The Shape of Success

On the many paths that lead to victory

The End Result

Humans are notoriously biased when making sense of success stories. Be it a company reaching IPO, a scientist winning a Nobel Prize, a writer publishing a best-seller… We tend to look at the outcome, blissfully ignorant of the path it took to get there.

I’ve written before about the idea of Rough Drafts, about how so much of what we see in the world is the outcome of many failed attempts and iterations that we don’t see.

“The biggest disconnect that exists between creators and consumers,” I wrote, “is that the only thing that matters to a consumer is the end state.”

This was on my mind recently as I rewatched this clip of the brilliant novelist Kurt Vonnegut explaining how he thinks of the “shape of a story”:

And it got me thinking about the many analogous shapes of success.

Here’s what we are conditioned to see from the outside:

But it takes some work to get to that golden star. So let’s dive in to the many ways a person might succeed by exploring the journeys we so often don’t see.

Shape 1: The Rocket Ship

Let’s get it out of the way. This one is rare. I question whether it really exists at all.

Are there any real examples of this? Facebook perhaps? At least the Aaron Sorkin version of Facebook?

Shape 2: The Rough Start

Mathematically proven to be the journey taken by medical students, PhDs, and lawyers waiting to make partner.

If everything is relative, I imagine that reaching the end must feel quite good.

Shape 3: The Startup

Pretty much every startup founder I know is, at any given time, either at a peak or valley of this shape:

There’s only one way to power through the topsy-turvy sinusoidal insanity of it, and that’s by adopting a low-pass mentality.

Shape 4: The False Start

This one’s gotta hurt:

Another name for this one is the “Jerry Maguire”, or potentially the “Steve Jobs” (where the steep drop coincides with his getting fired from Apple). It’s also the plot of any story where the hero learns what truly matters in life.

Shape 5: The Published Author

Interesting and often overlooked:

That first little peak is finishing writing your book. Then you enter a long drawn-out emotionally-draining drop as you realize how hard it is to find an agent and actually get published.

The time dimension here is quite stretched, lasting several years or more.

Shape 6: The Time Off

Sometimes all it takes is a bit of a mental break:

I have a personal affinity for this shape, as I experience it every time I sit down to solve a Wednesday crossword puzzle.

Shape 7: The A-Ha Moment

This shape maps the precise path I took to solve my favorite brain teaser of all time:

Ironically, this A-Ha shape is not the journey taken by 80s Norwegian synth pop band, A-Ha, whose only hit “Take On Me” was actually released on their very first album. See them as another potential example of Shape 1: The Rocket Ship.

Shape 8: The Primer

Inspired by one of my favorite xkcd comics, it looks something like this:

This is both the journey taken by the characters in the movie Primer as well as one possible path outlined in quantum physics by the Schrödinger Wave Equation.

The Takeaway

To quote Aerosmith, “Life's a journey, not a destination.“ This cliché exists for a reason, and that’s because it’s true.

My takeaway from all of the above? On your journey to success—whatever success might mean for you—you’ll be somewhere on one of these charts. The problem is you won’t know where you are along the chart, or even which chart you’re on, until it’s all over. So if you’re not enjoying the journey in the meantime, what’s the point?

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