Eric Karjaluoto

Why You Fail

You chose the wrong path. How could you be such an idiot?  Looking back, your misdirection is painfully clear. The question now, is how fast you can regroup, and get to what you were meant to do.

I’ve experienced this many times. This wavering has almost always led me to the same (wrong) decision: to change course. At the time, this approach has seemed entirely sensible. I had followed a path, met obstacles, learned from them, and could now make smarter choices. Why not regroup and move in a better direction?

This logic may apply with more standard problem-solving exercises (i.e. if you are working on the design of a product) but isn’t as workable when your life is involved. The way you feel this day, week, or month may be conditional, therefore, you can’t allow these moods to affect your bigger plans. Consider New Year’s resolutions: these hopeful goals are often abandoned when they come upon resistance. “Sure, I want to run a marathon, but the weather sucks, and Mad Men is on.”

I’ve been contemplating what needs to happen in order to get over the hump. You know what I mean: At what point does the schlepping end, and plans come to fruition? This might come in the form of new contracts being plentiful and profitable, or, an audience growing around your passion, or, having gained command of your craft.

I believe there are two obstacles that stand in the way of your success. The first is endurance. At the start of any journey, days are long. This only changes as you get more miles under your belt. When smashLAB began, three years seemed a long time. Upon hitting that mark, and not being a resounding success, I thought we had failed.

Impatience stops many from making progress. They spend years dreaming and planning, and then expect to master—and get praise for—their new pursuit, within days. Mastery isn’t achieved this way. Aside from the rare exception, you need time, practice, and discipline to become good. While this approach is less sensational than stories of overnight successes, it’s a common, and plausible, argument.

In a recent article, Louis C.K. said the same about comedy. Paraphrased: what stops others from getting where he has, is that they don’t put in the time. There’s a concept that plays on the same idea, called Helsinki Bus Station Theory. It proposes that many follow the same path for a few years, become frustrated, start over… and then repeat this pattern indefinitely. In doing so, they miss out on what’s waiting just a little further down the road.

Investigate, and you’ll bump into this same message again and again. You’ll find this argument in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Jim Collins also talks about the benefits of consistently directed effort in his book Good to Great. Ask friends who’ve found success and they’ll probably say the same: They got where they are by doing what they were doing. The reason you fail might not be that your idea or approach is bad. It’s that you quit too early.

Me? I’ve been working with @shelkie on smashLAB for over 13 years. Processes that we fought to understand are now obvious. Purpose has become increasingly clear. (Want to gain the same clarity around design process? Preorder my new book: The Design Method.) We get paid exponentially more than when we started. More importantly, for the first time in decades I’m planning long holidays that will take me out of the office for months at a time. I don’t mean to make our work sound easy, but it is becoming easier, and we’re just getting started. Where will we be, after another 5, 10, or 15 years?

Now comes the second obstacle: boredom. I never had a problem working hard—or even obsessively. What I struggle with is an almost overwhelming desire to create new things. Throughout the day I work on design and strategy. In the evenings I draw, take photos, and write books—in addition to spending time with my family. I maintain long lists of project ideas, and am always considering what to do next. While I enjoy all of these activities, I recognize the perils of my excitable mindset.

While exploring multiple interests can lead to empathy, excellence is a result of focus and discipline. Selecting a trajectory, and pushing toward it consistently requires self-control. You needn’t cut off all other activities, but changing course every time you get bored or frustrated will send you spinning. Find your way around obstacles and you’ll gain knowledge; push through boredom and you’ll make discoveries others will never achieve.

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