Here’s Why Looking For Success Is Like Looking At Medusa

I couldn’t wait for success, so I went ahead without it.

~ Jonathan Winters

Medusa

Medusa is a cutie.

Medusa, of Greek Mythology, was a hideous woman with venomous snakes growing out of her head (instead of hair). The legend says that Medusa once had jaw-dropping beauty, but was turned into snake-woman by Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, after Medusa got intimate with Poseidon.

It is unknown if Medusa used snake oil as shampoo.

Perseus, meanwhile, was being a dumbo. He was invited to this banquet held by Polydectes in which guests were supposed to bring horses as gifts. Perseus didn’t bring any horses, so he told Polydectes he would give him “any gift he named.” Polydectes naturally asked for Medusa’s head. Perseus, you fool! It wasn’t just that Medusa had an ugly face and lethal hair, the real problem was that no mortal could look upon her without turning into stone!

Uh, actually Polydectes…for the gift I was thinking more along the lines of a dozen goats or a free hour-long Skype session with my dad Zeus. Kthxbye.

~ Unconfirmed Perseus Quote

Perseus had quite a challenge ahead of him. He made a few critical stops for advice and supplies, including the residence of three old women who shared one eye (that’s what I would do too). He obtained a sword, a shiny shield, and a knapsack (essentials for head-collection). Perseus was ready, and he finally entered Medusa’s lair. Lucky for him, she was sleeping. He looked at her through his shiny shield to avoid being “stoned” and removed her head with his sword.

Hero Bonus: In the end, Perseus got the girl too. He married the beautiful Andromeda after saving her from a sea monster.

My Recent Story

I should be discouraged.

In the past two weeks, I have sent out four guest post articles to blogs and I haven’t heard back from three of them (the other is published). I’m fine with rejection, but I got no response at all. I worked hard on those posts and I’ve spent years working on my writing, so I at least deserve to be rejected.

I at least deserve to be rejected.

~ I just said that?

And yet, despite “worse than rejection” responses, I remain optimistic because I’m not after success right now. I’m after something different, and I’m getting it. I believe I will find success on my path, not by chasing it, but from chasing this other thing (which I’m obviously keeping a secret at the moment). I’m not looking directly for success, because like Medusa, you will see that success obsession can also turn people to stone!

Beware The Discouragement Spiral (Medusa’s Gaze)

There’s something about being hit on the head with a stick every day at 11 PM that makes you flinch at 11 PM every day. They call this concept “Pavlov’s bell” because of the famous experiment in which Ivan Pavlov conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell by always feeding them after the bell chimed. We are conditioned to the idea that we need to succeed in life, because that’s the answer we hear when the question of life pursuits is asked. Naturally, we make success a priority in life and seek it all of our days.

I’m not saying you should drop the desire to succeed. I’m proposing that you and I stop focusing on it. With the goal of killing Medusa, the worst strategy Perseus could have employed was to look directly at her. I believe success is the same way. To focus on success isn’t the best strategy to achieve success, and if you always look for success, you might regress instead. Here are the three reasons why…

  1. Success is at the end of a grueling journey, not the phone call you need to make today. Perseus needed to make several stops to prepare for Medusa’s lair, and once he arrived, he had to carefully approach her. In other words, the idea of success can distract you from taking smart steps today because you’re focused on taking a giant leap someday.
  2. The second reason is even more devastating. Success obsessors, what happens if you don’t succeed? You’ll be discouraged. What happens as a result of that? Your confidence drops. And then? You’ll sink lower because humans can’t function properly while discouraged and without confidence. It’s the recipe for a discouragement spiral.
  3. Success (especially timing) is often out of our control, which makes number two more likely to happen.

Success turns people to stone by discouraging and distracting those who look for it.

Is Success Really Up To Us?

A writer sends out manuscripts to various publishers, and hopes that one will take interest and offer a deal. Uh oh. How can anyone count on that when the most famous authors in history have a massive backlog of rejection slips? Stephen King had to get a heavy duty stake to replace the nail holding his rejection slips against his wooden wall. The best selling book series of all time, Harry Potter, had a dozen rejections.

It’s subjective.

