THE BLOG
12/03/2014 12:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stumbling Toward Success

A few years ago, my son introduced me to one of his favorite websites -- www.stumbleupon.com. The basic idea, he explained to me, is that you click on a number of categories of things you find interesting, from movies to world politics to games to oceanography. You then "stumble" onto a website chosen at random by the website's decision engine, and after viewing the page you click "I like it," "I don't like it," or you can express your indifference by not clicking anything.

The decision engine takes these refinements into account, and you are gradually channeled towards more and more sites that you enjoy and away from those that hold no interest for you. The more you stumble, the more accurate and enjoyable the websites you will stumble upon.

At first glance, this seemed like one of the biggest time wasters imaginable, and my efficiency-trained brain rejected it as yet another attempt to exploit my attention deficit until it became a full blown attention recession (or worse still, a depression). Yet after playing on the site for awhile, I came to see that it's a fantastic metaphor for how it seems to me that people succeed in the "real world."

We all know how we're supposed to succeed, don't we? We set clear goals and objectives, make a plan, and follow that plan to the successful achievement of our goals.

While this kind of logical, linear approach to life looks great on paper (literally), in my experience life has far more say in how things turn out than many of us would like to admit. And in my formal and informal interviews of happy, successful people over the past twenty five years, I've noticed that even if they made plans for specific, short-term objectives, when it came to the bigger picture of their lives, the "plan" these people have followed was not so much created as unfolded from the inside out.

In other words, they picked a direction that appealed to them and took their first few awkward, stumbling steps in that direction. Along the way, they bumped into people and circumstances and challenges and opportunities. If they liked what they found, they kept stumbling along in that direction, making more and more refined distinctions as they went. If they didn't like what they found, they stumbled off in a different direction, following their inner sense of desire to mark the path that was appearing in front of them as they went.

Did they occasionally stumble a bit too hard and fall on their faces? Inevitably. But because they were so enjoying their adventure, they would simply pick themselves up, lick their wounds as needed, and stumble on in the direction of their own fascination and curiosity.

And this same approach is available to all of us at any time.

Do you think you might want to write a novel?

Put pen to paper, allow yourself to write some absolute drivel, and see what story and characters begin to emerge.

Do you have what it takes to succeed in business?

Take your first, tentative steps in the direction of what you think you might want to do and you may be surprised and delighted by what you stumble upon.

Now if your rational brain is throwing up a stream of objections to this seemingly random and disorganized approach, you can either give it the day off or perhaps appease it by showing it the "secret strategy" behind stumbling towards success:

  • Acknowledge the things that work for you and do more of them
  • Acknowledge the things that don't work for you and do less of them
  • When in doubt, stumble!

And if that doesn't seem like a good plan to your rational brain, perhaps it's not as rational as it thinks it is...

Have fun, learn heaps, and happy stumbling!

With all my love,

2014-08-17-20130402michaelsig.gif

For more by Michael Neill, click here.