Don’t Study Successful People Unless You’re Willing to Look at the Whole Picture

Allison Burney

Otherwise, it’s not a fair comparison

As much as I love success stories and look up to people who have accomplished seemingly impossible things, I also kind of hate them sometimes.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why.

You’ve probably experienced this for yourself.

You’re driving home, listening to James Clear’s amazing book, Atomic Habits. Everything’s wonderful. You’re intrigued and captivated, intensely focused. You feel motivated and energized, excited to take it all in.

But then he gives a rundown of his biggest accomplishments to date, rhyming off milestone after milestone like it’s nothing.

Suddenly, all the life has drained from your body. You feel empty and hollow.

I know I’m not the only one who’s had this experience.

But what happened?

That human tendency we all have to compare. We constantly compare ourselves to others, our journeys to their journeys, their accomplishments to our “lack” of accomplishments.

I know exactly where it all went wrong for me. I can pinpoint the lines that caused my disposition to change. It was the timeline he shared.

It basically went like this:

  • In November 2012, he began publishing two articles a week on his blog,
  • Within a few months, he had his first 1,000 email subscribers
  • By the end of 2013, he had over 30,000 subscribers
  • In 2014, he had over 100,000 email subscribers, making it one of the fastest-growing newsletters on the internet
  • He started to become known as an expert on habits
  • In 2015, he reached 200,000 email subscribers and signed a book deal with Penguin Random House to begin writing Atomic Habits
  • He started being asked to speak at top companies and delivered keynote speeches at conferences across the US and Europe
  • In 2016, his articles appeared regularly in Time, Entrepreneur, and Forbes and his writing was read by over 8 million people in that year alone
  • In 2017, he launched The Habits Academy, a premier training program for those interested in building better habits in life and work

When I heard that list, instead of allowing it to inspire me and get me thinking about what’s possible, my brain settled squarely on defeat.

It began to search for all the ways that I was nothing like James Clear, and how I would never experience the same type of success that he’s seen.

For one thing, I was not an “expert” on anything. I was just me. I wasn’t writing about one topic only. I was writing about all sorts of different things—experiences, thoughts, questions, ideas, lessons learned, etc. I was basically writing about life—my life. And nobody even knew who I was.

I figured there was no chance I’d ever see the kind of quick growth James Clear experienced when he began writing in 2012, and I felt dejected and hopeless.

I came home and shared all my reservations with my partner.

As usual, he pointed out the ways my thinking had tricked me:

1) I was believing that in order to be successful, I had to be like James Clear and do what he did.

But I’m not him; I’m me.

There is no guarantee that what worked for him will work for me.

Also, there are many ways to become an expert and many things you can become an expert in.

As he says here:

Expertise can be the gradual accumulation of many modest insights. — James Clear

It doesn’t have to be something earth-shattering. Each day you learn and grow, you are becoming an expert on your own life—and that is also valuable.

And perhaps even more importantly:

2) I had conveniently skipped over a crucial part of the synopsis he gave above.

That was the part where he said he had spent years personally experimenting with habits, recording notes on his results, and learning all he could on the subject before he ever began sharing his findings publicly on his blog.


Not minutes, hours, or days. Not one experiment here and there. Not one note about his results when he felt like it. No. Years of experimenting, learning, and recording. Steady practice.

I think this is the part I get hung up on the most.

I discredit all the time and work he put into preparing for success, and instead go straight to the highlight reel.

But that’s not a fair assessment of his success, and it’s also extremely unfair to myself to compare his greatest accomplishments with my beginning.

This is a recipe for disaster.

What we need to remember instead is this:

Changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for years. — James Clear

Until I have stuck with consistent writing for years, there’s nothing to even compare.

We are all on completely different journeys, and our paths will look different, so there is no point in getting caught up in comparison.

Just focus on you. There is only one you in this entire world, and that is your power.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

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Freelance writer & proofreader. I love travel, reading, coffee, and exploring nature. On a mission to keep learning, growing, and enjoying this adventure we call life.


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