I used to think that starting a business would make me happy.
So I did it. $1,000 seed money and a piece of paper later, I was the proud owner of something new. Yet I can’t say that it was pride I felt that day; or joy, happiness, or even excitement.
Instead, that day ended up feeling like every other day, with one important difference – I now had more problems than I knew what to do with. Problems like:
- How to build a website?
- How to build a product?
- How to market?
- What to market?
The emotion I expected to feel – happiness – was instead replaced by a little excitement, a lot of anxiousness, and that little, pervasive question of “What now?”.
But mostly, I felt the same as I always did.
Time passed and I got to work knocking items off of my infinitely long to-do list. Now that I knew starting a business didn’t make me especially happy for any meaningful length of time, I began to think that I’d feel like a success if only my business could pay me a salary.
My first month’s paycheque was only $300, but it was my own. All of the business books and blogs I’d read told me that once you made your first sale or paycheque, you’re filled with excitement because you’ve done it once. How hard is it, they say, to do it again?
I did feel successful, for about a day. Then I got back to work.
Have you ever dwelled on a goal and felt absolutely sure that if you could just hit it, you’d put to rest all of the nagging thoughts in your head telling you to stop, that you’re failing, that it’s pointless to continue?
My next goal was earning $30,000 / year, because it felt like a real salary. It was enough to begin having a social life again, and to quiet the feeling that I was toiling far too long for far too little.
Two years later I hit the magical $30k salary (yay!).
I celebrated for a day, the euphoria wore off, and I realized how far I still had to go.
From an employee trying to become an entrepreneur, to a business owner dreaming of earning a salary, to anticipating the day I could raise my salary to $30k and beyond; no matter what situation I’ve been, I’ve found that achieving my goal has never made a lasting difference in my day to day mood.
I lived for those rare moments of “success”, but the insight I finally recognized was that the moment of achievement was fleeting. The other 99+% of the time – my life, essentially – was being ignored.
I was optimizing for the wrong thing.
This isn’t to say that setting and achieving goals doesn’t matter. I still find goals useful, but only because of the work I do after I set a goal – figure out the steps needed to achieve it, and get started.
I’ve found that unless I’m busy solving problems for my customers; unless I have a reason to work that’s divorced from my goals, I’ll always be in a state of uneasiness, unhappiness, or anxiety. Or all three.
My best days aren’t the days I get a raise. It would be laughable (if it wasn’t so sad) how quickly the feeling of excitement goes away after a goal has been achieved.
My best days are the ones in which I make progress on an important problem.
Maybe it’s just that simple.