Success is a Catalyst for Failure

Success is a Catalyst for Failure

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“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

So – once you’re successful, what happens next? Even greater success? You’d hope so, but what usually happens for many companies and individuals is – believe it or not – failure! Let’s learn from their errors, and ensure that your own achievement is a catalyst for even greater success.

Contrary to leadership wisdom, it is not complacency that can ruin business, but overreaching ambition. Many successful companies – like Lehman Brothers, for example – collapsed because they took their achievement for granted and overreached themselves. Think of the successful entrepreneur who has a heart attack aged 50, the sports star who never lived up to their early capabilities, the child prodigy who burnt out and was never heard of again (unless they were Mozart – and even he died young, penniless and in debt). Surprisingly, ‘success is a catalyst for failure’.

How does this happen to successful people? Let’s go through the journey from success to failure, that a number of successful people and companies have suffered. Watch out for the signs so that you can safeguard yourself against a similar fate.

Real clarity of purpose leads to success. Celebrate your success, by all means, and take note of the reasons for it. Aim to retain it in the longer term. Success gives you more options and opportunities, which is terrific,but it’s tempting to go on to the next big thing, driving harder, and even ignoring any niggling concerns along the way. The downside is that having more options and opportunities can lead to diffused efforts, spreading yourself too thinly and ignoring risks. You can get stuck in the hamster wheel – expecting more and more, and compromising your values.

Those diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that produced your success in the first place – and signal the start of the downward slide to failure. It’s tempting to grasp for a lifebelt – and make big bold moves, rather than steady, solid progress to redress the balance. The final result is either failure or, if you’re smart, recovery and renewal. People who follow this progress from success towards failure either give up altogether, or come clean about their failings, and make any necessary changes and investment for the long-term.

We can take the learning from this process to help improve our own lives as well as our businesses. Now that you’re aware of the risks above, you can take steps to avoid the progression from success to failure. Here are some more suggestions to help deflect the fate that many successes have suffered, and to ensure that you stand the best possible chance of making your own success last – so that you can move on to even greater things.

Six Ways to Make Success Last

1. Keep Raising the Bar< What is your big mission? To become the best in your market? To progress from being the best in the country to being the best in the world? To make a significant contribution to the world in some way? One way of dealing with success is to get into the habit of raising the bar much higher and raising your expectations of what can be achieved. The moon landing project was one clear goal that was pursued unwaveringly. That is the advantage of huge, clear, and stretching goals. They cut out the trivia and prevent any diffusion of focus. 2. Use more Extreme Criteria Search for ‘a good opportunity’, and you’ll find too many. Look for the excellent opportunity. Even when you have one clear purpose, your options are numerous. The challenge is to cut through the good – which can simply distract you – and focus on the elusive excellence. Steve Jobs once said, "I'm as proud of what we don't do as I am of what we do." In making a business choice, don’t use broad criteria like ‘Will this bring us satisfaction someday in the future?’ Apply tough criteria. ‘Is this essential to my mission?’ You can then eliminate the mediocre and make space for greater things. This applies to anything from the mundane task of sorting your wardrobe at home, to making major life and business decisions. 3. Don’t Overreach Having ambition is all very well, but don’t take success for granted and expect that all you touch turns to gold. If you do start a new project or business, work on the assumption that you have much to learn again. Being successful once, you can easily forget the lessons you learned or that you might need to adapt to different situations. Be discerning about where you put your efforts, and focus with laser-like accuracy, rather than using a diffuse scatter-gun approach. 4. Don’t Compromise Your Core Values Effective execution requires integrity: delivering on promises you have made, and doing what you said you would do. When companies overreach, promising more than they can deliver and spreading themselves too thinly, they are compromising on their execution, quality and values.If you’re disciplined enough to recognise and refuse unhelpful compromises, you are likely to gain most in the long term. Successful people maintain the highest standards, notice any unhealthy compromises, or any cursory box-ticking and lip service that’s being paid, and take a stand against it. 5. Eliminate the Non-Essentials Going for more and more complicates matters. Just as a gardener must prune certain plants to allow for fresh, new growth, you will need to cut back any dead wood in your life or work. If success triggers failure through the ‘undisciplined pursuit of more’, the simple solution to this must be ‘the disciplined pursuit of less’. This means deliberately and thoughtfully eliminating all nonessentials; constantly reducing options and tasks, focusing down your concentration and simplifying things. It even means refusing to take up some great opportunities too. Few people are brave enough to do all this, which explains the difference between successful people and organisations, and the very successful ones. Make life simple. Ask yourself ‘what is essential?’ and get rid of the rest. Don’t ask yourself if you’re too busy to do something; ask if it’s worth doing at all. Give yourself permission to remove the nonessentials, and everything changes. Use this in your life by: Conducting a life/business audit. Our lives and work get cluttered with old ideas and goals. Decide which ones are important and go for them. Delete the rest. Eliminating an old activity before adding a new one. This ensures that you don't add anything less valuable than what you already do. 6. Beware of the Endowment Effect This is our tendency to value an item more, when we own it. You might find that keeping hold of things (businesses, employees, cars, old suits) that have outgrown their usefulness or value will diffuse your resources and efforts that could be better used for bigger goals. So instead of asking how much you value an item, ask ‘If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to get it?’ Or, ’If I didn’t have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice to get it?’ Which areas of your life need the bars raising? What tough criteria will you apply? Which areas of your life or work need ‘pruning’? Which non-essentials will you eliminate? What is your focus now? All of this can really be brought into your whole life as well as your work, at all levels. So, be aware that success can trip you up, if you’re not careful. Or at least, the kind of success that makes you think you’re invincible and can achieve anything. Keep it real. Keep it focused. Bring it back to basics, and do what you do really well – to the highest standards. In a world obsessed with growth and ambition, we get increased complexity. Complexity kills. It kills companies; it kills success. Let’s work on keeping things simple. Instead of striving blindly for more and more, keep a clear focus and KISS. Keep It Successfully Simple. Further Reading: How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In by Jim Collins (Amazon Link UK, US)

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson (Amazon Link UK, US)

The Disciplined Pursuit of Less – Harvard Business Review post by Greg McKeown, CEO of a leadership and strategy design agency headquartered in Silicon Valley (Post)

If the above topic, or indeed any of my blogs are of interest to you, then contact me and let’s talk! Drop me an email at

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