Sudden success comes in many forms, especially in commerce.
Your store could have just experienced its first massive flash sale or maybe you were featured on Shark Tank. Often, it means receiving a major round of funding or finding yourself smack dab in the center of a genuine news event.
Whatever shape your sudden success has taken, praise is rolling in, sales are rolling out, and the experience is utterly intoxicating.
Of course -- despite how it may look to the outside world -- you and your team know the truth: there’s no such thing as an overnight sensation. You’ve labored. You’ve invested. You’ve pivoted. You’ve taken blows. But finally, after all your blood, sweat, and tears … it’s happened.
You have arrived.
So, what could possibly go wrong now?
Turns out, a lot.
“Success can ruin a business if you let your success affect your mindset.”
“I have seen how one’s approach to business can change quickly when reaching certain levels of success. It becomes very easy to become complacent and lose that edge that brought you so far in the first place.”
In other words, as intoxicating as all your sudden success might be, getting drunk on it can spell disaster.
That’s why I’ve put together this list of exactly what not to do when you find yourself suddenly successful … direct from some of the most wildly successful names in business.
Say "Yes" to Everything
The first and most obvious side effect of sudden success is opportunity. Not just a little … a lot.
Naturally, it feels incredible to watch the invitations, partnerships and offers roll in.
The temptation, however -- especially if your success was genuinely hard-won -- is to treat that flood of new opportunities like some sort of “last call” at an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. Instead of picking and choosing your “Yeses” with clear-headed intention, you end up loading your professional plate with every tasty tidbit you can fit on it.
Big mistake. As billionaire-investor Warren Buffett puts it:
The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.
Because “No” is the only English word that allows us to get ruthless about dismissing the good to make room for the best.
Peter Bregman from the Harvard Business Review frames this principle well:
“Remind yourself that when you’re saying no to the request, you are simultaneously saying yes to something you value more than the request. Both are opportunities. You’re just choosing one over the other.”
Nonetheless, learning to say “No” is a challenge for at least two reasons.
First -- as petty as it sounds -- most of us want people to like us and saying “No” is uncomfortable. Second, we’re scared to miss out.
While learning how to say no with tact and confidence isn’t easy, overcoming the fear of missing out is far trickier. The scarcity mindset that saying “No” will slam the door on an opportunity drives more damaging “Yeses” than anything else.
On the person front, this is obvious. ProOpinion’s number one tip on mastering work-life balance nails it on the head:
“Make deliberate choices about where to invest your time.”
“While saying ‘yes’ to everything might open you up to some unexpected opportunities, it also leaves you with no time. If you’re currently accepting every invitation and taking on every responsibility that comes your way, you should sit down and reevaluate what’s actually important.”
Professionally, it’s even more crucial. That’s why the words of Steve Jobs on the power of no should be engraved onto our hearts:
“[Apple’s success and innovation] comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much.”
We're always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it's only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.
Take Sole Credit
According to Inc.’s Jeff Haden, exceptional employees know that “nothing important is ever accomplished alone, even if some people love to act like it is”:
“That's especially true for a … leadership position -- he [or she] celebrates the accomplishments of others secure in the knowledge that their success reflects well on him, too.”
“Saying ‘I did all the work’ or ‘It was all my idea’ is like saying ‘The world revolves around me, and I need everyone to know it.’”
This relentless focus on “You” is precisely how the media presents sudden success. Everybody loves a hero. And profile pieces -- from cover stories to case studies -- often revolve around “lionizing” a particular individual, and giving everyone else who contributed short shrift.
You may not be able to control how other people write or talk about you. But you can control how you respond. Nothing will alienate you from the people on your team or organization faster than discounting their contributions. You are not 100% responsible for your accomplishments, and everyone knows it.
Humility -- as a mindful practice -- is how you ensure you are not seduced into this path of inevitable loneliness.
Writing about the “Misguided Mix-Up of Celebrity and Leadership,” the great Jim Collins calls attention to the “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will” that characterizes truly exceptional leaders.
Equating humility with being a doormat, lacking charisma, or plain old weakness is common within the business world. Nonsense.
