One of my all-time favorite bloggers and life-hackers, Tim Ferriss, also happens to be the author of one of my all-time favorite lists.
Lists, you’re wondering?
Oh, trust me, you know these lists.
Here are a couple of my vomit-inducing favorites:
25 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Was 25
30 Reasons 30 is Not the New 20
15 Ways Life Was Simpler When You Were 15
These list-posts have gotten so ubiquitous on social sites and the like, that my friend Adam recently joked that Buzzfeed must fire its employees by handing them a piece of paper that says something snarky like “20 People Who Would Be Better at This Job Than You” or “Top 10 Reasons You Have to Leave By 10am.” If they don’t, they should start. It’s way too meta to be avoided.
Anyway, Tim has a much shorter and sweeter list that he believes will jump-start creativity and self-fulfillment. Tim has compiled what might be the 10 most insidious and dangerous words in the English language. Insidious because they are so vague that they seem innocuous. Dangerous because they lead to unnecessary comparisons and judgments that are based on, well, nothing at all. This list includes gems like: Should. Realistic. Moral. Good and Bad. Right and Wrong.
You get the idea.
Words that are so vague that they almost lack meaning. But the mack-daddy of them all, and one of my personal demons, has to be:
Because, let’s be honest, if you can even come up with a definition of “success” that isn’t a direct comparison to someone else or a completely nebulous bit of circular reasoning, you’ve still probably overused the word to the “point of meaninglessness.”
And if we’ve rendered the word meaningless, Tim thinks we should cut it out completely.
Just stop saying “success” and reap the inevitable rewards.
While I think this is a beautiful sentiment, I don’t believe that the omission of “success” is necessarily feasible. Can you imagine a world where we don’t encourage our kids to “succeed” or sell products to companies based on their “success” rate or declare a 10-year project like Pinterest an overnight “success”?
So instead, I propose an alternative.
Instead of getting rid of the word entirely, let’s try to make it our own. The world may continue to pigeon-hole “success,” but we don’t have to. We can redefine success. In our own way. In our own time. In our own words.
I was taught this valuable lesson by a person who I consider incredibly “successful,” but not in the traditional sense. He defined his own personal brand of success, chased it, achieved it, then proceeded to set the bar higher and higher (or lower and lower if you’re a limbo fan) to create continued challenge and push his initiative forward.
That, my friends, is my definition of success.
So, I introduce to you, George Kembel, the man who taught me that true success is continued effort toward what you deem to be successful.
Once again, too meta to be avoided.
I met George when I was sailing on Semester at Sea in the spring of 2013. I had recently quit my corporate job on Wall Street, and decided that the only cure for my quarter-life crisis was enrolling in grad school, joining 650 undergrads on a voyage around the world, and trying on my entrepreneur hat for size.
All at the same time.
And I thought the Trading Floor was overwhelming…
Anyway, George was teaching one of my four classes on the ship—Global Sustainable Entrepreneurship (a mouthful, I know). While I didn’t know anything about him going into the trip, I was quickly brought up to speed on his impressive resume.
He was an investor turned entrepreneur turned educator who started the Institute of Design at Stanford University. His “D. School” is leading the way in creative education and has already inspired countless start-ups and non-profits that are changing the world for the better.
And despite not knowing any of George’s accolades in advance, this class was the main reason I chose to take the risk of attending Semester at Sea.
On the first day of class, I sat with about 100 other students, ready and willing to create the next great global enterprise or social movement. And you know what he and the other professor did on that very first day of class when expectation and aspiration were at their highest?
RIPPED. IT. IN. HALF.
Talk about taking the wind out of someone’s sails! Sorry, ship puns are too easy to pass up.
So there I was, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, freaking out. I had taken the biggest risk of my adult life, and they had literally torn the plan to shreds. But like I said, I was in the middle of the ocean, so I didn’t really have a lot of options. And because my choices were to abandon ship or stay the course, I decided to give the class a second chance. After all, once the tattered pieces of paper came to rest on the floor, what else did I have to lose?
And as Robert Frost said, “that has made all the difference.”
I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again, and hopefully, I’ll never stop saying it.:
Those moments when something you’ve said comes out of someone else’s mouth, those moments when you realize you are not alone in your thinking, those moments when you emotionally connect with another human being…
Those are some of the best moments we can hope for in life.
And when George opened his mouth to speak, even after the fateful demise of the syllabus, that’s exactly what happened.
