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Are you sure you want to ‘set yourself up for success’?

Updated: Mar 9

The term “set yourself up for success” is problematic because it contains zero nuance.

It assumes that success is guaranteed if approached in a particular way.

Now there are definitely some situations where you can (almost 100%) guarantee success. They mainly exist in instruction manuals, or basic processes - like when you learnt to tie your shoelace. But even when we are following instructions there is still no actual guarantee (to err is human).

There are plenty of situations where even if you do every sensible thing you can think of, and everything you have been told to do / or heard of / or seen someone else do, the thing still doesn’t work out. And if you are supposed to have set yourself up for success and it doesn’t come - where does that leave you? A failure? A victim? A blamer? A newfound cynic who can no longer trust? A critic aiming harsh thoughts at yourself?

My favourite way to approach anything is to recognise that I can only ever take my best shot. That no outcome is guaranteed. I am not a machine. Not only that but life. Life is complex, unexpected things happen. If we make a plan without factoring in the reality that is life, we are bound for disappointment, and probably a host of other unpleasant feelings about ourselves, the world and the people around us.

So instead of planning for success, we can choose to plan with every hope for the best outcome, and an acceptance that the worst could easily happen. That acceptance comes in the form of being flexible and open to multiple options. It also comes in the form of contingency plans, contingency budgets and breathing room.

When we don’t allow for the organic process of life, and things don’t go to plan, we start to question our capability, and we start to question the possibility of success. Instead, we can focus on the process, what is working well, what can be looked at again, what needs breathing room, what needs more support, and relax on the “when” of things.

Some people will have urgent projects and feel that they don’t have the space for this approach, but that mindset is a trap. Unless you are performing surgery, or at the scene of a crash - i.e. unless you are dealing with a real emergency - sustainability in living and working is vital. It increases the quality of your experience and your output, and it improves connection and creativity. Doing what you can when you can and being kind to yourself the rest of the time is how to role model healthy, sustainable living. It is also how to beat the conditioning we all have to toxic competitive capitalism.

It's too easy for us to judge ourselves and our "progress" via external societal standards, or by comparing ourselves to others. But it’s a waste of energy because you’ll never be comparing like-to-like. We need to gestate and create in line with our own nature. Just because we have to squeeze ourselves into different shapes to navigate society, don't be fooled into thinking we have to do this in all areas.

Remember, it’s your process, your schedule, your energy, your self-compassion, your agency, your life.


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