Three effective ways to avoid success

Have a big idea? Want to change the world? Great!

Want to succeed? Not sure? Alright then.

Below are three tips on how to minimize your chances of success and stay forever in the security of the cozy and comfortable idea phase.

Have a minimum of 12 projects ongoing

This is turning into a pandemic in the Western world. Today, it’s trendy to be too busy to eat solid food. At work, the trend of busyness manifests as a dozen simultaneous development projects. It’s as if everyone is applying the venture capitalists’ logic: “if only I have enough projects, one of them is bound to succeed”. But it doesn’t work like that.

The beauty of this behavior is that it gives you permission to fail. “Oh, I was too busy with projects X and Z, so this just kind of fell between the chairs”.

Refuse to define an objective; measure nothing

Listening to horror stories from people working in large organizations, it seems that the typical path for an important development initiative is as follows. First, argue, haggle, play nasty power politics and stall for at least two years. This gives you a lot of time to do things that won’t rock the boat too much.

Second, realize that the competition is moving ahead with your idea, and proceed immediately to implementation, with as little frivolous planning as possible. This way you avoid the headache of having to think about what you are trying to do.

Third, make sure the project has no widely understood target or objective. With no objectives, any outcome can be painted as success. Fourth, under no circumstances spend any time on measuring results or testing impact. Even if you failed step three and have a widely understood objective, the lack of data will prevent anyone from knowing what really happened.

Fifth, proceed to the next project as quickly as possible. The best way to avoid annoying questions about the lack of results is to deflect interest into your new, even shinier, project.

Limit yourself to 8 hours a week

”We consider this initiative a strategic priority. Possibly one of the cornerstones of the company five years down the road. We want you to lead the project – and spend as little time as possible on it”.

I’ve heard too many examples of supposedly important development projects with a sum total of zero full-time team members. This offers yet another perfectly plausible explanation for failure: “I can’t just ignore the other things, somebody has to keep the wheels moving”. The genius of this tactic is that it’s almost impossible for you to make an impact, but you’re still attached to the project. Should an unlikely hero arise and turn the project into a success, you are well positioned to claim some of the credit.


For those of you that are genuinely open to the possibility of success, here’s a better approach.

First, shelve most of your projects. As Peter Thiel so elegantly puts it, you are not a lottery ticket. Decide what you want to succeed in, and then put everything in your power into making it happen. You might still fail, but at least you gave it your best shot.

Second, don’t fall for the common illusion that a completed project equals success. Not so. Before embarking on any project, ask yourself “do I know what success looks like?” and “how will I know if I’m getting there?”

Third, get your head straight. The relevant questions here are “is this truly important?” and “do I really want to succeed in this?” If the answer to both is yes, you will find the time and resources needed. The Colosseum wasn’t built on 20% resource allocation.

Putting your best effort into something and then failing is painful. For many, the very thought of going out on a limb and putting oneself at risk of failure is frightening. The underlying and very common misunderstanding is that success and failure are discrete outcomes, somehow separate of each other, when in fact the two are but sides of a coin. There is no such thing as success without the possibility of failure.

So perhaps the best guideline for those wanting to avoid success is to make sure that you can never fail in anything. 


Image credit: Jacobovitz @ Smugmug via Wikimedia under CC BY-SA 3.0