He talked about growth in struggle, nurturing curiosity, failing well, and keeping faith. It was music to my ears. I knew right then that this man was going to be a major influence in my life.
I knew I had to talk to him.
But, because I’m me, I knew I had to do it awkwardly.
Instead of approaching him at the end of class or emailing him like a normal person, I decided I would wait until serendipity brought us together.
The possibilities were endless.
Maybe he would be my class project advisor, or maybe we would end up traveling together, or maybe he would see into my soul-searching heart and just approach me out of the blue. But as fate would have it, our first meeting was slightly less glamorous. Serendipity didn’t bring any of that to bear.
Instead, it brought us to the buffet line.
I finally bumped into George Kembel with two full hands of food and drool running down my face.
But hey, when serendipity gives you an opportunity, you take it. Even if it’s messy.
So, full hands and drool aside, I introduced myself and explained that I was in his entrepreneurship class. I told him my story about leaving my job to find and chase my dreams, and he seemed intrigued. We agreed to meet up and discuss things further once I had set my food down and cleaned myself up a bit.
My words, not his.
A week and two hours later, despite our inauspicious meeting, we had one of the best conversations of my life. Never had I felt so understood, so heard, so connected. He had a true genius for listening, interpreting, and communicating truth in a way that no amount of personal introspection or reflection would have provided.
He taught me some of the most important lessons I have been presented in life, most of which I still continue to struggle with daily. He even taught me that the struggle was to be celebrated. If you’re struggling, you’re succeeding.
It’s when we give up entirely that we fail.
So, for your struggling pleasure and because I KNOW you love lists, I present to you my five favorite George-isms.
All open for personal interpretation—just the way he would like it.
1. Process Trumps Product
For George, it was always about process. In class, we would drill down on the process of design thinking, rather than the outcome of our efforts.
It’s like the old adage of teaching a man to fish—teach someone a process they can repeat rather than giving them the answer.
At the D. School, that means that he puts a greater focus on the innovator rather than the innovation.
For me, that means caring more about how I write a story and who I write about rather than the piece itself.
What does that mean for you?
2. Empathy Creates Expertise
For George, there was really no way to know anything without empathy.
No amount of subject matter expertise could replace a day spent walking in someone else’s shoes. Often times, the information gained through working with empathy could reveal an entirely different problem and solution.
At the D. School all problem solving starts with true identification of the challenge at hand.
For me, that means putting myself in difficult or scary places to write stories that matters to people.
What does that mean for you?
3. Small Behaviors Spawn Big Changes
For George, it was the little things that mattered most.
Tiny changes in empathy, experimentation, and innovation created the most long-term, meaningful change. Often one small step truly was a giant leap, and continuous reinvention was the only way to take those steps.
At the D. School, they emphasize quick and dirty prototyping and constant iteration to find the little tweaks that will make the biggest differences.
For me, that means taking constant feedback from you and learning to write in a way that really hits home.
What does that mean for you?
4. You Can Define Meaning and Success
For George, this was a very private but important part of his work.
He believed that everyone was inherently creative, and it was his life’s mission to help nurture that natural gift. He was constantly searching for ways to better serve others.
At the D. School, they emphasize solving problems that matter to the problem-solver and encourage people to lead projects with their hearts as well as minds.
For me, that means believing in the God-given dignity and agency that exists in every person, and using story-telling to help people help themselves.
What does that mean for you?
5. Start with Yourself, Finish with Others
For George, no change could be made without first changing yourself.
Giving yourself permission to find your path and give your gifts was the first step in doing something great for the world. Fostering inner authenticity and using that to collaborate was the key to meaningful change.
At the D. School, they nurture the individual then celebrating collaboration over all else.
For me, that means working through triumphs and tribulations in my own life so that I can share them with you.
What does that mean to you?
I might not know much, but I know this:
Through George I learned to always, always, always remember that to struggle with something important, something meaningful, something that matters…
And letting your light shine to encourage the light in others…
That is all you need to succeed.
What is your definition of success? Who helped you form that definition?
I believe that every greatness we enjoy right now can be traced back to one person, conversation, or observation that provided a turning point in our lives.
I’d love to hear if you believe this, too.
Did this story resonate with you? Or did it make you think of a story of your own? Share your story or your reaction in the comments below.
Because sharing stories is an instinctual, powerful way to touch the hearts of others and change the world around us.