The difference between success and progress

My most recent post got made into a Someecard, so I’m feeling pretty good.  Sure, its not something that my parents would understand (being made into a joke on a site that 800K people visit religiously) but it is still a high moment.  I was also on FoxNews, trying to help more women get raises.  Again, not everyone’s idea of having made it in the world, but something that I walked away from with a light step and the urge to crow.

Both of those two moments made me feel successful: good, accomplished, like I had achieved something.  And yet only one of them is also about progress: having actually changed the world for the better in a tangible way.

You could take a flying leap and suggest that if I died tomorrow, my Matt-inspired-Someecard still would have made a few people laugh and that is valuable (because the stick really is that far up my ass and I graduated from Swarthmore, I would be likely to kill a discussion by debating that).  But in reality, the Someecard is really just about me feeling personally validated; it doesn’t really do much for anyone else.  GetRaised, on the other hand, has helped thousands of women earn millions in raises, a feat that few others can say they’ve accomplished and with an undeniable positive impact on society.

What is interesting is how often success and progress don’t full overlap and how rarely we consciously make sure that we’re getting a balance of both.  People love to endlessly complain to me about their lack of work-life balance, but I think what many of them actually may be complaining about is their lack of success-progress balance.

For example, GetRaised wasn’t all that much fun to create.  It was built on the side, outside of our direct line of business, so that it meant it had to be cobbled together in between other projects.  The problem itself wasn’t particularly intellectually challenging, we didn’t get to use any whizbang technology or pyrotechnic tricks, and it is abundantly clear how much better it could be (I still have a wishlist a mile long).  And yet it was still a project worth doing: it made real progress, every day, and even if the high moments of launch and press and helping women aren’t constant, there are enough moments of success to make it maintain a healthy and rosy glow.
And that is what is missing for so many progress-driven projects: there is not nearly enough celebration.  I’m reminded of a quote From Dusk Till Dawn.

Are you such a loser you can’t tell when you’ve won? The entire state of Texas, along with the F.B.I., is looking for you. Did they find you? No. They couldn’t. You’ve won, Seth, enjoy it.

Too often, when working on something that truly matters, work really does feel like work.  The aching, grinding pressure that is doing the 100th wireframe to try to get a particular product point right is not fun, no matter what anyone tells you.  If we don’t look for moments of success, ways to feel good and accomplished, then we will quit long before we finish anything worthwhile.

Equally dangerous (or, given our current culture, perhaps more dangerous) is the feeling of success that comes without any progress at all.  The problem with attention from Someecards is that it can be addictive: it makes you want to get attention, to simply feel good, while removing any responsibility for actually doing anything worthwhile.  Success without progress is the flip side of the coin and it is the ugly underbelly of a lot of American culture right now.

There are plenty of Paris Hilton-like examples but those are too easy.  Even the business and political worlds have plenty of successes without progress.  You know them, people who are constantly telling you how important they are but you can’t figure out a damn thing they’ve done.  Sure, they’re great at promoting themselves within a community and may even feel genuinely good about their success (although most psychologists would suggest they don’t), but when they look back on their accomplishments, they’re still docked on shore while others are quietly sailing away.

We need enough success only to keep us making progress.  But we still need it.  And it is something worth looking around for in people.  Who do you need to congratulate on their progress?  Who do you need to offer a chance to make some?