Society focuses so much of its energy on success. We see success shoved in our faces by the media all week long. When that’s not happening, there is a constant reporting of failures, especially about those who were once successful. But success in the end, is often, moments of high, with long periods of slog. As a martial artist I have know this all to well. While you may win against an opponent today — but you know, that you have to go back to doing the work, the hard training — in order to ever think of being successful again.
This is what has always fascinated me about success. You know it or others tell you when you arrive at success, but if we are honest with ourselves, that journey, often, wasn’t a straight line. It was difficult, with moments of despair. Often you wanted to quit, and you didn’t always have clear cut answers. Much of the time you had no idea how you would get to the end, or even what success would really look like when you arrived.
By all accounts I have been pretty successful in my life. Looking back, now in my 40’s, while I see the successes in my life, I have begun to realise that I could have done it smarter, in shorter time, and likely with more joy. While I was able to celebrate my successes, often, even though I was on top, it felt like I missed something along the way. The only way I can describe it, is when you have this nagging feeling that you left the stove on, even though, you know you switched it off. It wasn’t that I didn’t work hard, because I did — but what I have realised is that success doesn’t emerge out of hard work alone, or from a complete focus on a specific goal — but rather, how you engage with the mundane of everyday life on the way to success.
Navy Seal, Admiral William H. McRaven during a commencement address to the University of Texas 2014 graduates talked about his time in BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL). He recalled that every morning they had to stand inspection and their beds had to be made to perfection. In his own words, “It was a simply task, mundane at best.” As he noted further, “It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that we were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle hardened SEAL’s.” But what he didn’t realised at the time, there was wisdom in that simple act. If you start your day making your bed perfect — it gives you a small sense of pride and confidence — encouraging you to do the next task with the same kind of dedication. Most notably as McRaven points out “doing the little things in life matter…if you cant do the little things right, you will never be able to do the big things right.”
McRaven highlighted what I had felt as “missing something along the way” to success. I always saw the goal as the only thing that mattered, the only thing worth working for. Coming home, to a messy, disordered apartment, with last nights dishes still in the sink — made me feel depressed and I didn’t know why? Even if I had achieved everything I set out to that day, moving one more inch towards my goal, it all drifted away once I saw those dishes.
You see what I have realised now and what I didn’t realise then, that true success is seizing every moment, especially the mundane ones (making a bed, washing the dishes etc). It is about making those moments count, and making those moments a success. The Japanese have a beautiful way of describing this as Zakka “the art of seeing the savvy in the ordinary and mundane.” On the race to the top, we only focus on getting to the top. Some of us get there, but many don’t. I wonder how many more people would have succeeded at their goals, if they only took the time to do the things they take for granted in everyday life to the best of their ability?
This may sound a little obsessive–compulsive. But it’s not doing the mundane in some kind of competitive, outdoing someone kind of way. Rather, it’s about seizing every moment with zeal. It’s really the small things that we take for granted, done right, daily, that lead to our overall success. Just the other day I walked to the store which is close to my home. It’s a walk I often do. This time I decided to take my time, to look carefully at the trees, and listen to the birds chirp. Normally I am doing this walk fast, in a rush to get a coffee, only then to scramble back to my office to get work done.
Coming back to work this time however felt different. I felt more centred, less stressed, and I didn’t feel like I had ‘left that stove on.’ The walk to the shop was “a simple task, mundane at best.” But how I did it, how I approached it, with full presence, created a sense of pride and confidence that helped balance the rest of my day out. My advice to anyone seeking to be successful, is to look around you, look at the things you take for granted, the mundane stuff you do, make that a success first. Start every day like that. As McRaven notes, doing those small things successfully everyday, will enable you to take on the big things when you absolutely need too.