The Only Difference Between Success and Failure
October 21, 1879, was the day that made Thomas Edison famous.
It was the day he invented the lightbulb—the day he was interviewed by the New York Times—the day of the world’s very first collective lightbulb moment. Anyone would say October 21 was Edison’s big break, and to this day, that’s the date that shows up first on Google if you happen to be looking for something weird like the day the lightbulb was invented. (Google knows everything.)
More than 100 years later, October would be a pretty big month for Louis C.K., too. The then-unknown comic gave a 5-minute stand-up set on The Cable Comedy Club on October 17, 1988, and again, Google it. A lot of people call that set his big break. He’s done pretty well since then, I guess.
Last year, as you might remember, October 6 was everyone’s last chance to buy my future. If it wasn’t my big break, it was (and is) the craziest project I’ve ever done, and it’s the thing many of you know me for lately.
So, hold on a sec. Do I know something about October that you don’t? Am I about to tell you to make SURE you launch your next project before Halloween if you want any hope of success? Am I drawing some sort of crazy parallel between myself, Louis C.K., and Thomas Edison?
The fact that all those things happened in October is actually a total coincidence, but they do have something much bigger in common: they all look like they’re stories about a certain specific date, and they all play on our collective tendency to want to pin things down into summaries and sound bytes. But what are they actually about? What’s the real story?
Stick with me here.
Consistency is the real story behind Edison because he didn’t invent the lightbulb on October 21, 1879. He didn’t invent it at all, actually, at least not in the sense that we think of inventing as a sudden flash of brilliance out of nowhere. No, Edison instead tweaked a tiny little filament over 10,000 times, becoming known during that time for the quote, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” But he kept going, consistently putting in the long hours required to reach his goal of a commercially viable light source. October 21 was the day it all came together, but that’s the smallest part of the story when we’re talking about how something gets invented. (It’s not even like he quit working on October 22, either. He kept going, filing over 1,000 patents in his lifetime and contributing to the invention of a lot of things he’s less well known for, like the microphone and an early version of the tattoo gun.)
Consistency is also the real story behind Louis C.K. because even after his so-called “big break,” he continued to put in years of consistent work on the comedy circuit. It wasn’t until 1996 that he landed a televised comedy special on HBO, and even then, it was only 30 minutes long. In 2005, he got another stand-up special on HBO, and then in 2009, he produced his own special, which didn’t go mainstream until 2011. He’s a household name now, but did it happen because of one appearance back in 1988? No way. It’s taken him 25+ years of consistently honing his comedic craft to get where he is now.
Personally, I learned the power (and value) of consistency by accident. In 2008, when the idea came to me for my IWearYourShirt business, I had no idea what doing something daily for 365 straight days would do. I just simply thought it was an interesting way to sell something, and I liked the challenge. And make no mistake, it was a challenge to show up that consistently for an entire year. Every single day in 2009, I planned, filmed, edited, and shared a new YouTube video, hosted an hour-long live video show, took new photos, and interacted with a growing community on social media. And every single day, more people and paying companies found me. That business, which I estimate I put over 16,000 hours into over 5 years, paved the way for all the things I’ve done since, and that opportunity to sell my future last October wouldn’t have even been possible for me unless I’d spent the time beforehand, working consistently to build a brand and a platform.
Consistency isn’t flashy. It’s just effort.
I don’t know any other way to put it: You are either willing to put in the effort, or you aren’t. Edison was; Louis C.K. was. Are you?
For the past few years, I’ve received emails and tweets from thousands of entrepreneurs, creative professionals, and business owners. I’ve read so many messages littered with dreams and big ideas, only to see just a tiny fraction of those people succeed.
Why don’t people succeed? Is it because their ideas are bad?
Is it because they don’t have that special ‘it’ factor?
It is because they have life circumstances that hold them back?
Only in extremely rare cases.
