I'd like to pose a very simple yet powerful question:
How do you define success?
I thought I knew what success was until one day I realized I really had no idea. And that realization literally shook me.
For the better part of my life, I thought I knew exactly what success was. In fact, I had these big goals that were going to help me become “successful” and after a decade of relentlessly pursuing these goals, I finally accomplished them.
However, I quickly realized that what I’d accomplished wasn’t success at all and, even worse, that I had no idea what the hell success even meant.
That process is, honestly, one of the most depressing but game-changing challenges that I’ve ever faced.
I want to share that story with you and how that journey led me to redefine just how I think about success and ultimately changed the way that I live my life. I am going to share with you the four big lessons that I learned on that journey and how to apply them to your life so you can define your success and find your Why.
What I THOUGHT success was:
Growing up I came from a relatively poor family. For the first six or seven years of my life my family lived in a trailer—and no—I don’t mean one of those fancy double wides. We’re talking about a single-wide trailer in an actual trailer park.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t remember ever being scared if we were going to have food on the table or if our electricity was going to be cut off on any given day. For that, I am grateful.
But as I got older, I became increasingly aware of what we had - but also what we did not have.
From there I began to dream. I dreamt about having a job where I made a lot of money and all the things I could do with it.
But how much is “a lot” of money?
For some reason, I had it in my head that $100,000/year was the end all be all amount of money and it became ingrained in my head as I approached my teen years that one day I was going to have a job where I made that and I would NEVER want or need for anything again.
So, for the first twelve years of my professional career, I kept advancing more and more. Pay raise after pay raise until one day, I finally got the big promotion that resulted in me finally eclipsing that $100,000 salary mark.
I’ll never forget that day.
And then I realized what success wasn't:
It was a Friday night after my first new cushy payday. I was driving home from work, grinning ear to ear and texting my buddies (not while driving, of course, because that would be irresponsible). I was telling them, “Hey, I got the Big Promotion and we’re going out tonight to celebrate! We’re gonna have some drinks and it’s gonna be awesome.”
When I got home, I poured myself a stiff drink before it was time to go out and slouched into the couch to process the gravity of the moment.
It wasn’t too long into my introspection before I thought to myself, “Boy, this $100,000 thing is pretty cool. I’m going to be able to invest this much, save this much and buy these new things.”
But my mind not-so-slowly started to drift into, “Well, what would it be like if I made $125,000? Man, if I had that I could do this other thing and go to these other places and drive this kind of car!“ And it kept on like this, “Yeah that’s true but what if you made $135,000?”
This just kept growing and growing until I realized that my bar was never going to stop moving.
It would always be this carrot that I was internally chasing and would never be able to actually catch because it was perpetually moving further and further away. And with that realization comes this kind of “Aha!” moment where I realized:
“If I define success as a dollar amount that I’m making in salary and I’m never going to actually be able to reach it, because it’s always moving, then doesn’t that mean that I am never going to be successful? If the barometer I have for success is always moving and it’s impossible for me to catch it then that means I’m never going to be successful.”
It was this epiphany that shook me.
I got physically sick to my stomach. My insides felt like they dropped and in that moment, I felt like a failure. I felt completely alone and directionless. I was asking myself, “What am I even doing here? If there’s no way for me to be successful then why am I actually going through all of this?” Which was a very traumatic and troublesome line of thinking for me to work through. I had set this big goal, this metric for success, and I've been chasing it as hard as I can for over a decade only to get there and suddenly feel like the rug was ripped out from underneath me.
I hadn’t achieved success. I hadn’t achieved anything at all.
No Compelling Why:
At this point, I felt completely lost and had no idea what to do next. Not only had I not arrived, I didn’t even know where the hell I was going. I think one of the reasons this all hit me so hard is because I had just finished reading “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek during the time that he was going viral.
The book talks about the importance of doing things, not because of the What or the How, but because of the Why. We all need to have this compelling Why and here I am, sitting there, drinking my captain-diet coke on the couch and I realized that I don’t have a clue as to what my Why is.
Reading the book, it doesn’t sound hard. He draws three circles on the board and BAM! there’s your Why.
But here I am, completely lost, completely disconnected from any sense of reason which led me to feeling like a total failure.
So, I cancelled my plans for the evening and I just sat on the couch, alone, drinking Captain Morgan and Diet coke (don’t judge me for drinking captain and diet, it’s what I drank back then).
I was having this whole Pity Party because I had no idea what success or even my purpose in the world was. I didn't know why I was living my life.
My bright idea:
Finally, on Sunday evening, I had a thought,
“You know what? I actually know some really successful people in my life.”
I’m not talking about celebrities or athletes or anything like that but there were people that I knew in real life, and had relationships with, that I thought were successful.
So, I grabbed a notebook and a pen and started listing out all the names of those people that I thought were successful and under each of their names I started listing out why it is that I thought they were successful. After about thirty minutes of doing this, I realized that there was a common thread among all those people:
That thread was that I saw those people as being the types of human beings that make other people better for having known them.
