Is success binary?

ashwini asokan
5 min readDec 7, 2020

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Tony Hsieh article that showed up on Forbes this past week. As someone who has read his book, read about his book, read thesis after thesis about holacracy and Zappos’ culture for over a decade now … obviously I was as shook as every other startup junkie on twitter who had met Tony, either through his work or in-person.

So many stories. So much love. But something about that fire just didn’t add up. And then the Forbes piece showed up a few days later.

His story, that longing for meaning and everything about life that consumes this search for purpose, got me thinking of a debate that Anand (my cofounder & husband) and I have been at for 2 decades now. Each one’s positions shifting depending on the day, the week, the circumstances.

Is the nature of success ‘binary’?

  • Is being successful a clear ‘high’ of sorts that is the opposite of any state that is not that high?
  • If I achieve all the goals I set out to achieve, am I successful? And if I don’t, have I failed? Especially given the definition of the goal itself is muddy in most cases.
  • Are successful people eccentric? Or are eccentric people most likely to succeed? Are geniuses maniacs of a certain kind vs. not?
  • Do breakthroughs and success stories come from excess of some kind that you typically don’t find everywhere? Excess of resources or luck or access or all of the above.

Like I said, I’ve spent 2 decades debating this with my husband. The transition from a 9–6 office going techie to a CEO of a company showed me that success is what people around you pin on you in someway. In our startup community, our twitter nodes of ‘thinkfluencers’ decide whether someone is successful or not, when that success gets taken away and why. We make our founders heroes and flood them with attention. We also strip that away from them when it’s inconvenient.

We now treat founders and tech glitterati like we’ve always treated movie stars and artists. I’ve been MIA from twitter for 3 months now. And I haven’t followed most startup news during this period. Until Tony Hsieh. I went from a place of complete peace and silence in my head to a flood of all these questions and thoughts. While I’m not writing this piece to give you big aha moments and answers to the questions I’ve asked myself for years now …. years into building this company, I feel a sense of responsibility to share some of my own thoughts on this and my journey.

  • We all struggle to find meaning. And that shows up in many different ways for each of us. For some of us that means picking up hobbies and seeking quiet, for others it means working way harder … For Tony, from what it seemed like to an outsider, an incredibly successful startup guy who was at a place where surrounding himself with people and life, was him seeking meaning in some way.
  • It’s incredibly hard to define what Success is, in the big picture. And if you find something to hang a hat on, invariably it morphs and changes with time as you grow and change.
  • Success always seems to manifest itself in a binary sort of way, when you look at the world around you. Everyone’s always talking about that startup that failed or the one that turned a unicorn. Everyone’s always talking about that employee who is a rockstar or the other one that’s not nearly as good.

I think we all owe it to ourselves to start thinking about success as a spectrum where progress is made, and both project and absorb stories of success or failure around us, through this lens. Speed is everything in the startup world, so we tend to be quick to judge the emergence of stars or the failures of the non-stars. It’s funny we do this, given we’re also the ones that coined the phrase “overnight success takes years/decades”. Success lives in a continuum. It is not one journey. It is not about leaving or arriving at points. And the very meaning of success changes, morphs as you grow. And as you grow, you shape, mould and morph success to make it your own.

  • In this pursuit of success, I have found one phrase immensely helpful — “one step in front of the other”. I have found putting one step in front of the other, repeatedly, allows you to get to a point where muscle memory takes over and you actually start to run. And when you run, the momentum kind of pushes you to take off and fly in an interesting sort of way. Sometimes, it might take longer to run and a lot longer to fly …. sometimes it feels like you’ve been running a long long time and the flight hasn’t come yet. You might have to tweak your process, lose a little weight, drink more water, you might not be training right or missing a few key things that are pre-requisites for flight. And the only goal through all of this sometimes, is not losing the will to keep running, to grow even more firm in your resolve and persevere by making every tweak required to take off. Every phase of growth is about putting each foot in front of the other and knowing you’re headed in the right direction.

There is no right or wrong kind of success. There is only the success you define for yourself, at any given phase in your life. And it will evolve as you grow, as different priorities come to focus, at each stage. It’s interesting what happens when you turn off the social noise, an experiment I’m still in the middle of ….. new metrics emerge for how you deem success for yourself. The lack of short term noise helps you focus on long term goals. The day to day will to survive the journey gets replaced by a clarity of thought and focused work that takes you back to the 3 steps: one foot in front of the other > building on momentum > taking off. Rinse. Repeat. Recycle.

I don’t know what happened to Tony. But I hear he was a wonderful man. I can’t imagine the kind of loneliness or sorrow that would take someone down that path. But I feel like I increasingly know not to let the world tell me if I’m a hero or a zero. I know that my success is mine to define and own. I know how to set expectations and then show up to deliver them. I know that my metrics for success will be created by me. I now know that my definition of success will change with every phase of growth I have. I now know that I grow every day.

P.S I have a feeling I’ll be writing about this thread of thought for a while time to come. Chime in, if you have thoughts!



ashwini asokan

Founder CEO Mad Street Den, an AI and Automation startup. Musings on life, growth, AI, SaaS, Startups, Design.