“Ease is the sign of grace in everything.” ~Marty Rubin
Work harder. Never give up. Believe in yourself. Get out of bed earlier. Shout self-affirmations in the mirror. Adapt the habits of “highly successful” people…
How many times have we heard those things? In award speeches, articles, self-help books… All those who have made it seem to imply this: If you just work hard enough, long enough and believe in yourself, you will be successful.
But, like…will you though?
I can’t disagree entirely. It’s not that these things don’t contribute to success. They can. But they get way more credit than they should, overshadowing some just as, if not more, valuable ingredients.
You see, all these golden nuggets have one major flaw: sample bias. A lot of successful people might subscribe to the idea that hard work equals success because they like to believe that they are where they are because they earned their place.
It’s nice to think that everyone gets what they deserve, after all. But that does mean all this well-meant wisdom completely ignores the part of the Venn diagram containing those who are just as good and worked just as hard but aren’t successful. What are their thoughts? Obviously, we don’t know, because we don’t hear much from those who don’t make it.
But you’re in luck! Because I have experienced spectacular failure in one career path as well as found some success in another. I know people that have made it as well as people that haven’t gotten to where they hoped they would. And after spending decades on this planet overthinking, overanalyzing, philosophizing, and most of all failing epically I have discerned that, in the end, there’s one real tip for success that lies at the foundation of it all…
Yes. Ease. In perhaps a cruel trick of the universe, I’ve found that the things that come easier to us are the things we can find most success in.
I have seen it with actor, writer, make-up artist, and filmmaking friends. I have seen it with different friends pursuing the same thing where one found success and the other less so. I have experienced—and dear Lord felt—it in my own life.
The cruelest of it all is that we can’t fake ease. We can tell ourselves that we’re cool and we’re chill and it’s all easy, but if we don’t deep down also believe—nay, know—this to be true, it still won’t work. Perhaps cruel is not the right word. It just is.
However, there are some things you can do. Things that not only help you find success but perhaps most importantly help you pursue it in a healthier, saner way. Things that help keep you a happy person.
So, here goes…
Find Something You’re Actually Great At
Stupidly obvious yet deceivingly hard: Pick something you’re actually really good at. It’s hard because the things we’re good and the things we want to pursue aren’t always aligned. On top of that it’s not always easy to be honest with yourself about what you’re naturally good at. But there are clear signs when you’ve found your talent:
People will tell you. People other than friends or family will compliment your skills or tell you to pursue it professionally. And you just know; you have that feeling you understand something implicitly. Like it’s your thing.
And when you first start to endeavor things, you get all these encouraging signals. This is something that’s beautifully described in Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, but I’ll give you a more down-to-Earth tale: my own humble life experience.
Once upon a time I wanted to be an actress and spent over ten years seriously pursuing an acting career. But it was always a struggle. There was always a lot of negative energy around it. Nobody ever said, “Wow, you were so good!” after a play. No acting teacher ever said, “You’ve got talent.” I never felt like I had a deep, intrinsic connection to acting.
I wasn’t bad, I was just average. Sometimes less than that. Sometimes more. But acting was tangled up with my true, eternal love for film so it was hard to cast it aside. And as I was fully into the “never quit” and “just work harder” mindset I continued on…
In contrast, my writing and specifically my directing career started off disgustingly easy. Not just in contrast with my own flailing attempts at an acting career but in contrast as well to peers in my new field.
Now I’m not saying I didn’t work hard, or I didn’t encounter obstacles.
I spent countless late nights and weekends writing and developing and learning on top of working a full-time job and have wanted to curl up in bed and cry all day on plenty of occasions. But the difference is that these obstacles, rejections, and heartbreaks were balanced with wins. The work paid off every once in a while. It flowed naturally. I just had to keep swimming. In a wild, rocky river, yes. But not upstream.
I know this is a tough sell as a “tip” because it’s not really something you can do too much about.
