In a current western culture there is a prevailing view about a predefined path to success. Eat your vegetables, do you homework, play nice, don’t hit people. It’s common sense that people who succeed are the people who do more things right than wrong. Unfortunately, as often is the case, this is completely wrong. Most decisions we make aren’t black & white and are instead a polarity spectrum. Those who repeatedly excel do so not because they choose the correct side, black or white, but those who correctly identify the point of diminishing returns and act promptly on their decision.
While all decisions are important in the moment, not all of them carry the same weight in the impact the decision has on our life. To further complicate things, few decisions are clear-cut. Life is complicated. What use is studying for a test and getting a good grade if there’s no one to celebrate with because you’ve neglected to maintain friendships in lieu of studying?
To complicate matters even further the trade offs are compounded over time to produce unfathomable complexities as one attempts to make decisions like whether to start a business or pursue post-graduate work, move to a different city, or break up with your partner. In twenty years’ time the decisions you made in the first 6 months since graduating from college might mean the difference between someone who achieved greatness and personal goals versus someone who will spend the next five years on a psychotherapists’ sofa figuring out what went wrong.
Those who succeed learn quickly from their experiences growing up that correct choice is not about choosing the outcome so much as it is about recognizing the point of diminishing returns. It’s not about whether to save for the retirement or go on vacation, whether to take a break from a high-demand job to have children or making the partner, promotion to SVP, being appointed by the board as the CFO.
The reason most seemingly educated and smart people fail to achieve their goals in the long run isn’t because they choose the wrong side. The reason is that they anchor themselves to one end of the see-saw or another, and then exhaust themselves attempting to keep it level.
Those that succeed in the long run, do so because they have learned to correctly identify the point of diminishing returns and because of that are able to curtail their efforts once the optimum equilibrium is reached. While some ongoing effort will always be required to maintain the balance due to new information becoming available, unpredictable situations arising and actions of others beyond individual’s control (you were laid off, your husband decided to change careers, your aunt died and left you a cushy inheritance) – the maintenance effort is minimal.
In the long run, failure to correctly judge cost/benefit of any decision or action spells disaster because they either don’t achieve the optimal return on the energy and resources invested. Or as is the case most often, they continue to expend more and more time and resources in pursuit of one of the polar opposites oblivious to the perpetually declining effectiveness of their actions.
Naturally, the those who succeed are able to do so because they aren’t attached to a specific outcome and are able to balance in their mind two seemingly opposite ideas at the same time. The path to success, it turns out isn’t a dogged pursuit of the end goal come hell or high water. The path to success is the ability to keep the important things in balance and ignore everything else.