Detecting Meaningful Success

meaningful success
Image courtesy of ITV

In fewer than 7 days I embark on another uncertain journey in search of meaningful success. But, unlike my current solo visit to Colombia, I am questioning my ability to complete the ‘trip’ and know ‘pain’ will be a regular companion…

On October 9th 2016 I will attempt to run the Yorkshire Marathon. It is ‘a first’ and may be ‘a last’ (see the result here).

But I really want to cross that line. And hopefully, with a time close to 4 hours.

Two years ago, all this would have been impossible. But in the intervening period I have joined a gym, trained 3+ times a week, swapped alcohol for humdrum, lacklustre liquids, lost 20 pounds and sought advice from those who know how 26.2 miles of running hurts.

Loving the preparation

Wendy, my wife, has used birthdays to replace ‘extra large’ tops with more slimline varieties. And I’ve fallen in love with my sensational ‘Fitbit Surge‘. Well that’s what Wendy says when I’m focused on studying the day’s health and work-out performance stats at lights out.

I should add, my new granite-like calves have also fallen head over heels with a superb sports masseur. And that’s where I was persuaded to stretch myself to oblivion and buy running shoes with a mortgage attached.

Understanding success

Being prepared to achieve meaningful success is complicated, never guaranteed and requires persistent hard work . It’s the same for anyone seeking to start a new project, enterprise or business.

Teachers, trainers and business advisers the world over want people to succeed, but for the recipients of advice it can be very difficult to understand how to bring about that result. Possessing the right knowledge and skills, having access to the necessary resources and being confident about taking the risk are all key factors.

Encouraging people to make mistakes and learning through trial and error has thankfully become more in vogue in recent years. Managed well, this process is hugely beneficial and rewarding. However, some people refuse to fail publicly or find the experience to be demotivating and thus counter-productive.

So is there another way to engage people and help them to understand how to prepare for  meaningful success?

Use success metaphors

At the recent International Entrepreneurship Educators Conference held in Liverpool I was fortunate enough to present a paper on this subject with Coventry University’s esteemed Dr Kelly Smith.

To a packed room (thank you if you were there) Kelly and I asserted that: rather than adopting a mistake-rich, trial and error approach, key lessons could be learned through careful top-down analysis of meaningful success metaphors – which can then be applied to peoples’ own work.

meaningful success
Mackenzie Crook & Toby Jones in ‘Detectorists’. Image courtesy of the BBC

For the presentation, Kelly and I used the multi-award-winning TV comedy drama series ‘Detectorists‘ as our success metaphor. Written by Mackenzie Crook (Office fame) and starring Toby Jones, this entertainment masterpiece* is hugely successful because all the strands have been considered, created and morphed with appropriate knowledge, skill and execution. The actors, script, setting, angle, humour and critically the music (Johnny Flynn is brilliant – see footnote for lyrics) are all of the highest quality and combine together seamlessly.

Common ground

Not only does ‘Detectorists’ make the success metaphor clear (and the strands are easy to examine) but it also allows for ‘common ground’ to be established. The comedy is easy to watch, share with others and thus communicate the strands of success. When providing support to anyone, the issue of common ground is essential because it makes the mutual understanding of key points (that then relate back to individuals’ work) clearer and easier to understand.

However, on its own, ‘Detectorists’ is flawed because the complex nature of the skills and talent ‘on show’ are out of reach of most people starting a new project, enterprise or business. That’s why, when using common ground it’s better to establish simpler success metaphors.

For me, the common ground example that always springs to mind is a great curry. Most people have a favourite and are thus some way towards understanding how the creation and blend of the ingredients, flavours, cooking methods, presentation and accompanying side-dishes make it special.

But this is just the start…

Threading a needle

As part of our presentation at IEEC, Kelly and I asked the audience to consider what common ground success metaphors they might use for teaching purposes. Working in groups, people recorded their thoughts on flip-chart sheets. There was an immediate hive of writing activity; the results of which are currently spread across the floor and bed of my Colombian hotel room.

‘Pokemon Go’, ‘children’s books’, ‘holidays’, ‘stories’, ‘Bake-off’, ‘buildings’, ‘history’, ‘geo-caching’, ‘Alpine walking boots’, ‘outer-space’, ‘keeping fit’, ‘history’, ‘music’ and even ‘Steam Punk’ were some of the metaphors that found their way onto lists. And all work including further discussion was completed with eagerness and some hilarity inside 20 minutes.

meaningful success
Thread the needle to achieve meaningful success

The presentation was summed up with the thought that finding meaningful success is like threading a needle. It is very difficult because everything has to be of the right quality; without paying appropriate attention to every strand that makes up a product (and understanding how they combine) it is not possible to fully achieve what you set out to do.

By applying success metaphors within a common ground, people are better able to see where they need to make improvements and also appreciate the mindset required to achieve meaningful success.

On Sunday 9th October I will run on common Yorkshire ground with a few thousand other people. All of the preparatory strands will hopefully combine to bring about the result I have worked towards. It’s been a long journey over the last 2 years – just another 26.2 miles to go.


Key learning points: Knowing what makes something ‘successful’ is made much easier by breaking down the issue into its component strands. Using success metaphors that have common ground with students can help them to understand how and where to work on their own project and thus find meaningful success.  


Thank you’s…

I must take this opportunity to thank family and friends for their ongoing support, wisdom and generosity over the last 2 years. Particular thanks goes to Rob McWilliam for his continuous Marathon guidance and encouragement; Safia Barikzai for the fabulous gift of Fitbit; Ian Heywood for the ache-changing 80% run-mile suggestion; and our son Jack for cycling with me as I repeatedly slogged up and down our mile-long road.

This year, due to work demands I’ve focused on getting the 50 year-old body in shape & have deliberately not sought sponsorship. If all goes well (and the task is repeated in 2017) I plan to raise money for the National Pulmonary Hypertension Centre in Sheffield. This time last year, our family was in a dark place. When all seemed lost, some very special people at the hospital saved my dad’s life.


*Superb Christmas present for the ‘hard to buy for’ member of the family?


Footnote – Detectorists lyrics – Johnny Flynn

Will you search through the lonely earth for me?

Climb through the briar and bramble.

I’ll be your treasure.

I felt the touch of the kings and the breath of the wind,

I knew the call of all the song birds.

They sang all the wrong words.

I’m waiting for you, I’m waiting for you. (Mmmmmm)

Will you swim through the briny sea for me?

Roll along the ocean’s floor.

I’ll be your treasure.

I’m with the ghosts of the men who can never sing again,

There’s a place follow me. Where a love lost at sea. Is waiting for you. Is waiting for you.

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