Eric Karjaluoto

Success Is Not What You Think It Is

TL;DR: Clarifying how you frame success will set you up to break through self-imposed barriers.

I closed the door, sunk my face into the pillow, and sobbed. Our product was a flop and we were out of money. My toddler son and pregnant wife were in the adjacent room. There was no air left in my lungs. I had let my family down and didn’t know what to do next. I was a failure.

Our perverted view of success

The word “success” gets thrown around a lot. It refers to a magical state in which all is right. It happens when we achieve product/market fit and users clamor to buy our thing. It’s meteoric, self-propelling growth. It’s recognition and accolades for our unwavering vision. Once we achieve success, all things fall into place. Except, they don’t. This notion of success is a fantasy.

We conflate success with a state of being. This murky view of success gets us into all kinds of trouble. Since we don’t define success, it’s becomes impossible to achieve. Additionally, by treating success as more than it is, we also treat failure as more than it is.

Success is not a state of being

So, if it isn’t a state of being, what is success? The answer is simple: Success is when an outcome matches expectations. That’s it. Success isn’t you. It isn’t your ego. And it isn’t what you’re worth. It doesn’t define you, nor is it representative of future success.

Success is far less grandiose than we treat it. It is purely a matter of alignment. You wanted to run a half-marathon in 1:45, and did so. You consider this a success. If you completed it in 1:46, are you a failure? Of course not! The outcome might represent a failure. (I.e., it didn’t align with your expectations). But, you still ran a half-marathon.

This definition of success makes a win proportionality small, in the context of your journey. It’s an indicator—that’s all. From this perspective, failure is also non-critical. It’s only a form of measurement—and a crude one at that.

Take control of your experiment

Reducing success and failure to indicators grants you power over them. You are not fated to be one or the other. Neither represents who you are. Pull yourself away from the pillow, dry your eyes, and run the experiment again.

Start by identifying the desired outcome. (This is an obvious step. Yet, many who consider themselves failures don’t know what their success might look like.) Now run the test as simply as possible. The simpler your experiment, the less invested you are. This makes you more resistant to distortion.

If the experiment fails, take pause. Ask what might have gone wrong: Was your hypothesis flawed? Is the desired outcome unrealistic? Can you adjust the conditions? I know, this all sounds rather clinical. This is deliberate. You gain power by divorcing your ego from outcome measurement

No one expects to win their first half-marathon. So, why do we treat business otherwise? Both are challenging and need ongoing commitment, practice, and refactoring. There is no state of success. There are only experiments. Running more of them increases the probability of achieving desired outcomes.

Back to that soaked pillow

Another important point is context. When I look back on my moment of letdown, I realize that little of what I believed was accurate. The product we built received over 10,000 daily unique visits. Its content ranked well in Google Search. Our core business (a design consultancy) was fine, and we could always drum up more work.

So, why did I consider this product a failure? Because it wasn’t Facebook. Ridiculous, right? I had set an outrageously high goal. What was the actual probability of us making a product a global phenomenon? I look back and shake my head. At the time, though, I was chasing a dream—and behaving in a delusional fashion.

We shut that project down, years ago. If we had let it run, and made almost no changes to it, that site would make a tidy sum in referral fees, today. Instead, I set unrealistic expectations. I then personalized this failure, which blinded me to what did work. That cost us. Success is contextual. What you see as failure someone else considers a success.


Pick one clear business objective. E.g.: Increase traffic to my website; bump our average order value; re-engage customers who are slipping away. Describe this objective (expectation) in less than 10 words. Then, use 3 – 5 points to outline a course of action. Now, run the experiment, and determine whether the result (outcome) matches your objective. If not, repeat. None of this is personal.

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