The Not-So-Secret Secrets to Succeeding at Anything

A few months ago, Rich Roll wrote a great post called “Why You Should Stop Lifehacking and Invest in the Journey.”

As I read the post, I found myself nodding along, as expected. When I look at the biggest accomplishments of my life so far, it’s clear that shortcuts had little to do with them.

How about you? Look at what you’re most proud of in your life, and you’ll surely find that hacks weren’t the reason you did it.

It’s not that “hacks” — in fitness, diet, business, whatever — aren’t valuable. It’s absolutely worth learning the tricks and the insights that will help you make quantum leaps along the way. Soak up every bit of knowledge you can about what you’re trying to do … and that includes the hacks.

But when a hack works — and not just for a day or a week, but for good — it’s usually because it comes on top of a foundation of fundamentals that you’ve practiced for years.

It’s those fundamentals that the internet hackarazzi ignores.

Because the fundamentals aren’t exciting. But they’re real, and nonnegotiable.

How then, do you set up the game so that you’ll actually do the fundamentals?

In the past five years, I’ve accomplished three goals that I’m extremely proud of, goals that were unreasonable when I set them and were laughed at when I told others about my plans:

  • Qualifying for Boston with a 3:09:59 marathon, after my first marathon took me 4:53:41.
  • Running a 100-mile ultramarathon.
  • Building my little blog into a job that’s exciting, that’s meaningful, and that pays the bills and provides the flexibility to live in a way that makes me happy.

If I look at those accomplishments, I can find three common elements that made them all happen, and that made the fundamentals not just bearable but fun.

Here are the three “secrets,” if you can call them that (hey, it’s more accurate than hacks, because they’re certainly not that):

1. Get clear on your goal and become certain you’re going to do it.

People will say you’re insane until you actually do it. That’s actually a good sign.

Make sure you’re ridiculously excited about your goal. Write it down. Then do what it takes to convince yourself that you can do it, you will do it, and that you must do it.

2. Be in it for the long haul.

There’s a great quote from the book The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson, about what it takes to be successful in general:

In the course of my businesses I’m often approached by people wanting to know the secret to success, the magic formula. ‘What’s the one thing I can do,’ they’ll say, ‘to guarantee my success?’ My answer is always the same: ‘Be here, actively immersed in the process, one year from now.’ That’s really the only right answer.

Yep. I’d add “be okay with failing.” Because during that long haul, you’ll do it a lot.

3. Get obsessed.

Balance. Moderation. These words appeal to the mainstream; they sound wholesome and sustainable.

But I didn’t practice moderation to get to Boston. I read ten different running books, paid to be a member of a fitness site (Core Performance, back in the early days of membership sites), went three months without a sip of alcohol before one race, and repeatedly got myself to literally cry tears of joy during training, when I would visualize during runs exactly what it would look and feel like to catch that first glimpse of the finish line, with enough time left on the clock for me to qualify.

I set goals, over and over, and kept journals filled with what no doubt look like a madman’s ravings about how I WOULD qualify for Boston, no matter what. I listened to motivational stuff during every commute to grad school, most commonly a 30-day audio program (Personal Power) to become mentally stronger.

Many days, qualifying for Boston was all I could think about. After a run, I couldn’t wait for the next day … so that I could go for another run.

Which reminds me: all that stuff above was outside of the training itself, which, especially during the last two years, was the hardest and most time-consuming part of it all.

As for this job that I’m so grateful to have: I probably don’t need to tell you that I didn’t create it by practicing balance and moderation. I’ve happened to do more interviews for entrepreneurship podcasts and sites recently, and when they ask, “What’s the difference between people who succeed in starting online businesses and those who don’t?” there’s just one answer.

That difference, in a word, is obsession.

If when you start a new business you don’t think about it every waking moment, don’t read every good article you can find, don’t go to conferences to build relationships, don’t sacrifice time, money, and energy to invest in the business … then really, what the heck are you doing?

To do anything else strikes me as bizarre.

I talk a lot about big, “unreasonable” goals. Their power is that they’re exciting. They create energy. They’re the last thing you think about at night and the first you think about in the morning.