They’re the kind of people that go into your life and you just know that you’re a changed person because of them.
They did something to you that made you a better person.
Now, each of these people did that in a very different way and they did it at different scales.
But assuredly, all of them were people that I knew made other people better for having known them. It was at that moment that I realized, “Hey, this is my metric for success. This is my purpose. I want to be someone that is known for making other people better.”
This was a really invigorating and reenergizing “Aha!” feeling!
Now, I’m super amped up and ready to go!
...but that only lasted for a couple of minutes because I slowly started to have the next realization:
“Ok, that’s great, I want to make people better for knowing me, but how the hell am I going to do it? I don’t have anything that I’m exceptionally good at. I don’t have any superpowers that people need. What am I going to do to make anyone better?”
And as I sat there Sunday evening, thinking about how I’m going to do that, the only thing skill that I could come up with was that I’ve always had this ability to take complex topics and break them down so that anybody could understand them.
OK, maybe I can work with this whole simplification super power things!
But there was another problem, I didn’t know anything that people needed broken down.
I didn’t have any in-depth knowledge of a complex topic that the world needed explained to them.
I wish I could tell you that I sat there and kept brainstorming, had another couple of mixed drinks, and had that lightbulb/eureka moment where I’m like, “Oh THIS is the thing that I’m gonna do!” but it just didn’t happen that way.
The road to my WHY and SUCCESS:
It actually took me a few more years before I started to finally get a sense of what my thing was going to be and it came after business school. One of the things that I learned is that 60% of small businesses in the United States fail within the first five years and something like 83% of small businesses fail within ten.
The harsh reality is that most businesses that start are not going to make it to even five years.
And when you dive deeper into the data, you find that most of them aren’t failing because they are providing a bad service or product.
They are failing because they are making poor financial decisions.
But then you might ask, "Why are all these businesses making poor financial decisions?"
Well, it’s because most business owners just never learned how business money works!
But here's the thing:
Our economy is DRIVEN by the 32 million small businesses in the United States.
Not by businesses like Facebook.
Not by businesses like Apple.
Not by businesses like Tesla.
But by businesses like yours and mine.
Small businesses are what pays for mortgages and college tuitions.
Small businesses are what pushes our local economies forward.
Small businesses are what the American Dream is really based on.
So, I started to realize these small business owners need to understand the language of business money. But they don't. And it has brutal consequences.
As a country we desperately need them to succeed.
And then I realized:
“That’s my thing! I’m going to take the language of business finance and business money and break it down so that small business owners can understand their numbers and make decisions. This will allow them to thrive and have healthy businesses so that they can hire more people who can buy more houses and send more kids to college. This is my Why.”
After all these years of trying to figure out just what success was and how I was going to get it, I finally had my answer.
Success for me is making people better for having known me.
And I can accomplish that by working with small business owners to help them understand their numbers so that they can create financially healthy businesses that last and have impact.
I get completely jazzed about this stuff.
This is why I get out of bed everyday.
This is exactly why I do what I do.
This is why I started KFE.
Getting to this point has honestly been a very emotional journey that took longer than I thought it should have.
But on that journey, I learned a couple of incredibly important lessons.
First, finding my definition of success and finding my Why took a lot longer than I thought it should have. I always thought that coming up with your Why was going to be this lightbulb/eureka moment that I would have while brainstorming on a whiteboard one day.
For me, that’s just not how it happened.
It was part of a longer journey that required a lot of looking in the mirror and introspection.
I was in my late 30’s before I finally got the clarity that I was looking for.
Second, I learned if today you don’t know what your definition of success is or if you don’t know what your why is, that’s completely okay!
I think that the important thing is that you’re asking yourself the question and you’re doing that hard work to search for the answer.
So, if you don’t know what your why is, if you don’t know what success means for you, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
But it does mean that you’re asking the important question which is the first step on this journey.
Third, I think there was a ton of power in me going through that exercise on the couch on that fateful Sunday where I listed out all the people that i knew in real life that I thought to be successful people.
There was a lot of power in writing their names out and listing the characteristics or attributes that made me perceive them as successful. I don’t think I would have ever arrived at this point had I not done this exercise.
So I’d really encourage you to block off an hour of your time and pour a chai tea latte. And just sit down and go through this exercise.
I believe it will serve you extremely well.
Finally, I don’t think there’s a “right” or “wrong” answer when defining your why or your definition of success.
That’s not the important part.
Your why might be serving small business owners so they can excel or teaching people how to properly breathe to reduce stress and sleep better.
Your why could be that you want to go out and practice law so that you can bring more justice to the world.
Your why might just be to make a boatload of money so that you can have three Teslas and travel Europe whenever you want.
I don’t think any of those answers are “right” or “wrong”.
I think the important thing is that you go through the process of answering the question.