I spend a lot of time thinking about what success is. I even keep a collection of definitions of success I’ve heard. The dictionary defines success as “The accomplishment of a success or purpose”. This is a good general purpose definition and it can apply to almost any kind of goal, long or short, big or small, etc. Another common definition of success is “attaining wealth, prosperity and/or fame”. I don’t think that definition is true, its more of a societal proxy and I think can be harmful.
I saw this definition of success from George Bernard Shaw, a famous writer, that really resonated with me:
“Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.”
Everyone wants to be successful in their endevors, but it can be very hard to figure out. We know we want to get to some end goal, but we can’t figure out the steps to get there, we don’t know what we need to change, etc.
Taken this way, success is turned into an ongoing interative process. We may have a big goal we are working on and are not clear on the exact path forward. As long as we continue to try and move forward and we are conscious of our goal, we will make progress. Everyone makes mistakes, afterall we are only human, but the problem that happens with so many people is that we keep making the same mistakes over and over. I have personally made a LOT of mistakes, and to be frank, I have made the same mistake a few times. So it hit me hard when I first saw Bernard Shaw’s quote, it was like he was pointing directly at me. Everyone wants their work to be meaningful and fulfilling. No one wants to be “stuck”, but it feels like we get stuck all the time.
So I did think about this quote for a while. Why was I making the same mistakes?
It wasn’t enough that I kept getting up after setbacks, I needed to make sure I was reflecting on my mistakes so as to never let them happen again. So I did change how I did things in my life. The most important thing was to add more retrospection into my daily life. There is the concept of a postmortem, which literally means “an examination after death”. Everytime a mistake happened or some situation I didn’t want to be in happened, I do a personal postmortem. I write down what happened, why it happened, and how can I prevent it from ever happening again. I found that some of my common mistakes were from being too emotional or careless. It has done wonders for my life. The act of writing it down has caused me to be more deliberate and to think through what happened. Of course I still make mistakes, but it has definitely reduced the amount of overall mistakes I make.
Guess what is even harder to fix, not repeating mistakes as a group of people! People often come together to form a company, institute, family, non-profit, or some other type of group. Everyone has their own hopes and desires, but the point of joining a group is because there is a shared vision that everyone believes in. It gets really hard to not make repeated mistakes when you have a group of people. Knowledge gets lost so easy between people so you must work even harder to make sure past lessons are not forgotten. People come and go from the team and so even more knowledge gets lost. It is imperative to make sure systems and processes are built so that learned knowledge is not lost. Anytime you see the same work happening more than once, it should be turned into documetation and put into some kind of shared knowledge base. Postmortems are even more important in a group settings. Everyone who is invovled in the issue should come together in a meeting to discuss what happened, why it happened, and how to prevent it in the future. Every group of people will do this differently, but not matter what you do, you must have an agreed upon process to make sure your group does not make the same mistakes over and over.
If we use this framework, we can apply it to any goal we have in life, whether its for personal or group goals.
From this point of view, we all know mistakes will happen, but as long as you learn from your mistakes and never allow them to repeat, you will be successful. The journey is often more important then the actual destination, so let’s make sure the journey is always headed in the right direction.