The external impression of someone being successful is rarely matched by the reality, or that persons perception. It's good business to create a perception of success, especially when you are self employed, but most of us are in fact working as hard as we can just to keep the wheels turning. Often we live in a constant sea of turmoil with the threat of failure looming on every wave. The lack of security is integral to a self employed lifestyle.
You feel this acutely when first starting out. You literally have no idea whether you will sink or swim, whether your choices will prove brave or foolish. Confidence comes only with survival and even then you can rarely see very far into the future. Certainty comes in small packages.
This week I had a chat with one of Australia's truly great photographers, and I wont name him. To the world he's successful, but within his world there are severe financial forces pushing him to make tough decisions. The reason I won't name him is because I think he's making some poor choices at the moment, and it will ultimately lead to further trouble.
Past success is no predictor of future relevance.
This reminds us also that there is always room in the market for something or someone new. It's not about buzzwords like "innovation" or "productivity", it's about recognising that change creates opportunities. And the world is always changing. If you're starting out and looking for a model to build success, don't assume that it looks like the existing players in that market. Your success is just as likely to come from stepping sideways from the mainstream and designing a self-employed model that suits your personality instead of the existing market.
Focusing on the big names can be a distraction to your own potential. We often look at the high flyers in our world and wonder if it's possible to join them, but we need to ask ourselves if we really want to. It's my view that a little bit of success is sweeter than a lot, because too much of anything changes everything.
Aiming for a little success also has another benefit, it makes it easier to remain ethical. It doesn't matter if we're talking about responsible travel, environmental awareness, journalistic standards or respect for your customers. Any ethical position that a company claims to hold in public will be tested behind closed doors when the drive for profits takes hold, and it is exceedingly rare for a company to choose less profit over "bending the rules" a little.
The same forces apply to the self employed.
Of course this is a slippery slope, and once rewarded for being "wilfully pragmatic" the value placed on ethical standings declines very quickly. The trick is to recognise and be honest with yourself about the objectives of your self-employment. Do you really just want to make a bag of money and be an arsehole like everybody else?
Your success need not be at the expense of others, in fact it's more likely to happen as a consequence of the success of others. By helping your clients to be more successful you invariably help yourself too. There is no "limited good" in this world, you don't have to make it a sprint to the finish line and claim all the trophies. When you aim for a little success on the basis of helping others to be successful you create an ethical environment which fosters future success for everyone.
Personally I would rather be "a little bit successful but happy and surrounded by happy people" than be insanely rich and surrounded by blood sucking money feeders. No offence Rupert.
However large or small your goals of success are, the feeling of being successful at anything carries an emotional charge. There is an intimate link between success and responsibility that can be both daunting and empowering. Working for yourself means there's nobody to blame for your failure, the buck stops with you. This equation doesn't suit everyone and our society isn't well geared towards helping individuals take responsibility for anything.
When you do step up and accept responsibility for your own career the sense of empowerment can be profound. Success in this way is not so much about how much you earn, what car you drive or which resort you visited on holiday - it's about gaining the confidence to know that as the world around you changes that you too can change and keep your self-employment viable.
I have friends who worry a lot about their jobs. They worry that the company wont perform and will have to lay off staff, or that the focus of the business might shift and their role become redundant, or that someone higher up will decide you're not carrying your weight. It's not a happy way to work or live, to feel like a cork bobbing in the sea rather than a ship navigating the oceans.
This is why my definition of success comes down to empowerment. If you feel like you have future options, that as the world changes then you can adapt to those changes, then you are enjoying your success. You don't have to rule the world to be successful, but neither do you want it to rule you.
Success is simply the freedom to work towards your next success.