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Ed Catmull, Pixar’s cofounder and past president, is fond of the expression “success hides problems.” He talks about how the last thing a movie studio wants to do after releasing a smash hit is to dissect what went right or wrong—but at the same time, he credits always looking for small problems to solve as a cornerstone of the studio’s success. Catmull digs deeper into this idea in his book, Creativity Inc.
I think about this idea a lot, and it’s one I’ve seen play out in my own life. With hard work, perseverance, and a crazy amount of luck, I’ve experienced success in my work over the last few years. My two books have been published in 20 languages, have sold a surprising (to me, at least) number of copies, and I’m fortunate enough to get invited to give a lot of talks about my work1. As fun as this success has been, it has also concealed problems from my view.
It’s never easy to identify our blind spots—what we don’t yet know about our work and life that will serve as threats or opportunities in the future. Success hides these blind spots further still. Some reasons for this:
- Success draws our attention away from what’s going wrong and what needs to be fixed.
- Success makes us overconfident and convinces us that we don’t need to improve.
- Success provides a false comfort that absolutely nothing is going wrong—or that, if things are going wrong, they must not matter much.
- Success provides less time to fix problems, because we’re so busy maintaining what’s going well.
- Success distracts from the side effects of success, like spending less time with our family and friends, burning out, or having less free time because we’re busy focusing on all that’s going well.
I’ve personally identified a bunch of problems lurking behind my success. In traveling to give talks, I’ve let some friendships languish. By overfocusing on writing and promoting books, I haven’t penned as much for this website (and my newsletter), and web traffic has dipped as a result. Doing more consulting, I haven’t shared as many of the experiments I’ve conducted over the last couple of years, selfishly saving these stories for a future book.
Realizing that success hides problems has allowed me to step back, become aware of the problems hiding behind the veil of what’s going well, and make a plan to fix them. In addition to this awareness, there are a few other strategies I’ve come across that help me maintain what’s going well, while also minding my blind spots:
Be grateful, stay humble
Once-off success is achieved by some, but sustained success is achieved by far fewer. Keep in mind that you’re fallible, just like everyone else, and you’re not owed anything. Be grateful for all you’ve accomplished (and make a list of it to motivate you further), while remembering that maintaining a level of success requires continuous hard work.
Always be on the hunt for problems to fix
Problems always exist, regardless of how much you’ve accomplished. Focusing only on problems is not healthy; we also need to notice the opportunities around us. While celebrating your past success and looking out for opportunities, keep one eye on what needs to be improved. No matter how well things are going, they could always be tweaked the next time around.
Identify the hidden costs of success
Success is never free—the time, energy, and attention you spend obtaining it comes from other activities, some of which you may find more meaningful than your work. These costs are large and small—everything from neglecting your relationships, to experiencing chronic stress, to living a sedentary lifestyle. Examine the cost of your success to ensure you’re not paying too high a price.
Out of all of the topics that are tangentially-related to productivity, success is the one I enjoy writing about the least. We tend to focus too much on extrinsic success and too little on what’s intrinsic. To me, success is an awkward thing to chase: we live in a culture that values money, status, and recognition far more than it ought to. In turn, it values qualities like kindness, helpfulness, and altruism far less than it should—even though, ironically, these qualities lead to success, too. And yet, success is what drives a lot of people to read productivity advice on websites like this one.
If you’ve achieved some degree of success in your work and life, keep in mind that there are almost certainly problems lurking behind it, obscured from your view. Recognizing this is the first step to addressing them.