't forget your "why." That may be the hardest thing you do as you seek to improve your life. As Ryan Holiday recently said of Tim Ferriss, "He does what he does because he enjoys it, and he's compelled to create, experiment and improve because that's who he is. Tim is still Tim. Most people are made worse by success, and that's a shame. It has suited Tim well and that's a model I aspire to."

Benjamin Hardy is an author and Ph.D. Student at Clemson in South Carolina.

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This article originally appeared on Medium.