After reviewing a study from the University of Washington Foster School of Business that recently found “humble people tend to make the most effective leaders” and “are more likely to be high performers in both individual and team settings,” Entrepreneur.com vividly explains:
“Scientific inquiry into the power and effectiveness of humility in the workplace has shown that it offers a significant ‘competitive advantage’ to leaders.”
And can you guess what that article’s very first test to “spot” humble leaders was?
When they are being celebrated: Are they boastful and take all the credit, or conscious of the full range of elements and individuals that have caused the success?
To give credit where credit is due, you have to be proactive. Developing the discipline of praising others -- especially at the expense of our own ego -- only comes about intentionally. Nobody wanders into it.
Cultivate your humility muscles by celebrating the roles other have played in your success. Make a list of the people you need to acknowledge and then get incredibly specific about their input and wins. Remember -- whether personal or professional -- love, gratitude, and the truth all come alive in the details.
Become a Control Freak
The fear of failure is the most deceptive and ironic byproduct of success. Before breaking through, we were free from the chains, expectations, and weight success brings with it. We had what Steve Jobs famously called “the lightness of being a beginner.”
Then success strikes, and suddenly the stakes are higher. Now there’s something to lose. Instead of lifting us up, success becomes an anchor.
To overcome the fear of failure, we go into control mode.
We clench down on our projects, white-knuckle the entire process, and don’t let other people truly be a part of what’s next. Even worse, we stop listening.
Is control a bad thing?
Not necessarily. As Raj Raghunathan Ph. D notes, not all types of control are equal. Trying to assert control over people and situations, however, is unhealthy. It causes discord in relationships and breeds resentment.
Becoming a control freak also fosters inefficiency in your organization. Not only will your partners and employees get frustrated relationally, but they’ll also begin to fear their own failure. Writing about how micromanagers can “destroy a company,” Ira Kalb from Business Insider explains:
“[When] employees are constantly belittled and treated as if they are cogs in a wheel, they lose confidence, stop taking initiative, and fail to share their ideas for improving the business. This, in turn, produces turnover – one of the highest costs to a business.”
Just like with pride, we regularly try to hide or dress up our micromanaging ways by giving it a more respectable name: strategic planning.
Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, pushes back hard against this self-deceptive practice:
“If you seek to plot out all your moves before you make them — if you put your faith in slow, deliberative planning in the hopes it will spare you failure down the line — well, you’re deluding yourself.”
“For one thing, it’s easier to plan derivative work — things that copy or repeat something already out there. So if your primary goal is to have a fully worked out, set-in-stone plan, you are only upping your chances of being unoriginal.”
“Moreover, you cannot plan your way out of problems.”
“While planning is very important, and we do a lot of it, there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.”
“The more time you spend mapping out an approach, the more likely you are to get attached to it. The nonworking idea gets worn into your brain, like a rut in the mud. It can be difficult to get free of it and head in a different direction. Which, more often than not, is exactly what you must do.”
Another major downside of giving in to your desire to control is losing the ability to be objective, admit when you’re wrong and learn. For instance, when Richard Branson was asked about why he still seeks out “mentorship from others,” his response revolved around the people within his organization rather than leaders outside it:
With all my employees, I listen to them, trust in them, believe in them, respect them and let them have a go! I never believe I know better than they do and have been fortunate over the years to build up a very strong management team whom I can trust and take advice from.
Success doesn’t have to be your enemy …
Many Shopify Plus customers have rapidly grown their ecommerce businesses in a matter of years. But past success does not guarantee future success. Quite the opposite.
In the words of Ramit Sethi:
“Success is hard. But it’s not complicated.”
“Success really isn’t about being catapulted into the stratosphere overnight. It’s about taking consistent action, testing different options, and seeing the results. And when you find success? Doing it all again.”
Knowing this demands arming yourself against the common pitfalls that sudden success brings with it:
- Saying “Yes” to everything.
- Taking sole credit.
- Becoming a control freak.
The good news is combating these pitfalls transforms success from an enemy into an ally.
Saying “no” frees us for the “yeses” that matter. Mindfulness of the tendency to hog the spotlight forces us to share it: to become the kind of humble and grateful leaders people love to follow. And letting go of the need to control not only pushes back against our greatest enemy -- fear of failure -- it infuses our entire organization with the kind of creative energy and joyful risk taking that fuels success in the first place.