The truth about struggle and progress
People told you that success requires blood and tears, suffering, and sacrifices. Gary Vee will often say that you need to “eat sh*t” for years before you are successful. Well, that is not true. I will make my case for the opposite in this article and in the end, you can decide for yourself.
What do you mean success feels easy?
You may feel offended by the word easy, so let me explain. I do not mean that you can have success by just binge-watching Netflix and hoping to receive a check in the post. I do not mean you do not have to work. Neither that you will not face any difficulties or obstacles.
Easy in this context means:
You do work you enjoy so it does not feel like hard work. You are often in-flow, losing track of time.
From early on, you make progress, hit success milestones, and opportunities come your way.
“Working hard for something we do not care about is called stress. Working hard about something we love is called passion.” Simon Sinek
When success feels too easy
I also believed in the myth that success required excessive struggle. But way too often, my experience proved it wrong. I started blogging in April 2016. Within three months, one of my articles was picked up by HuffPost. This was an aspirational dream for many bloggers that was supposed to take years to come true. I started writing for them and other top publications.
In 2018, I decided to leave my corporate job to work on my executive coaching business, The Leaderpath. The article I wrote on my first day as an entrepreneur went viral, attracting attention to my new venture. Two months later, INSEAD, one of the world’s top business schools, reached out to ask me for a collaboration. My business grew exponentially. Many times with my company, it looked like the dominoes were lined up. All I had to do is tip the first one, and the others would follow.
When asked about my trajectory as an entrepreneur, I told it with some guilt. It felt too easy. Until I shared my story with another aspiring coach. She was struck by the amount of serendipity and lucky breaks my path involved. She said that this was a signal that I was on the right path. Was this true? And if it was, was this applicable to others? Does success feel easy when you are on the right path and difficult when you are not?
How do you know you are on the right path?
Some of you will approach this question spiritually. You will talk about purpose and meaning and doing what you were put on this earth to do. For the more sceptical of you, let’s define the right path as the one where what you are good at, what you like doing and what the world needs overlap. By the way, in your right path, there are many options of work that you could do. As you can see in the diagram below, the overlap can be significant.
When you are in the center of your Venn Diagram, it is like you are in the eye of the storm. You are in relative peace while around you, there is havoc. You have a fast lane to success that feels so much easier than the alternatives.
Does your work feel like an uphill battle? Take a step back; maybe you are not in the center yet.
“Achievement is easy, what’s hard is alignment.” Brendon Burchard
I looked at the times in my life when I found success difficult. When I faced struggle and repeated failure. When I experienced burnout. Almost always, this happened when I was doing a job I no longer wanted to do.
“There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us to a different direction” Oprah
Looking closer at the adversity legends.
But, I was a sample of one. Did this insight, that success feels easy when you are on the right path apply to others as well? I knew this idea was contradictory with the “common sense” out there and I wanted to test it. I asked people to prove me wrong and give me some examples.
“What about Colonel Sanders?” someone said. He was rejected 1009 times before his chicken recipe got accepted. You find this “fact” everywhere online. The problem is, it never happened.
When Sanders started cooking chicken, his success spread like wildfire. He began serving it in his gas station. Quickly word got out, and the restaurant became popular. He was featured in Adventures in Good Eating, and he got the Colonel title. He agreed his first franchise deal with a friend in Utah. Due to its success, he closed another six franchise deals.
When the main road changed, diverting the traffic away from his restaurant, he decided to get in a car and go sell more franchises. Within two years, he did not have to travel anymore, as the aspiring franchisees were coming to him.
Within eight years since he started the franchise business, he had more than six hundred franchised outlets in USA and Canada. He was a market leader. He sold the company for millions. Sanders was hitting success milestones from the beginning of his career with chicken.
What about JK Rowling? She was rejected 12 times before getting a publishing deal. Yes, this is true. It took her agent more than a year to land a publishing deal which is not unusual for a first-time author. Once published, the book took off, again like wildfire within weeks.
She got a grant to focus full time in writing. She received the unheard off advance of $100K for the US rights of the book. Within two years, she sold the film rights for a 7-figure sum. This is one of the fastest new-author tracks to success I have ever seen.
What about Thomas Edison? People say that he failed 1,000 times before he invented the electric lamp. Well, for starters, Edison never invented the lamp. He tried to find the best filament, and he had his team experiment with many materials.
No, 1,000 was not the number of the failures Edison had before the lamp. 1,093 to be exact was the number of successful US patents he filed, first one at age 21. At age 22 he received $40k for one of his inventions, and he could quit his day job and dedicate himself full-time to inventing. His reputation, wealth, and success grew exponentially from there.
Even if you look at our friend Gary Vee’s life, you will find a lot of quick successes from early on. He started making a lot of many from his ventures in high school. After college, he grew his father’s business from $3M to $60 within a handful of years. In 2014, he made Fortune’s 40/under 40 list. And he always says he loves his process more than winning. This is not a person eating sh*t. This a person who enjoys his work and gets a lot of success from it.
The very cases that people bring up as proof-points that success needs struggle, tears, and suffering, are anything but.
In the stories above, once you look closely, you will see that people mainly struggled before they found their lane. Before Sanders started cooking or Rowling got a book out in the world. But after that, our heroes were showered by a stream of opportunities, lucky breaks, and money. Yes, they faced adversity as well, like the change of the highway of Sanders. But, they bounced back quickly even stronger.
Why the myth of hard success is dangerous
The lie that we need to suffer for success is harming, especially to three kinds of people
People who experience quick success but suffer from impostor syndrome because they believe it should not be that way. They think they are a fraud. How could they be so successful without much struggle? They must have fooled everyone. Sheryl Sandberg is a famous example; she had a thriving career but has admitted she suffered from impostor syndrome. Many of my coaching clients are in this bucket.
People who stay in the “struggle” because they believe that is the way it is supposed to be. They do not trust their experience and their body that tell them that something is wrong. Someone said insanity is trying the same thing hoping for different results. The “hard success” myth drives people insane.
People who settle for less because they do not want the pain they associate with success. I see this all the time. Clients will often say to me that they do not want to get a promotion or a new job. They are afraid they will have to make sacrifices or burn out, and they do not want to. Often, the opposite is true. The higher you get or, the better aligned you are with your job, the easier your work feels.
We find stories where the hero overcomes rejection and adversity inspirational. They give us hope that even if we are in a tough spot, success might be in our way. So storytellers give us what we want.
They exaggerate the struggle in the success stories.
We believe that success is better deserved when someone has suffered to get there. Maybe this also gives us an excuse not to pursue success. Who has time for suffering? This is why the myth of “hard success” has perpetuated.
But the truth is that life has a way of telling you whether you are on the right track. You will receive positive feedback, opportunities, success milestones. Success is not what's hard. Hard is saying no to what others expect from you so that you can follow your path.
If success feels easy and you are enjoying what you are doing, carry on. This is the way it is supposed to be. If you feel work is a constant struggle, take a step back. Where does this struggle come from? For how long have you been feeling this way? Could it be that you need to change direction?
I would love to hear your experience in the comments.
Caterina Kostoula is an executive coach and founder of The Leaderpath. To receive tips on how to create meaningful impact and a fulfilling life, you can subscribe to the Leader’s Path, a monthly email hitting your inbox every 1st of the month. Connect with Caterina on LinkedIn or Facebook.