I’ve been around long enough to notice some things.

For example, if you want to be successful at ANYTHING you must be willing to laser focus on that thing for a long time.

This year I committed to observing the traits of different people as a way to understand what separates successful people from people who are merely sustainable.

But first let’s define success. Most anyone can become sustainable and be happy, and yes sustainability is considered a form of success (most people I know IRL fall into this group.) Heck, after going from homelessness to making a living as a writer, I definitely consider myself successful—just not in the way America thinks about success. In America success means having a thriving career or business with a great net worth and throngs of people who consider you with some regard.

I’m not that.

But part of me wants to be. Just not a big enough part, evidently. But I could be … I think. The template for success isn’t brain surgery, after all.

Granted, there is a lot (a LOT) of luck that goes into becoming successful. But for the purpose of this post we’re going to leave luck out of it. Just know that luck is always present. No one becomes successful based on hard work alone—despite what you hear.

The thing I’ve noticed this year is that the most successful people I know are all able to laser focus on one thing and then pour all their energy into this thing. Over time, if the effort is sincere, a modicum of success follows. Sometimes, given those lucky breaks, great success. 

I am a creative person. At least that’s what they call writers. Even business writers (or copywriters, like me.) Only I’ve never considered myself creative—I’m just more curious about things than most people. And, ironically, this curiosity is what keeps me from real success.

When I was a kid, they didn’t have ADD. They had, “JIMMY PAY &%#@& ATTENTION!” They also didn’t know what to do with kids who didn’t fit into templates. For example, a boy who wrote stories, had a vivid imagination, and had trouble focusing. So they jammed kids like me into the system with a pat on the butt and an attaboy.

Over the years I’ve done my best to fit in and become sustainable while also acknowledging the fact that I have wide-ranging interests that mostly involve writing or concept development. Someone recently asked me about my hobbies when it dawned on me that I have none. I have interests about a lot of different things—and so this interest is where I focus my energy. If you go to my personal website Quick Like Mongoose, you’ll see a beautiful site with a range of projects—including my work stuff. (BTW as a copywriter? The job is to literally make ideas simple enough to remember long enough to do something. I work in fragments. It’s a perfect career choice for a writer like me.)

But this inability to focus on any one thing long-term is what keeps me from becoming “successful.” No, success means committing to a thing and then focusing all your energy on that thing for as long as it takes until you break through.

I suck at that. And it’s not because I’m lazy or lack ambition–it’s just that the template for success favors people who aren’t creative.

NOTE: I get that it takes a world of creativity for anyone just to make it through each day. I respect that. I get that being a parent takes a ton of creativity. That to manage a sales meeting requires a ton of creativity. To research new ways to make a product better requires a ton of creativity. Being a doctor or coder or teacher requires a ton of creativity. As such, being creative is not exclusive to “creatives.” But unless you have an aching desire to literally create things—poems, stories, paintings, sculptures, etc.—then you don’t understand my definition of “creative.”

NOTE 2: I also get that you CAN be successful as a creative person in America. I see it a lot. Ok, not a lot. But I do see it. Ok, I’ve heard about creative people not named Stephen King or J. K. Rowling who have become successful (but even they have to focus intently on one thing in order to sustain their success.)

The path to success in America is fairly straightforward. You work as hard as you can focusing on one specific thing—refining your understanding of this one thing. Becoming a subject matter expert on this one thing. Letting this one thing consume most if not all your creative energy. 

Success does not favor those whose minds wander from one thing to the next. It just doesn’t. 

I know and love plenty of really successful people IRL who work in a range of industries and markets. And the one thing they all have in common is the ability to focus intently on a very specific thing. Yes, there are lots of other things that matter too like good decision-making, discipline, networking, work ethic, etc. etc. But those are mostly variable. Focus is the fixed thread. They’re not necessarily smarter. They don’t work harder. They just hyper commit to a specific thing. 

Part of me envies them. But only part of me. Because I can’t comprehend this level of focus on one thing. And so part of me pities them for not having my perspective. Which is quite remarkable, just not necessarily commercially fruitful.

I wonder whether creative people are even wired for success.


Thanks, Jim

A Play in Three Acts
Identity Crisis

Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.