Expand Your Concept Of Success

By Ryan Long


There's an old joke that farmers used to tell each other. There are several variants, but this is the one I know best.

A group of farmers are at the market, selling watermelons. The first farmer approaches the second and says, "Nice watermelons you have there… but you should see mine!" So they walk over to his area at the market and, sure enough, his watermelons are all bigger. The second farmer stands admiring them when a third farmer approaches, and again says, "Nice watermelons; but mine are bigger." They all walk over to the third farmer's platform to admire his, still larger, watermelons. At last they all turn to a fourth farmer. With a smirk, they notice that his produce is all a little bit smaller than theirs. "Nice watermelons," they all say to him, exchanging knowing glances.

"Those aren't watermelons," the fourth farmer says, "They're peas."

I thought of this joke recently as I was considering the question of what makes a person successful? If you ever browse LinkedIn, or various other "hustle-porn" websites hell-bent on training you to be a more productive corporate cog, you've seen what the modern view of "success" is. There are only two colors of success in today's world: Managerial success, and success in sales. There are no other valid forms of success.

If you spend forty years working for the same company, and no one ever makes you a manager, most people think you never achieved anything. You might have been a programmer who built the entire foundation of a software company. You might have been an actuary who developed a valuation methodology that enabled the company to make millions. You might have been an administrator who developed policies and procedures so efficient that the entire corporation's cost structure was twice as efficient as any other competing firm. But if no one made you a manager, and if you didn't sell anything to anyone, people will think you never accomplished anything at all!

Let's return to those farmers. My grandfather was a quite successful fruit farmer. He didn't create a corporate farm. He wasn't a brilliant people-manager. He didn't sell anything other than his own fruit, for market price. But he was the best at what he did. People knew that just by looking at his fruit. His apples were among the largest and most delicious I have ever seen. In fact, I have only ever tasted their equal once, and that was a thousand miles away in a different country. He could measure his success by the size of his produce, by the volume of his yield. He could literally taste his success, and so could the rest of us. In the old days, that's what it meant to be a successful farmer: You put food on people's table, delicious food, you made money doing it, and you managed to acquire a little financial security along the way.

That's it. Nobody dismissed him for not being a manager. No one measured his capabilities as a farmer by taking stock of his ability to sell his apples for a higher price than other farmers could sell similar apples. He wasn't a manager. He wasn't a salesman. He was a farmer. He was a successful farmer.

But there is no modern parallel for this kind of success. No one thinks that a programmer who remains a programmer his whole life is successful unless he becomes some kind of manager or salesman. And so it is for actuaries, administrators, statisticians, nurses, and so on. These people either "progress" to management, or to sales, or they are simply not successful.

This is bizarre. There is more to life than being a manager or a salesperson. There is more to a career than management and sales. Achieving great things at the ground level - honing your craft and becoming the best at what you do, no matter what it is - is an important measure of success. Farmers used to measure this by the quality of their produce. But that's the old world. The new world needs to figure this out, too.

As important as management and sales are to any organization, they aren't "real work." That is, if your business is printing books, you can't manage a book into existence. If your business is software, you can't write code with sales. At the end of the day, real things need to get done. Products need to be manufactured and shipped. Services need to be performed. There is artistry involved in every step of the process. That artistry is performed by human beings, artists, people who perfect their craft over years of experience.

Many of these people never become managers or salespeople, nor do they want to. Many of these people feel compelled to pursue managerial or sales positions when they'd really be much happier staying where they are. Faced with a single vision of what success is supposed to look like, they find themselves in jobs they hate, or they find themselves ashamed of having never climbed the corporate ladder. The sad part is that a large number of these people are highly skilled experts of their fields who have absolutely no reason to feel anything other than pride for their career success.

If there were widespread recognition of, and appreciation for, something other than management and sales, perhaps they would.