My ebook is probably the best ebook ever written and it’s free (!), but it gets less attention than it should because “Stress Management Redefined” is a fitting, but bland title (see, I learn!) and I didn’t market it expertly.

Even with “normal jobs,” someone else has to decide if you have what it takes and that you’re better than the other applicants. Yeah, that’s subjective too. Then you can start your own business to finally take control! Sorry. Market timing, consumer perception, lawsuits, competition, and other uncontrollable variables can have as much to do with your success or failure as the things you can control. You have more control with your own business, but the subjective bug can still bite you.

And now for the question on everyone’s mind…

If we’re not to focus on success, then what are we to focus on?

~ Your thoughts right now

The answer to that is the same solution that Perseus needed to kill Medusa. He knew that if he looked directly at her, he’d turn into stone, but he still needed to see her in order to kill her. Perseus looked into his shiny shield to see Medusa, and it protected him from getting “stoned.” Perhaps we need a shiny shield too – something that will let us move towards success while protecting us from the inevitable discouragement that comes from pursuing it.

The Shining Shield Of Progress

Perseus and Medusa

If he wasn’t about to cut her head off, I’d think they were dancing.

People do become famous authors, get promoted, and run successful businesses. It can happen, but to focus on success is problematic for the aforementioned three reasons. Don’t fret, as I have identified the shield we need! Instead of fixating on success, let’s look at our Shining Shield Of Progress.

Proceed every day, and you’ll reach a tipping point – you’ll find more success because you’re better. In the meantime, you don’t ever have to feel defeated (i.e. Medusa stoned)! Ever! If you make progress every day towards your pursuits, you’ve done your job. Now you’re looking at success through a healthier viewpoint.

Q: What about objectively obtainable goals? Can I obsess over success if I know I can achieve it?

A: No. For objectively obtainable goals, where we are in complete control of the result, we should still continue to focus on incremental progress over success.

Earlier I explained the possible development of a discouragement spiral when you fall short of success. This is a constant threat even with objectively obtainable pursuits – a threat that success obsessors will always be vulnerable to. It’s just the same as trying to fight Medusa by facing her directly – the danger of locking eyes and becoming stone is always present. At any point in your journey, you could mess up, and it can get you discouraged, which can then spiral. The best way to sustain positive momentum is to always move forward and never backwards (unless you can’t control it, in which case you progress from there).

Here’s the key…

A discouragement spiral is far less likely to happen if you are looking at your shining shield of progress!  Every bit of improvement is a mini-success instead of a reminder that you haven’t succeeded yet, despite your hard work. This is the same concept behind my recent popular post about doing one push-up every day. Positive reinforcement builds upon itself into an upward encouragement spiral.

Now we’ve gained the advantage on success and Medusa. They are trembling in the corner (hide ya kids, hide ya wife) as our confidence rises through progress.

Back to me (call me “Selfish Steve”). I may not get a response, but I’m seeing significant progress in my writing ability and work ethic. Each post I write is a little bit better than the one before it, and that matters. Prior to those guest post submissions, I hadn’t submitted any guest posts to anyone in a couple of months. In the last two to three weeks I’ve sent out four or five! It’s huge progress and I’m very happy about it.

Now…Mindshift!

Evaluate your life. Where do you desire success in it? Take that image and roll it up into a ball. Throw it to me. Ok, I just uncrumpled it. Now I’m looking at it. Gymnastics? Really? I would have never…well, that’s cool. Whatever it is that you’re wanting, imagine what the following mindshift could do for you (as it has done for me!). I write this more from experience than theory.

The “Every Day I Succeed Proceed” Creed

  1. Instead of concerning myself with reaching the prize, I’m happy to sprint, jog, or walk towards it.
  2. Rather than seeing how I could have been further along had things gone differently, I see the areas I’ve made progress in. The potential discouragement becomes encouragement, which increases my progress further. Medusa cowers in fear and her hair snakes shed a layer of skin just from being nervous. It’s disgusting and inspiring at the same time.
  3. While I used to get frustrated when my hard work and talent went unnoticed, now I see a different story unfolding. I notice that I’m getting better and better at what I do, and it makes sense that I’d be the first to see it. It seems increasingly likely that the world will notice if I continue.
  4. But if I never get noticed (which used to be a nightmare), I’ll still feel good about what I’m doing. The internal reward I’m getting from consistent progress is substantial. Knowing that I’m doing my best makes me feel secure, because I know I can’t do any better than my best.
  5. I recognize something about life – when I sulk about what isn’t, I move farther away from success in frustration and doubt. But when I expect good things to happen, they happen more.