But if you aren’t willing to obsess over them, you’re wasting your time. That’s the whole point of setting your goals so big.

The very nature of all-consuming obsession is that you can’t do it about very many things. So pick the three — or better, the one — that’s really worthy of your time and energy for the next few months or years.

Then go make it happen. Whatever it takes.

As for balance? Moderation? I say leave them for other people … or at least for later. Live your legend first.

For those who are ready to obsess …

On Wednesday, the No Meat Athlete Academy opened its doors. I’ve written about it plenty, and there are a whole lot more details here if you think it might be for you.

To me, it’s the next level of No Meat Athlete. But as I’ve said, it’s not for everyone. It’s for people who like to go deep. To commit to doing this diet and this lifestyle even better. To obsess.

I hope you’ll check it out and, if it is for you, join us inside. I’ve got big plans for the Academy, and I think it’s going to be a blast.



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  1. Lindsay K says:

    The term “life hack” pisses me off. Moderation and short cuts are status quo. They are not authentic, and have no purpose other than comfort and convenience.

    Runners and athletes are a different breed. We know it takes weeks, months and years of hard work to achieve a goal. There is beauty in patience, failure, resilience and consistency.

  2. Jon silvester says:

    Hi do you have any more details of the personal power program you spoke of …
    Kind regards
    Jon s .. Jersey c. I.

  3. You’re probably right about what separates “successful” from unsuccessful people, BUT … what about family? What about your personal health? What about relationships that matter? I think I prefer to reject “success” and settle for survival plus lots of quality time with family plus *moderate* amounts of time doing stuff I care about. Truly, I want to love this post — it’s intoxicating to hear about your journey of hard work and dedication, and part of me would love to immerse myself in something all-encompassing that I care deeply about. But as a mom of young kids, it feels like too big a sacrifice right now. I will settle for moderation, though I’ll still be striving for a life lived fully and deeply.

  4. Tammy Tucker says:

    I agree with everything you said above – except the part about balance and moderation. Simply because as a mother and a wife I cannot just throw myself into the training required to run 100 miles or wipe a ‘clean slate’ of the kitchen and go vegetarian. I have to think about my daughters and husband. Support is crucial as is evidenced by the success of Rich Roll and others who have made life altering changes, or who live in what the ‘mainstream’ considers alternative.
    I have been tinkering with the vegetarian lifestyle since the start of the year with moderate success (in energy, weight control). I find it difficult, however, to maintain an adequate blood sugar level since I tend to run low. Perhaps you can assist me with ideas? I was evaluated by a Practitioner using Nutrition Response Testing and found that I am soy, wheat, dairy and of course, sugar sensitive so I have eliminated most sources from my daily food intake.
    In short, I truly enjoy reading the information you provide and I absorb as much as I can!!

  5. I’ve read that same article from Rick and we had the same reaction. There’s no hack behind any success on anything, it’s all about setting up goals and making it happen.

  6. Paul Nordby says:

    Dear Matt:
    Thank you for the thoughtful article. I’m a relatively new runner, and was
    planning a 6-8 minute speech at my Toastmasters club tonight about goals.
    e.g. Running 5ks and obtaining goals; the introduction includes “either
    lead, follow or get out of the way!”.

    Your blog gives me some insights on
    goals. I will mention your website
    and blog during my speech.

  7. Great inspirational read! Love your tips and am AMAZED at your success! I ran my first full marathon in 4:37 and (at this point) cant even fathom qualifying for Boston! 🙂

  8. Great post! One of my guiding principles is that, if I tell my people my dreams and they don’t look at me like I’m crazy, I’m not dreaming big enough. The cliche of “do one thing a day that scares you” works if you *truly* live it.

    • …these days, my “one thing” is going back to school after being in the work world for 20+ years. It’s humbling to be learning alongside classmates who weren’t even a glimmer in their dad’s eye when I got my Bachelor’s. But I want to be a vet tech, which requires an intensive AS. For the next two years, *everything* takes a back seat to reaching my dream…and of course training for my next marathon (Chicago, baby!).

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