It is not ambition that sets a man apart; it is the distance he is prepared to go.
I’ve been able to accomplish a lot in my 31 years on this earth, not because I’ve had the most ambitious ambitions in the world, and certainly not because I’m smarter or more skilled or better acclimated than the next guy, but because I’m willing to keep going, to keep taking action, to keep moving forward when many other men would give up, give in, or give out. When I’m tired and uninspired, that’s when I know I have to shake the dust, right myself, and advance.
I don’t think I’m the most talented person on the planet, but I work really hard.
—David Foster Wallace
This type of laudable work ethic doesn’t come naturally, though. It didn’t for me, at least. Rather, it’s a formula—what Anthony Robbins might refer to as the Ultimate Success Formula—and it works 100% of the time it’s applied.
These days I avoid goals in favor of directions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a recipe for moving forward. The way I see it, you must be willing to ask yourself four questions if you want to accomplish anything. If you do this enough, as I have, it becomes habitual and you begin to do it with everything—literally everything—from conversations with co-workers to massive long-term goals.
As an example, my friend Marla Sarris—the best cook I know—just published a beautiful new cookbook, featuring healthy paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free, vegetarian, vegan, and raw recipes (pick up a copy if you get chance). Marla and I were discussing her cookbook, and I saw how much effort she’d put into it and how much she wanted it to succeed. I wanted to help her make sure she was on the right track, so I asked her these four questions to help her formulate her own success formula.
1. What is my outcome?
This should be an obvious first question in any endeavor. So obvious, in fact, that we often forget to ask it; we skip ahead to questions #3 and #4, and we end up wondering why we’re spinning our wheels.
Another way to ask this question is to ask yourself What do I want to happen? Do I want to lose weight? Do I want to stop fighting with my significant other? Do I want to make a billion dollars? Before you can move forward, you have to have a vision of what you want. Without a vision, people perish.
In Marla’s case, she already knew her outcome: she wanted to publish a high-quality full-color print version of her own cookbook (this book being her first individual project).
2. Why do I want this outcome?
This is the most important question of the four. So important, in fact, that you won’t find satisfaction unless you can adequately answer this question with a high level of detail. Another way to ask this question is to ask yourself What is the purpose of my outcome? This question is the why behind the what—the purpose behind the outcome.
Your purpose gives you the leverage you need to keep going, especially when you reach a roadblock. Without this leverage, it’s easy to get excited about a new idea but quickly fall flat on your face because you no longer know why you wanted your outcome in the first place (i.e., you’ll lose interest). You might have that initial ambition, but you must also find enough leverage to take you the distance.
You see, sometimes we want a specific outcome, not knowing why we desire that outcome. Perhaps you want to make a billion dollars. OK fine, but why do you want to make a billion dollars? “So I can feel secure,” you might say. OK, but can’t you feel secure without earning a billion dollars? Of course you can. So your real outcome in this case isn’t to earn a bunch of money; your outcome is to feel secure. There’s nothing wrong with earning money, but you needn’t rake in an exorbitant, arbitrary sum to make you feel secure.
To put it simply, you have to be willing to change your outcome so that you have a good enough reason to see it through.
In Marla’s case, she was fortunate enough to know the why behind her what: Marla is a teacher by trade, and she wanted to use her skill set to teach others how to prepare delicious, healthy meals using her cooking methods. Most important, she believes her cookbook is the best way to achieve this outcome. Because she is so certain of her purpose, I’m positive she’ll be successful. And because she has a strong enough why, questions #3 and #4 will be much easier for Marla.
3. What actions must I take?
Once you know your outcome and why you want your outcome, you must take action. At first, it is important to take massive action, giving you the initial momentum you need to move forward. Then you must be willing to take ongoing, consistent actions until you reach your desired outcome. There’s no avoiding this step; we all must take action.
Another way to ask this question is to ask yourself What is my strategy? And remember, Strategy is just a fancy way to say Recipe. Once you have a recipe, you will be able to use it time and time again to get the same result.
In Marla’s case, she knew most of her recipe (for her book of recipes, incidentally): she had outlined all the step-by-step actions she needed to take, from photographing her food, writing her recipes, and designing the layout, to formatting, promoting, and publishing her final book.
4. Is this working?
Alright, now you know what you want, why you want it, and you have a strategy to get there. Great! You’re ahead of 90% of the population. But this final question is crucial.
If you take massive action and are fortunate enough to achieve your outcome right away, then the answer is simple: yes, my strategy is working. But if you’re not reaching your desired outcome, then you must be willing to change your strategy. As long as you have a strong enough purpose, you’ll be willing to change your approach until you get your desired outcome, even if it means testing a thousand different routes before you reach your destination. If you’re not getting what you want, change is a must. After all, doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.
When I was a kid, my mother used to say, If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Unfortunately, as adults, we tend to do the opposite. We get discouraged or embarrassed or ashamed when our recipe doesn’t work, and although we make it 90% of the way to our outcome, we give up. We quit. We fall short of the finish line. What’s strange is that these feelings of discouragement and embarrassment are completely mental. If we fail, we look around and hope no one noticed, and we vow to never do it again. Big mistake.
We must fail. We must figure out what doesn’t work so we can figure out what does. Children already know this part of the formula. Every child fails hundreds of times before she is able to walk. But what does the child do? Does she try a handful of times and then cower in embarrassment after failing? No, she continually changes her strategy, she keeps trying until she gets it right. That’s what all kids do. And now nearly every person in the world can walk.
As for Marla, we’ll see if her strategy works. I hope it does. If you pick up a copy of her cookbook, please leave her a review, or send her an email, and let her know if it is working.
When We Need This Formula
You don’t need goals to live a compelling, meaningful, purpose-driven life. And you certainly don’t need goals to make you happy. But if you’re not getting what you want, it’s a good idea to ask yourself these four questions. They might help you clear the clutter that is obstructing your path. And you know how I feel about clutter.
Thankfully, this formula doesn’t work only for large goals; it works for any situation in your life. For example, if you get into an argument with a loved one, ask yourself these same four questions. You’ll quickly discover that your desired outcome isn’t to argue; the outcome you want is something else. And once you uncover your true outcome and its purpose, you’ll be able to develop a strategy to get what you want, re-evaluating your actions until you reach your outcome.
The same goes for every aspect of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, contribution. If you ask these four questions constantly, you’ll uncover myriad revelations about yourself, and you’ll accomplish more than you ever thought possible.
Essay inspired by Anthony Robbins’s Ultimate Success Formula