September 12

5 Things I Had to Give Up To be Successful

An uncomfortable but powerful truth that took most of my 20’s to internalize: There’s an opportunity cost to everything worthwhile in life. No matter what you’re trying to accomplish, you’ll have to give up something in order to make it happen.

  • If you want to become a doctor, you give up most of your early 20’s and about 10 years of your life for school and training. One of my best friends from college is a neurosurgery resident. By the time his training is done he’ll be almost 40.
  • If you want to become an entrepreneur, you’re going to give up a list of things a mile long. Time and the addictive feeling of certainty and security that come with a steady paycheck are just the tip of the iceberg.
  • When we see the careers of professional athletes, what the media shows us is glitz and glamor, ESPN highlight reels, shoe commercials and more. What they don’t show you is the quarterback who practices getting the shit beat out of him by a defense, or the basketball player shooting 100 free throws each day. Decades of training and deliberate practice are the reality of becoming a professional athlete. Years of their lives are given up in pursuit of a dream.

When I asked people on Facebook what they had given up to get something else they wanted, I got about 60 answers.

  • Some people gave up the ability to take risks and have financial freedom because they had to provide for their kids
  • To travel the world, some gave up familiarity, friends, family, and a sense of belonging and community
  • Some gave up food they loved in hopes of seeing abs he’d never seen before

Even if you get what you want more than anything in the world, you will have to give something up. If you want to live an exceptional and extraordinary life, you have to give up many of the things that are part of a normal one.

In building my career as an author, speaker, and host of the Unmistakable Creative podcast, I’ve had to give up many things along the way.

1. Other People’s Definition of Success

When I was in college, there was a unanimously agreed upon definition of what success looked like. While it wasn’t explicitly stated, it was implied through people’s conversations, behaviors, and decisions.

Most of my friends who went to Berkeley did one of the following:

  1. They worked at prestigious firms like Mckinsey, Goldman Sachs, and Bain. And they went top 10 MBA programs like Harvard, Wharton, or Stanford.
  2. If not the above, they went to Law School or Medical school. Most of this was all done before they turned 30.

This was the implicitly agreed up on definition of success. Needless to say, these people were all smart, ambitious and highly motivated.

By this definition, I was a complete failure. I had no prestigious jobs, no Ivy League MBA, and a bank balance that was close to zero upon graduating from Pepperdine in 2009. At 30 years old, I was basically starting from scratch.

At some point, I realized that I had to give up other people’s definition of success. This is one of the most difficult things to give up because it is so deeply embedded in our cultural narratives that it becomes the standard by which we measure our lives. Even as entrepreneurs we have collectively agreed that fame and fortune are the markers of success.

But, giving up other people’s definition of success is incredibly liberating and ultimately leads to the fullest expression of who you are and what matters to you. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s a daily habit of comparing less and creating more.

Other people aren’t going to live with the consequences of the choices you’ve made. So why would you live your life according to their definition of success?

In a conversation I had with Yanik Silver a few weeks ago, he told me a story about a client who wanted to become a billionaire. When he asked why, the client listed a number of reasons, most of which didn’t require a billion dollars.

By understanding the essence of our goals, what it is that we believe our achievements we’ll bring us, it’s easier to give up other people’s definitions of success.

2. Financial Security

There is absolutely nothing more likely to dampen the prospects of becoming rich than a nice, fat, regular salary check. — Felix Dennis, How to Get Rich

For a large amount of the last 8 years, my income was extremely sporadic. There were plenty of months where I wondered if I should just give up and get a job. There was even a year when I almost quit. I had to temporarily give up financial security in order to do the work that I wanted to do and have the lifestyle I wanted.

Giving up financial security isn’t easy. As billionaire Shahid Khan said “money gives you choices. Not having money sucks. You have to say no to so many things you want to say yes to.

  • I missed friends’ weddings because I couldn’t afford the trips
  • I gave up vacations that friends had invited me on
  • I stayed at my parent’s house far longer than I ever intended to

But when you’ve been fired from nearly every job you’ve ever had, the safety and security of a steady paycheck are an illusion. Gambling on the uncertainty of my entrepreneurial path seemed like a better bet than the supposed guarantees that came with a steady paycheck. I figured building a body of work would be far more valuable than to keep adding to my resume of failures.

Short side note- if you struggle with your own body of work or aren’t sure how to start, you’ll love this swipe file I’ve put together. You’ll find my best tips on honing your productivity & creativity, and finding the courage to carve your own path, rather than following someone else’s footsteps. Get it here.

3. Most of my 30’s

A few years ago I was telling my business partner Brian that I felt like I’d given up the entirety of my 30’s. I spent my 30’s doing what many people did in their 20’s, building the foundation for my career. He said, “yeah, but your 40’s are going to be amazing because of what you did in your 30’s.” I was planting the seeds for the person I eventually wanted to become.

