On Directionality of Progress and Success

We all want to be happy, whatever that means. If you boil down all of life’s struggles and aspirations, it really just comes down to happiness. That’s the ultimate end goal and everything else is just a means to that end. You seek happiness through home ownership. You seek happiness through a successful career. You seek happiness through meaningful relationships, listening to great music, and enjoying the sunshine.

Curiously, assuming that you’ve reached some sort of minimum threshold, the actual objective reality of the situation is rather inconsequential on a subjective level. What matters much more is your sense of perceived progress. Are you moving in the right direction? And are you moving quickly enough?

The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of Rome

When I first set out on this freelance writing journey ten years ago, I didn’t really know what to expect. I figured it was worth a shot and I took that leap of faith. Despite some stumbles and no shortage of confusion, my first year was generally a success. I went from making zero dollars to making enough to replace an entry-level, full-time job working for someone else. I felt good. Entrepreneurship was for me.

The next year, I did even better. I attracted more clients, I worked on more projects, I learned a lot more, and I made more money too. The positive trend was promising. It was empowering. And it would reverse direction a couple years after that.

The years that followed — this coincided with the global recession — continued along this new negative trend. I earned less. Clients couldn’t offer as much work (or as much pay) as they had in years prior. I didn’t feel good. The income graph looked like a bell curve and I wouldn’t recover for a few more years after that. Thankfully, it seems like I’ve gotten back on a positive upswing since then.

My experience with the “ebb and flow” of freelance income illustrates a very important point on the directionality of progress and how that relates to our perception of success and our feelings of happiness. Even if I was making exactly the same amount of money in year 2 as I was in year 4, my subjective experience of each year was radically different.

Things Are Looking Up and Down

In the first scenario, the number represented growth. It was bigger than the year that came before it, so I was happy. I was making progress. In the second scenario, the number represented a decline. It was smaller than the year that came before it, so I was unhappy. I was going “the wrong way.” This is despite the fact that, objectively, the number itself was functionally identical.

The way that you’re moving is more important than where you are… at least as far as your happiness is concerned.

If you became a millionaire overnight, I imagine you’d be pretty happy. Most people aren’t millionaires. But what if you were a billionaire the night before and today you’re “just” a millionaire? Suddenly, you’re not so happy.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Many people will tell you that you should be grateful for what you have. To follow the theory of directionality, though, is to subscribe to the school of thought that you should never settle. Achieving your goals isn’t what is going to make you happy; it’s making positive progress toward them.