Success doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes doesn’t happen at all
If you’re anything like me, you like problems with neat and tidy solutions, actions that yield concrete results that you can see quickly. If you eat your vegetables, you get dessert. If you study for a test, you get a good grade. If you work all night on an important project, your boss says, “Thank you! You’re amazing!” If you give somebody great advice, they listen, and their life is instantly improved. If you send an email with a “high priority” flag, the recipient will respond within the hour...or not.
As it turns out, the “real world” does not usually follow a straightforward cause and effect pattern. Very rarely, especially in my world of nonprofits, do we get instant or even quick satisfaction. Sometimes it takes years to see results and sometimes we don’t see results at all. Millennials are often accused of having a mindset that favors instant gratification. Surely, technology has not helped us. We are constantly plugged in, with the ability to communicate and access information at lightning speed. We have become programmed to expect results RIGHT NOW and experience feelings of anxiety and self-doubt when things take time. I frequently grow impatient with the process, with people who don’t move quickly or decisively, with projects that drag on with red tape and bureaucracy. I want to know and feel that my work is “worth it” and that I am successfully reaching my goals. But I am slowly learning that while effort is critical to success, effort without patience is worth very little. I have also learned that there is great power in recognizing that “success” is a subjective term that we must each define (and redefine) for ourselves.
Working tirelessly without perceived success leads to burnout on an individual level and turnover on an organizational level. People need to feel as though they are succeeding in real time, even if the end goal is a long time away. So, on a personal level, I try to set small goals and celebrate little wins, to emotionally detach myself from the long-game and feel satisfied with the simple acts of doing, living, and being. In the “Twelve Principles of Spiritual Leadership,” Will Keepin has this to say about non-attachment to outcome:
“To the extent that we are attached to the results of our work, we rise and fall with our success and failures, which is a path to burnout. Failures are inevitable, and successes are not the deepest purpose of our work. This requires a deepening of faith in the intrinsic value of our work beyond the concrete results. To the extent that our actions are rooted in pure intention, they have a reverberation far beyond the concrete results of the actions themselves. As Gandhi emphasized, ‘The victory is in the doing,’ not the outcome.”
When I read this passage for the first time a few years ago, I wanted to put my hands over my eyes, rock back and forth, and pretend I didn’t see. I was in a job that was slowly killing me. I was working crazy hours and living with stress that was so far beyond unhealthy, I might as well have been smoking two packs a day. I was doing work that I believed in and that I felt would make a difference in the long-term. However, in the short-term, I found myself extinguishing fire after fire with very little satisfaction or sense of success. In the darkness of that time, I was not prepared to hear that intention was good enough, that failing or falling short was an option. My students were so far behind and had so many obstacles to overcome, it rarely felt like we were close to reaching our goals. This made me work harder, but despite tireless effort, I hardly ever left work feeling victorious or like I did enough. Looking back on that job, I should have been greeted every morning with a marching band and thunderous applause just for showing up. I should have seen that my hard work and my dedication to and love for my kids was worthwhile unto itself. I should have taken time to celebrate the tiny changes we did see as huge achievements. I needed to redefine success and remain grounded in the doing. Instead I burned out, and not like a candle in the wind. I burned out like a candle with no wax or wick left to burn.
On an organizational level, it is essential for leaders to make their people feel success in real-time. Workers need to feel valued and like their work means something, even if the end goal is never actually seen, felt, or realized. We must work together to define success both in the short-term and the long-term, and we must tell stories of success that relate not only to the company’s vision and bottom line but also to the “soft skills” that contribute to meeting that vision and bottom line. Imagine a work environment that celebrates the skill of problem-solving as much as it celebrates the problems being solved. Consider a business that values kindness, compassion, collaboration, and tenacity as much as it values income, profit, output, or test scores. How we define success matters, and in a more instant-gratification culture, our organizations and structures must evolve to accommodate new human needs and new translations of success. If the victory is truly in the doing, we must find regular opportunities to applaud and commemorate the doing. If we know that traditional success won’t happen overnight, we should attempt to define how success looks, feels, sounds, and smells right now, this afternoon, and tomorrow. And then, I would guess that our actions have a higher likelihood of reverberating on a grand scale, that our intentions will create real change.