Even though I was living at home, I was determined to make sure it was time well spent. I gave myself an education that killed the crap out of the one I got in school. I read hundreds of books, wrote 3 books, planned a conference, produced an animated series, and interviewed more than 600 people for The Unmistakable Creative podcast.

While all of these things didn’t immediately increase my earnings, they raised my earning potential significantly. As I’ve said before, don’t just increase your earnings, increase your earning potential.

Even if I had to search for a job, I’d have far more value to offer now than I did with my previous job experience. If you find yourself post-college, living at home, struggling to find a job, give people a reason to find you interesting.

Time is the most valuable asset at your disposal. And you will have to give up some of it to accomplish anything. You don’t have to give up your entire 30’s. If you give up one hour a day for uninterrupted creation time, you’ll be amazed by what you’re capable of.

4. Fear of Judgement

For years, I’d have conversations with family friends and distant relatives about the work that I was doing. I felt embarrassed by the fact that I was still living at home and not making much money. Every time I talked to one of them they would say “so, still blogging?” Trying to explain that there was far more to what I was doing felt like a lost cause. It reminded me of this conversation that Dani Shapiro referenced in her book Still Writing:

I’ve thought of all the times that I’ve been asked if I’m still writing. I’ve been asked this by acquaintances and strangers, even by fans, readers of mine….. I’ve asked around and discovered that every artist and writer I know contends with a version of this question. It’s asked of writers who are household names. It’s asked of photographers whose work hangs in the Museum of Modern Art. It’s asked of stage actors who have won Tonys. Of poets whose work is regularly published in the finest journals. No one who spends her life creating things seems exempt from it.

The fear of being judged keeps so many of us from taking a shot at our most ambitious dreams.

At a certain point, I realized it wasn’t my job to convince the people I felt judged by that what I was doing was important, meaningful and valuable. I had to give up my fear of being judged and the need to be validated by certain people. After all, they weren’t going to be listening to the Unmistakable Creative podcast or reading my books. So in the grand scheme of things their judgment or approval was essentially meaningless.

The people whose opinions I did truly value, my business partners and really close friends didn’t judge me at all. They supported me and could see a light at the end of the tunnel even in the moments that I couldn’t.

Once you give up your fear of judgment, your ability to work changes quite drastically. You become more present, productive, and start to gather creative momentum. You focus on the process, not the prize, and you start to see progress towards the life you want to live.

5. Any Baggage Related to The Past

We all have a past. It’s filled with wonderful experiences, grief, shit, and horrible things:

  • Bosses we hated
  • An ex or two that pulled the rug out from under us and our self-worth.
  • People who caused shit storms in our lives and left us to pick up all the pieces.
  • We’ve lost people dear to us, keenly feeling the fragility of life.

The past is something that’s already happened and can never be changed. At some point, you have to give up whatever resentment you have towards people, circumstances, and experiences from your past. Otherwise, your future starts to look an awful lot like your past.

When you give all that up, you end up ditching a lot of baggage. You walk through the world with a sense of lightness, peace, and freedom that makes its way into everything else that you do.

For years I was pissed off about all the bosses who fired me. When I finally gave up being pissed off, I realized these people had given me a gift, and lit a fire under my ass. I wouldn’t be doing what I am if it hadn’t been for their firing me.

“just because someone screwed up your past, it doesn’t mean you should give them permission to screw up your future.” — Zig Ziglar

Giving things up isn’t just about sacrifice. It’s also about gain. When you give things up you create an opening in your life for other things. By saying no to everything that’s not aligned with your essential priorities you make space for what it is.

If you want to live life on your terms, in the long run, you might have to give some things up in the short term. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a masochist and make your life a living hell. It just means that you will have to sacrifice something that you value less than whatever it is you ultimately want.

You sacrifice comfort and security in the present, for uncertainty and a greater sense of possibility in the future.

My business partner Brian gave up a salary and a steady paycheck at one company for a commission only sales position at another one. His income tripled.

The things I mentioned above are just a few that I’ve had to give up over the last 9 years. But by giving up those things in the short run, I get to live on my terms in the long run. On occasion, I’ve made more for an hour of speaking than I did in a month at a day job.

One of my friends gave up living in California and surfing every day. Even though he had to move to Maryland, that meant that he got to see his daughter every day. You can’t really put a price on something like that.

Ultimately it’s up to you to define the meaning of success and what you’re willing to give up in order to have it. There is no formula. But you will sacrifice. Just make sure that as Emile Hirsch said in The Girl Next Door, “the juice is worth the squeeze.”


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