Climbing the Invisible Ladder of Success


Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement.”


Source: Zen Pencils

A cartoonist taught me what success is.

When Bill Watterson delivered the 1990 commencement speech at Kenyon College, he managed to pull off a feat very few have accomplished. The “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoonist defined success for what it actually is.

To be candid, I’m not sure I could accurately define success before Mr. Watterson did it for me. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I was living to work, not working to live.

Most people would have placed me in the “successful people” category, but that classification didn’t fit.

As I completed projects tirelessly for 12 to 16 hours a day, I pigeonholed the illusive definition in a paycheck-only category. I kept reminding myself that the harder I worked, the more income I would generate.

If I stayed in this position, I’d shatter the glass ceiling, collect a nice little nest egg, and retire at 65.

But at what cost?

The ugly truth is, money has its limits. Even though my bank account looked healthy, and there was a promise of career advancement, I certainly didn’t feel successful, much less happy.

Enter Bill Watterson—the cartoonist who articulated what I could not. During that Kenyon commencement speech, he didn’t speak about creating a multi-billion dollar empire, disrupting the marketplace, or even making a single penny.

Mr. Watterson defined success as living on your own terms and creating happiness. He mentioned how rare it is to focus on your passions while performing work that affords you time and freedom.

He admonished the idea that money was the sole purpose of doing work and living life.

In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive.”


Source: Zen Pencils

There is a colossal difference between hard work and demanding work.

Reading Watterson’s words, I realized an important distinction. It’s a quality characteristic if someone works hard, but giving in to a system that sucks the joy from your life is another matter.

Yes, hard work is vital component in the entrepreneurial world. However, there is a continuously perpetuated and increasingly dangerous myth out there—and sadly, I believed this lie for years.

That common “wisdom” tells us that we have to trade our time and happiness for money. While it’s true that a sizable chunk of our lives will be dedicated to providing service, no one should throw their passions, their relationships, and their self-worth on the chopping block.

If financial industry marketing provides any inclination, many bankers and hedge fund managers believe money is the principal ingredient of human worth. Look at any number of commercials and billboards, and you’ll notice that advertisers assume the goal of humanity is financial wealth.

In this way, the idea of financial security becomes a carrot dangled just out of reach. We have to leap for it over and over until this security belongs to us. Only then are we allowed to enjoy life.

This “never enough” mindset will devour a person—I’ve seen it happen. I’ve watched several bright and driven entrepreneurs drown under an impossible stack of work that is to be finished before an unrealistic deadline.

I have a modest proposal: let’s change the definition of ambition. Instead of filling our piggy banks to the brim, let’s give ourselves enough time to suck the marrow out of life.

Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success.”


Source: Zen Pencils

Time is worth vastly more than the cash we trade it for.

When someone retires after decades of service, he or she is given a watch. This gesture is meant to symbolize someone’s time being returned.

Keep the watch; I’d rather have my time now.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, success is a matter of using one’s talents to create a more livable world for the clients he or she serves. And that takes time and effort, sure.

Mouse and Man exists to help businesses become more visible online. That initiative requires innovative thinking, hard work, trial and error, consistent learning, and time.

I expect to meet deadlines, exceed expectations, and work hard. I expect to endure tough days where I question my choices. But I don’t expect to sacrifice happiness for a buck.

Therein lies the dark side of ambition, which is especially dangerous for entrepreneurs. The more clients you lock in, the more revenue you generate. The more revenue you generate, the more freedom you enjoy.

I mean—most everyone measures success in dollars, so money must equal freedom. Right?

That common wisdom is dead wrong.

Money doesn’t equal freedom, especially if you spend the majority of your time scraping the bottom of your mental faculties to get it.

Meanwhile, you’re growing older. Your kids get taller. You and your spouse don’t have the time to talk, much less be in love. You begin to feel as if your sole purpose is to generate money, which creates feelings of isolation and ennui.

So you decide to do something about it. That’s what I did, anyway.

Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. […] as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.”


Source: Zen Pencils

How to measure your actual worth.

Does a multi-billion dollar real estate mogul enjoy life more than someone who works 30 hours a week for a handful of clients?

Chances are, the billionaire works countless hours a day to sustain a financial powerhouse. On the other hand, the part-timer gets to go home, push his kid on the tire swing, and put back a few beers while a fire pit pops and sizzles.

And yet, the person who works fewer hours will be told he’s not living up to his potential. He’ll be told to keep working harder and harder for longer and longer hours. Most people will tell him to pay his dues and keep climbing the invisible ladder of success.

I’ve learned it the hard way—you have to blaze your own trail and define what success means to you as an individual.

“You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing.”


Source: Zen Pencils

A goal only matters if it matters to you.

If potential is measured by monetary success alone, then you can count me out. If the ladder of success means killing the things I love, then I’ll gladly climb down.

Yes, I have bills to pay, groceries to buy, and a family to provide for. Yes, I like to purchase vinyl music, spend money at bookstores, and go to the movies. These things cost money, but I can make enough.

I’ve learned I can care for the important people in my life, while still being around for them. That’s why I’ve decided to remove myself from the dark side of ambition, and step into the light.

Despite what everyone else says.

“There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.”


Source: Zen Pencils

When you have enough, you have permission to stop.  

Instead of working late into the night—every night—I’d sooner provide service for my clients and make enough to be comfortable.

Life is not meant to be lived in front of a computer screen or in perpetual board meetings. The true beauty of entrepreneurship is that you get to decide whether your time is worth the money you give it up for.

When you use your own happiness as a measuring stick for success, you give yourself permission to invent your life’s meaning.

Bill Watterson is right.

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”


Source: Zen Pencils





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Showing 2 comments
  • David Worrell

    Well put John. That took a lot of courage to publish under your professional brand … I admire your commitment — and I think your clients will admire your dedication to the success of their accounts and your own!

  • John Owen

    Thank you so much, David! Thanks to Fred Sexton and all his support throughout the years, I had the courage to hit the publish button on this one. He’s a good egg, as are you.

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