The disciplined pursuit of less: Some thoughts about success and excellence

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That's me, at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.  I had the opportunity last summerto return, after more than three decades, to where I achieved my first dream.
That’s me, at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I had the opportunity last summer to return, after more than three decades, to where I achieved my first dream.

Greg McKeown’s Harvard Business Review blog posting; The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, raises some interesting questions about how sometimes great success leads to mediocrity and failure.

Why don’t successful people and organizations automatically become very successful? One important explanation is due to what I call “the clarity paradox,” which can be summed up in four predictable phases:

Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, success is a catalyst for failure.

McKeown advocates that we need to be ready to jettison unnecessary baggage and focus clearly on our objectives, even if we enjoy initial success. In other words, our next goal needs to be as specific and focused as our initial accomplishment.

I’m thankful that I may have practiced this focused approach in my own life.

As a young adult, I set out to achieve my dream to become a truly competent journalist and foreign correspondent. This might have seemed to be wishful thinking, especially since I was almost fired from two Canadian newspaper jobs because of incompetence and laziness.  Add to this, I had a rather serious personality challenge — even the simplest social skills and relationship capacities were beyond me.

Yet I simply went for the dream, travelling to Africa twice in three years.  In the end, I managed to live 18 months through the end of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe war, working on a local newspaper while filing stories to Canada.  As the war ended, and with dream-achieving credentials in my hands, I realized I had managed to defy everyone else’s expectations and I had reached the goal.

Now I had a much bigger challenge — to find love, happiness, and enjoy a stable family life.

For most of us, this is not a big problem.  For me, it proved to be more challenging than figuring my way through the Sahara, Congo, and the Rhodesian immigration system.  I decided to forgo further international journalistic adventures. (How many globe-trotting foreign correspondents have a really good family life?) It took me 13 years to work out my new career path and develop enough emotional strength and maturity to be ready for marriage. This goal, achieved, of course is not a set-point accomplishment — raising a child, after all, takes a couple of decades.

At least one commenter in McKeown’s posting suggested that success may seem easy for some, but is dauntingly difficult for others. Lots of people struggle to achieve economic independence, meaningful career opportunities, or enough health to enjoy the simplest pleasures of life. “Success” for perhaps most of the world’s population, is just survival.

At times, I think I could have done more with my life, the publishing business I lead could be much more successful, and that maybe I’ve taken far too long to get not very far.

Then I wake up to appreciate how success, truly, is an individual (or in an organization, team) achievement defined by our own perceptions and values. I’m fortunate that I’ve achieved the most important goals in my life — ones which are ongoing, rather than fixed in time and others’ perceptions.

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