What we talk about when we talk about success is a long process of short steps.
Want to sell a bunch of books? Write a lot. Write things that people will respond to — things that make people want to read more of what you wrote. Hey look, you’re building an audience. Now make them buy new things you wrote by reminding them how much they loved the free things you wrote for years. Three straightforward steps you use like Mad Libs to achieve whatever your goal is.
We’re trained to think that no matter where we're trying to go in our career, the journey can be broken down into uncomplicated, universal steps that make everything easy.
What we don’t talk about when we talk about success, is depression — or chronic illness in general, mental and physical. We don’t acknowledge it exists, much less the ways it makes success really hard.
We don’t talk about the fact that sometimes your brain can’t possibly think of anything smart to add to the conversation because it’s focused on...nothing. We don’t mention that some days, all the energy you have to put towards the advancement of your career is exhausted by showing up and not obviously crying in front of everyone. It’s uncomfortable to say that some people won’t find the kind of success their effort should dictate because so much of their effort is used to just being “regular.”
None of us make an effort to talk about these parts of the journey because it’s uncomfortable. It acknowledges that we don't all work from the same starting line. It affirms that mostly, success is just luck. And we hate that because we want our accomplishments to be about us, not about the randomness of life.
But this isn’t a post about luck or privilege. There are people far more qualified to unpack all of that. Instead, this is me starting a conversation about success and chronic illness. Just to see were it goes.
It's a reminder to myself, and maybe you, that success and failure will always happen simultaneously — never in a neat series of events. And that's ok.
Take my 2017 as an example.
I published two books. I was a key part of a major project for a big client and co-hosted a podcast that reached thousands of people with little to no prior experience.
I also haven’t gone a week without crying. I’ve had intrusive thoughts of the darkest kind and PCOS caused such terrible cystic acne on my face that I would text my family and friends before they saw me to warn them about how bad I looked. Most times, I cancelled plans completely.
Some days I could genuinely celebrate the good things, and some days I focused entirely on the bad things. But mostly, I’ve tried to stop assigning any value to any of it. I'm trying to let go of the idea that things will happen in a nice, neat sequence.
These are just things that happened in my life. They’re additional layers to my unique context, but they’re not indicators that I am or am not on my way to where I hope to be.
Because, really, there is no single way to get anywhere. Success and failure will never look the same for all of us. We can share our experiences and hopefully relate to each other, but these lists are really just one perspective. And they're never the full story, no matter how authentic someone is trying to be.
People forget the details as time passes. They don’t remember how many bad days made up the good years. They don't mention the ugly parts, the delays or the detours because we've decided those don't belong in the success story.
I don’t know how to fix the bigger problem of overcoming chronic illness. I haven’t found a way to immediately reclaim my time and focus when my symptoms show up. But I do know that talking about it is good place to start.
Because even if my road to success can’t be boiled down to 5 simple steps, or will almost certainly include accompanying failures, it’s still a way to get there. It’s still a path other people can use to get from here to there. Wherever there ends up being.