In this world of life-is-what-you-make-it and you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to thinking we have trouble accepting that sometimes, some things are inalienable truths. Such as that we may not be that amazing at the thing we want to do.
But it’s better to accept it and find something you are good at, because yes, you can put in those 10,000 hours, and yes, hard work does beat talent. But having to outwork others with talent puts a lot of strain on something—which is the antithesis of ease. And things that are strained or surrounded by negative energy have a hard time taking off, unless they’re coupled with confidence, which brings us to the next tip:
Find Something You’re Confident in
Confidence breathes ease into all things. If you’re confident, you might not even have to be that good at the thing you’re pursuing. Confidence helps you relax and focus on the task. Confidence helps you enjoy the task. And confidence can convince people you’re the person for the job—whether that’s justified of not.
Okay, it does depend somewhat on what you’re pursuing of course: convincing someone you’re the best abstract sculptor is perhaps easier than convincing someone you’re the best at, say, Olympic sprinting. However, most things aren’t—or can’t—be measured as precisely as Olympic runs. Consequently, even a decent but confident theoretical physicist might still be more successful at securing research grants than an amazing but insecure one.
It’s a bit of an Emperor’s new clothes thing. In this world of constant change, grey areas, and uncertainties, we like to believe those who claim to have answers. Those who can give us a sense of security in this chaotic world. And confident people implicitly promise us those things.
Confidence plus great skill is the best combination of course, but not a necessary one. You see, among the confident people are another overshadowed part of the aforementioned Venn diagram. Opposite those talented, hard workers who haven’t found success is a group of not-that-talented, not-that-hard-working folks who have found success.
Of course, confidence does need to be backed up by something. Something like a bare minimum of skill, a ton of privilege, or both… Confidence can make up for a lot but not for everything, not long-term. See Exhibit A: Elizabeth Holmes. (Google her if you don’t know her story!)
Find Something That Sparks Joy
In the words of the great philosopher Marie Kondo: find something that sparks joy.
This is important for various reasons. Pursuing something for reals—no matter how good or confident you are—is going to lead to moments of rejection and failure. Of self-doubt and heartbreak. The only way you’re going to get through all that and persist, until the end, is if the thing you’re doing brings you such joy that you can’t let go of it. That you’d keep doing it even if you didn’t find success in it.
Joy enables you to enjoy the journey instead of only being focused on the results, and consequently creates lightness and ease. Joy is infectious and attracts people, which helps create more opportunities. And perhaps most importantly, joy makes you happier.
Don’t get me wrong, I know many people are willing to put up with and tolerate lots of heartbreak and rejection without much joy or encouragement in between, all in the hopes of making it one day—a day that will make all that pain and suffering worthwhile. I was one of these people for years. It’s the whole #thehustle and #thegrind mindset.
But here’s the thing: First of all, it squeezes all the ease and flow out of things, making the chance of success slim regardless. But most of all, if basically you’re willing to let something in your life treat you like an abusive partner, you have to wonder if perhaps there’s something more going on. Something more than passion, perseverance, and ambition.
Which ties into the following…
Disentangle Your Goals from Your Identity
I consider my passion for writing and directing a huge part of who I am and a huge part of my life. It occupies most of my waking hours, my imagination, and a lot of my conversations. It’s how I spend my days and pay for my rent. It’s how I built character. How I grew as a human being. However, don’t bring yourself down or build yourself up by equating your value with the culmination of your accomplishments. Don’t make your dreams your entire identity.
If you’re the aforementioned type who just goes and goes and goes no matter the heartbreak and absence of joy and happiness, there might be some identity entanglement. Some veiled other reason you’re pursuing your goal. Something unconscious igniting your admirable persistence. A need for validation perhaps. Or healing. Or the belief that achieving your goals will solve all life’s other problems.
I’ve seen this with a lot of aspiring (and successful!) artists and experienced it myself as well. It’s almost always caused by something rooted in childhood trauma and therefore is absolutely not something you should chastise yourself for. But it is a good idea to check in with yourself. Who are you without your ambitions? There’s so much more. Your creativity, your humor, your empathy, your karaoke skills, your gorgeous hair, or I don’t know: your knowledge of Mesolithic birds.
