Take one last look at 2017 in the rearview mirror. What’s the final accounting?
Perhaps you’d pledged to be a few pounds lighter, a few dollars heavier. To have climbed a rung or two at work, logged a few more members on your mailing list, donated more to charity.
I give myself a C, by these metrics. Perhaps you did better. But even if not, I propose that a poor showing on this particular report card doesn’t mean much. Because the report card is flawed.
Here are some better ways to think about the progress you’re making.
It can be a downer to realize we’re backsliding as the years pass, getting slower and creakier and heavier. Even if you try to eat right and get to the gym, the machine of your body can’t do what it used to.
So here’s a useful reframe, courtesy of the World Masters Athletics Association — “age-grading." Scores are tabulated using an algorithm that accounts for the predictable physiological decline of the body over time. You plug in your age and, say, your 10k time, and the tables spit out an equivalent score for a younger person. In other words, you get a picture of your fitness that corrects for the distortion of aging.
The problem with most metrics of success is that they’re absolute when they should be relative. We should be measuring ourselves against others our own age — or better yet, against our expectations for ourselves.
Not long ago, microbiologist Leonard Hayflick was asked what had changed since he began his career 55 years ago. Back then, he said, “a respected scientist rarely thought about profiting from their work. Since then, the attitude has changed 180 degrees. Today, if a scientist does not have some commercial interest, they are considered to be a failure.”
His point isn’t that scientists or academics who bring their work to market are sellouts. It’s that the very labels “failure” and “success” are ridiculously contingent on the culture’s idea of what should be rewarded. If our efforts don’t turn a buck or make us famous, we get the message that our work failed — even though it might be the best we’ve ever done.
A better metric of success is the so-called jury of your peers: How do your colleagues feel about your work? Your “true fans”? If you’re in any kind of creative field, that’s the only feedback that really counts — the approval of the people who get what you’re trying to do.
“True fans” is a coinage of Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly. This is the small group of people whose trust you have earned and will now buy everything you make. They take the trouble to tell you how much they love what you wrote, designed, or built. Feeling appreciated is worth a ton; it even has health benefits. Those 1,000 true fans — who will talk you up and stay loyal when the masses have moved on to the next fad — are enough to earn you a decent living, by Kelly’s math.
So even if you didn’t hit a home run in 2017 — didn’t make the bestseller list, go viral on YouTube, or win an award — you were a success so long as you have your true fans in your corner. It’s okay to have niche appeal. Why keep trying to win the approval of people we don’t care about?
The Status Trap
Back on the savannah, social validation meant the difference between life and death. You were in or out — literally. That primitive software still hums inside us. Status and prestige remain prime motivators. But chasing them can be a devil’s bargain. Prestige “is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy,” said the author and Silicon Valley guru Paul Graham. “It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”
So if you failed to land a prestigious new post in 2017, it may actually be a blessing in disguise. (How many fires were extinguished the moment someone was kicked upstairs in an ostensible “promotion” to management?)
Which leads us to…
How Do You Know the Difference?
Wins and losses are clear on the sports pages. Everywhere else, not so much. “Sometimes, what seems an outright, mission-accomplished success is actually only a short-term win that ultimately impedes your long-term progress — if only you could know that at the time,” said Mark Madsen, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Conversely, what looks like a dead loss — you started a business that went under, you were jilted at the altar — may turn out be a blessing in disguise. What you learned from that business failure may be invaluable to the success of your next venture — lessons that couldn’t have been learned any other way. And your betrothed, well, they were all wrong for you. Success? Failure? You just don’t know. So don’t sweat it.
Not long ago, in a year-end wrap-up, popular podcast host Adam Robinson quoted the great Spanish bullfighter Juan Belmonte. Life, said the matador, “is nothing but the continual series of struggles to develop one’s character through the medium of whatever one has chosen as a career.”
That changes the picture, right? By those lights, the best metric for your job performance in 2017 isn’t: Did I get a raise? Did I meet my sales quotas? Or even, did I increase my tax-deductible charitable contributions? "It’s 'How much did my job do its job — which was to improve who I am?'" said Robinson. “If it didn’t do that job very well, maybe it’s the wrong job. Or maybe I’m not getting all I can out of it.”
It Comes Down to People
Author and business expert Ramit Sethi recently amended his New Year’s Eve ritual. For many years, he did the usual Dec. 31 accounting: Did the year unfold as he'd hoped? Did he get to where he wanted to get? “Well, after a while, that sort of loses it — cuz there’s no roadmap, right?” So Sethi changed things up. Now there’s only one measuring stick. It’s not money or prestige or possessions. It’s the people in his life: “Who am I meeting, and what’s the quality of those relationships?”
Sethi keeps a running list of everyone he encounters all year. On Dec. 31, he looks at the list. Is he at the level he wants to be with everyone? Some friendships he decides to deepen, some to let go. Your circle of friends and acquaintances is not a stock portfolio that you just sit on, in Sethi’s view. You need to manage it. Ask yourself: Did I do well by the people I care most about? If not, how can I make amends?
So there it is. I hope some of this provides consolation for the year past and for the year ahead, pick one or two metrics that are most important to you, and put your energy there.
And I have a friend who measures the success of a year by her number of owl sightings. That’s hard to beat.