The reason people don’t succeed (and here comes some straight-up real talk) is that they’re not willing to put in the consistent effort required to make their dreams come true.
They don’t want to hear that it could take 9,999 tries before they stumble on the their own lightbulb moment. They don’t want to hear it could take 25 years to reach success like Louis C.K.’s. When we see headlines that focus on specific days or specific moments, we’re fooled into thinking that success happens overnight, and that consistency isn’t a factor. (Maybe the factor.)
But there’s no entrepreneurial fairy dust. No creativity magic potion. No idea-generating genie in a lamp (or light bulb).
There’s effort. And effort is something people are either willing to invest, or they’re not.
You can do it, but do you actually want to?
I’m living proof that it doesn’t take any special skill, talent, or ability to be successful. It just takes effort and determination.
Thomas Edison, Louis C.K., and I have one thing in common: We wanted to do our thing more than we were discouraged by the effort it took to be successful.
(I’m fully aware that putting myself in the company of Thomas Edison and Louis C.K. is a bit out there. I don’t consider myself as great or as accomplished as them—I just have effort in common with them.)
I don’t have a time machine, so I can’t go back and watch Thomas Edison and see how much effort he put into his lightbulb experiments. But I think we can all agree, trying something 10,000 times (heck, even 1,000 times) is bound to bring results.
If you believe in the work you are doing, that itself should help you show up consistently. If you don’t, find better work.
It’s okay to quit something. But it’s not okay to give up on an idea, dream, or business, just because the going gets tough. Spoiler alert: Things worth having take effort and time to get.
So, how do you embrace consistency?
The first thing you should do is make a consistency marriage proposal to yourself. Sound weird? It sure is. That’s why you’re here.
Through thick and thin.
Through sickness and health.
Til death do you part.
Remove the relationship, love, white doves, and bridesmaids, and those three phrases can help keep you going when you’re feeling a lack of excitement or enthusiasm for whatever it is you’re working on. Louis C.K. himself said it best: “I’ve learned from experience that if you work harder at it, and apply more energy and time to it, and more consistency, you get a better result. It comes from the work.”
The second thing to do to increase your chances of showing up consistently is to create some sort of accountability.
My girlfriend, Caroline, decided to embark on a daily art project for 2016. Every single day, she wanted to bring two of her passions together: Affirmations and art. She knew that if she didn’t put it out publicly, it would be hard to be accountable to just herself. So, she took to her Instagram account and announced #AbstractAffirmationsDaily to the world.
Having done a daily project years prior, I knew what this project would require of her. I knew there would be days when life would get in the way of her art. But I’ve heard her talk about the accountability she owes to Instagram (and to herself, of course). Even on days when she’s not feeling it, she hunkers down and gets the art done. Even on days when she completely despises her own beautiful work, she shares it with the world. And that, my friends, is one of the most important elements of consistency.
The last thing is to understand that no matter what you choose to be consistent with, if you don’t truly believe in your own vision/goal/dream, you’ll never stick with it.
This is the part of this article where the honesty police arrive. Do you REALLY want to be working on whatever you’re working on? Do you REALLY believe in your idea, or is it just something shiny you saw that worked for someone else?
My friend AJ Leon has an incredibly poignant quote:
“This is not your practice life.”
You only get one go at this crazy thing called life. I don’t know about you, but I’m done wasting time doing anything that I don’t enjoy.
Edison didn’t enjoy all 9,999 experiments that didn’t work. Louis C.K. didn’t love getting on stage in small, empty comedy clubs in obscure cities. My girlfriend and I certainly don’t enjoy everything we make or every part of the process of consistent creation. But every success (for everyone who wants to be successful) comes from the work.
You have to do the work.
You aren’t going to enjoy every moment of what you do. But if you truly believe in what you’re working on, consistency will get you through 9,999 failed experiments, 25 years of obscurity, and every October between now and when you finally reach your goal. Then again, you know by now that it’s not about October, anyway.