Define success or wander in the dark

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It never ceases to amaze me that people wonder why they don’t succeed at things when they’ve never really defined what it means to succeed. For example, I was once hired to build a software application that accurately predicted a woman’s risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes. Before I ever began, I worked with the clinical directors to define the objectives of the project. Lo and behold, they didn’t have any. They figured that I as the project manager would figure things out as the project moved along. However, that seemed insane to me: How could I measure success if there was nothing to measure?

Among the things a formal project needs is a charter document that establishes the purposes that the project should serve that the needs it should fulfill. Without a charter, projects are at risk of becoming overrun with costs and schedule delays. Still, very few people or organizations actually take the time to define what success looks like. The hard fact is that, without a definition, success becomes a very subjective concept without much real weight.

I think that’s why people in addiction treatment seem to fail at their recoveries: They haven’t sat down and defined what success in recovery looks like. It can seem easy to most, a person in recovery is successful when he or she hasn’t used his or her substance. I think that’s why 12-step programs give out coins for achieving abstinence for a certain number of days. While that’s definitely one way to measure recovery, failure (or relapse) happens at an almost 75% rate! If I took on a project knowing that I would have a 75% chance to fail, I probably wouldn’t take it on.

Therefore, as both a project manager and treatment provider, I strongly recommend that people define what it means to succeed at something, even if it seems trivial. For example, when I head out for a run, I try to set a goal for that run that way I can rate my performance. I may try to average a certain pace or complete a certain mileage, but I need to know how to determine if my run was successful before I run. Either that or I’ll run blindly without any sense of purpose (which is a fine goal in and of itself). Really, though, I think it’s critical to define success before beginning any undertaking so that success can be measured.

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