In Medusa’s Lair

Now your need to succeed is fading…and gone! You get a strange sensation and it feels like you’re entering another dimension! You look down at your hands. In your left hand, you hold the Shining Shield Of Progress. In your right hand, The Sword Of Victory.

Great Galloping Geese of Georgia! You’re Perseus now, and you’re standing in Medusa’s lair!

Your fear of failure subsides as you gaze upon Medusa sleeping with her freaky white eyes wide open. Because you are peering through your shield’s reflection, you remain unharmed by her fatal stare. You move towards her. Each step confirms more than the last that life consists of moving forward in the direction of your choice. Your silent steps seem almost meaningless by themselves, but they have brought you close to her now.

You stand in front of her.

As you cautiously circle Medusa, you tilt the shield, examining her face and the snakes which inhabit her head. She doesn’t look exactly the way you expected her to, but it’s definitely her. Now you hold up The Sword Of Victory high in the air as your journey races through your mind, and she awakens just as your sword comes down on her neck. She’s too late. Her head rolls away.

You’ve won.

Oddly, the victory is not on your mind. You’re thinking of the important conversations and items gathered on the way to the lair, and the small quiet steps you took towards Medusa. Your thoughts are scattered chaos. You struggle to understand the meaning behind it… but then you look down at your shield, and in that instant, your previously muddled thoughts converge together into one powerful idea that you now know to be true…

Progress is success.

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.

Evan

Hi Stephen, I agree.

A quote from Viktor Frankl (roughly): happiness isn’t pursued it ensues (from doing meaningful things).

Stephen Guise

Thank you for that quote, Evan. I agree! It’s an interesting argument to the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.”

Laura Avnaim

Stephen, this is great, and so true! I feel like I should write down a few of the quotes on here and post them around the house to remind me. It’s amazing how quickly discouragement can set in, when you focus on the wrong things. Thanks for this reminder! Oh, and the sharing section looks amazing!!!

Stephen Guise

Laura, you are free to write down any quotes, especially the one that says “I deserve to be rejected.” I believe that would be the most helpful one for all of us. On a serious note, you’re right about discouragement – it strikes fast for the unprepared. Thank you for stopping by. 🙂

Jesse Ford

Thanks. Nice post.

Success is a journey. Every successful person knows that. What makes you a success is your resolve and determination to put one foot in front of the other. You do your part; you plan, you plant, you work, you move, and the Universe will do its part.

Stephen Guise

It’s the timing of success that seems to get people discouraged – it doesn’t always happen on our terms or our timing. But with the one foot in front of the other strategy, you’re likely to get there sooner or later!

Dean

You know man, I would be very interested to read about that year you’ve spent working on your writing. I’m trying to do this myself, so it would come as a helpful post, in case you’re thinking of what to write.

Keep working at it, the success is a journey, and goal is a destination — eventually you’ll get there.

Stephen Guise

Thanks for your comment and the idea, Dean. I’m always interested in new post ideas. I have 50+ drafts right now though, haha.

It wasn’t one year specifically, but mostly just practicing for several years. In hindsight, what has worked best for me is to read books on writing, and then practice writing. It’s cliche advice to write to improve; the missing step I don’t hear as much is to get the head knowledge before you practice. You can pick up some techniques by reading other great writers, but I like to read books about writing in order to directly absorb the concepts.

Notably, I read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser a couple years ago and that was a foundational book for understanding the concepts of what good writing looks like (it was free to borrow from the library). I need to learn more about writing in order to take my writing to the next level, so I’m looking at “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” by Roy Peter Clark to add more variety to my arsenal.

When it comes to writing improvement, this is my belief – understand first, then practice what you learn, and finally, see results.

The most meaningful pursuits require the most effort. 🙂

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