Your goals and dreams are way too fragile to be the foundation of your identity and way too out of your control. Even if you do find success while all entangled, it will only turn out to be a heartbreaking disillusion, and rather than solving your underlying issues they will instead grow at the same rate of your success. So, while you may feel as though your raison d’être is your dream, as though your goals are you, try to put it in perspective. It can be BIG. But it can’t be everything.
Create a Full Life
While the first few tips were perhaps of the harder kind—the ones genetics and deeply-rooted cognitions partially dictate for you—there is one easier thing you can do to create, well, ease (one shot for every time I mention “ease!”): Create a full life.
By “full” I don’t mean clog up your schedule 24/7. I mean make your life fun, whatever “fun” means to you. Live. Sign up for pastry chef courses, hang with friends, build furniture, make love, learn Jiu jitsu, draw, join a sports team, read all the Proust volumes, meet new people, travel, love-live-laugh, etc.
Dreams get more space to breathe and become less strained when they become less important in our head. Not unimportant, but less important. Because we’re busy with being a parent or competing in a grill-master competition or whatever. Other interests and pursuits take off the pressure, make us realize we’re more than our goals, and help us enjoy the task at hand.
Define Success for Yourself
Last but definitely not least. I was once told this by an actress who had been told it by a teacher: Before you do anything, define what success means to you. Is making a living off of creating fairy jewelry on Etsy enough, or do you need to become the world’s biggest supplier of fairy jewelry and have three mansions on three continents? One is not better than the other, though it might take longer.
It’s important to think about what success looks like to you because if you don’t, you may always continue reaching for that next bar. You may lie on your deathbed alone clamoring for the things yet to be achieved, completely blind to those you have. Okay, dramatic, but you get the point.
You may forget to realize and congratulate yourself on the success you already accomplished. On the wins along the way. You may forget to relax and find some feeling of contentedness. And if that’s not the ultimate goal of success, what is?
All About Ease
So I’ve been rambling about how it seems a degree of ease is key finding success, but what is it about ease? What is this cruel trick of the universe that somehow lets us find more success in things that come easier—whether by function of our confidence, talent, joy or by them simply being less important to us? I don’t claim to know why this is. I’m a mere mortal who after two years of the pandemic still can’t remember to bring a face mask everywhere. But I do have some theories.
I believe the role of ease in success is a little bit like our relationships with people. Wanting and needing a lot from people (even if they want to give it) suffocates them. It surrounds all our interactions with a tense and negative energy that leaves the other person little space to give and please us on their own terms. The weight of our expectations crush their freedom and spontaneous generosity and eventually their willingness to be in a relationship with us at all. Even if we give everything we have.
Especially if we give everything we have.
Healthy relationships are give and take. Constant unprompted giving without anything in return alerts people that there’s a disconnect from reality. That perhaps you’re not engaged with the actual person in the relationship but only with what they mean to you. What you want them to be. They’ll escape either because the burden of carrying everything is too big or treat us increasingly worse in the hopes we’ll do the escaping ourselves. The latter was the case with my acting “career.”
I think it’s the same with goals and dreams. When we cling to our goals and desperately need things from them, we strangle them.
A clogged fountain cannot flow. Finding ease lessens the strain, injects positive energy, and gives whatever you’re pursuing room to breathe. And goals need positive energy and room to breathe to be successful. They need room to breathe to find different ways—including unexpected ones—to help us succeed and need positive energy to attract people to create these ways.
I know all this all sounds very spiritual and vague for someone who opened with science and sample bias. But hey, all science once started out as esoteric endeavors that were considered philosophy at best, so… In absence of proper science to describe these things we should be able to freely theorize in perhaps more mystical terms.
What is your take on all this? Have I forgotten an important tip? Do you have experiences that affirm my hypotheses? Or ones that debunk it? I’d love to hear.