The counterintuitive reason why you’re not successful

There’s one element of self-help advice that throws people off. It’s something I’m guilty of from time to time and I do my best to curb my habit of coming at self-help from this place.

What place am I talking about?

I’m talking about the idea that you’re not successful because you’re not trying hard enough.

Most people aren’t sitting on their ass all day doing nothing. Most people work hard, take care of themselves, and their families. If producing the type of outcomes you want for your life was a matter of effort, then we’d all have those outcomes. But that’s not how success works.

If you want to be successful, stop trying hard. Start doing this instead.

Why It’s Impossible to Try to Become Successful

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. 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

Success is like a cat. Oftentimes, if you try to approach a cat directly, it will run away from you.

If you ignore the cat for a while, it might come to sit in your lap.

Like the cat, success can be fickle.

If you think of success as something you’re chasing, by definition it means success is trying to avoid you.

Cheetahs chase Gazelles.

Cops chase criminals on the getaway.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of aiming your efforts solely at the end goal. The pursuit of success in an of itself isn’t a worthwhile goal. You can do it, but you’ll lose your soul in the process.

Instead, if you just pursue things you enjoy, you’ll become valuable. This is why I always talk about finding your strengths, not anyone else’s.

If you maxed out your natural talents, only focused on doing that, and simply went about your life for an extended period of time, you’d be “successful.”

Instead, most of us get caught up in hustle porn. We bow to the altar of productivity and beat ourselves up if we’re not perfect self-help robots.

I look at self-improvement as a means to an end. The end is to get you to start working on the skills, businesses, and projects that would create success for you, instead of you having to chase it.

Yes, you have to work hard to be successful, but you don’t want to try hard.


I’ll explain.

“Every truth is but a half-truth.”

I don’t know where to attribute that quote but it’s…true. Most important concepts in life have a paradoxical nature to them.

On the one hand, you have to perform some action to achieve a goal.

You can’t manifest the outcomes you want in life from thin air, no matter how much the Secret tells you you can. But then, on the other hand, you can’t “try hard.”

But what does that mean?

You don’t want to have that “try hard” energy.

Here’s an example to use as an analogy. Have you ever been around a person that’s arrogant, but not confident? They’re overcompensating. They’re a “try-hard.” Being cool doesn’t come naturally to them. The only way to be cool is to not try to be cool.

You can look at achieving the outcomes in your in a similar way. It’s not that you don’t want more for your life, you do.

But you’re not overcompensating, having to use extreme amounts of frit, or forcing yourself to be successful. Find something that pulls you to become more valuable, something you enjoy doing, then the success comes as a bi-product.

There are some aspects of building my writing career that I have to grit my teeth to accomplish, but I’m drawn to the writing itself. I do want outcomes — money, status, security — but I don’t go at them directly. I know that become the best writer, marketer, and creator possible will get the outcomes to occur.

By not focusing on results you get the results. You don’t waste time worrying about exactly when the results will occur. You know they’ll happen in due time while you pursue what you love.

Doing it this way keeps you from falling into pitfalls, too.

Don’t Do Anything Just for Money

I want to be rich. I’m open about that. I’m a capitalist through and through. But I won’t do anything I hate for money.

I’m smart enough to become a lawyer, but I don’t loathe myself, so no amount of money is worth that profession.

It’s not how much money you make, but how you go about making it.

Successful entrepreneurs usually get started in one of two ways, either they build a business around something they enjoy, or they find an interesting problem to solve.

Are there successful entrepreneurs who are cold and calculated about getting into business strictly for money? Sure, but painting a caricature of the wall street sociopath doesn’t automatically mean money = bad.

Money can be good.

Often, money likes people who like what they do.

Also, look at who money often runs away from — people who are scrambling, clawing, and itching to get money in the rat race never seem to have enough of it, do they?

Patiently work on a profitable passion and wait for the money to come.

Add Value

“Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value.” — Albert Einstein

It’s ironic. The more you focus on what you want, the less likely you are to get it. Unless you add value to other people, you won’t be successful.

On your pursuit of what you love, add value to other people and it will come back your way. All of this is that sort of half-truth paradoxical thinking at play.

You want admiration, respect, an audience, customers. There’s nothing wrong with wanting those things. But you make the process easier when you serve without expectation. You want people to be receptive to you, but you don’t need them to. You want good outcomes, but you don’t need them to happen at a specific time.

Add value long enough, the outcomes occur.

Don’t focus on how many new clients you can get for your agency. Focus on how you can be the most valuable provider in the industry.

Don’t focus on how many people will read your writing. Become a better writer.

When it comes to winning audience members, getting customers, or influencing people, they can tell when you’re just trying to extract something from them instead of making it a mutual exchange between value and money/attention.

You can weasel your way to the top with charisma and charm, but you can cement yourself in an industry or niche if your work becomes so indispensable people can’t do without it.

Work for the Sake of Work

It’s tough to strike a balance.

You can rid yourself of wanting outcomes, but it’s always important to not only get into a path you’d enjoy pursuing but also remember why you started in the first place.

In my case, I started writing just because I liked it.

Now, there’s so much attached to it. I do it for a living. My livelihood depends on producing more writing.

I get caught in the trap of thinking I have to write the perfect blog post, hit the perfect revenue amount for the month, and build this big legacy and catalog.

But then I remind myself…writing is fun. I do my best to be satisfied with the privilege of writing for a living, period.

Whatever you’re into or find yourself into in the future, understand that, while I fully advocating going for it, material success means absolutely nothing. Paradox.

You could be happy, right now. You can do the things you love, right now.

Why not start?

Stop Trying to Be Successful

Remember when we talked about the idea of chasing success? When put into the context I put it in, it sounds odd.

Now, let’s think about hacking.

Maybe you shouldn’t try to hack your life. You hack into servers when you’re trying to steal information.

Maybe, just maybe, you should try to live your life.

I’ve had times where I’ve ignored my daughter smiling at me because my eyes were fixed on my computer. I passed up the opportunity to feel the warmth of my child, to be successful.

This is just one of many instances where I’ve taken my eye off what’s really important in life to chase some vague notion of success.

There’s a balance involved in being productive and living well.

Work, but don’t overwork.

Plan, but don’t obsess.

Pursue, but pursue the journey of getting better inside, not outside.

Take your eyes off the prize, become the best you can be, live a little, and success will show up when you least expect it.

This article originally appeared on Medium.