Sparking Your Success Spiral

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. — Socrates

Compounding is everything.

Compound interest dominates financial markets, compounding network effects dominate business, and compounding yourself dominates all other self-work you can do.

So how do you compound yourself?

We know what compounding looks like—an exponential curve in the red line below:

But what is it? Compounding yourself is best understood as a success spiral, which is a feedback loop where success begets success:

In a success spiral:

  • Competence begets confidence
  • Momentum begets motivation
  • Curiosity begets learning

Once a success spiral starts, your spiral expands and you can tackle larger and larger problems with confidence:

Anyone who has done anything started with a success spiral.

Arnold Schwarzenegger won his first bodybuilding trophy, then won hundreds more. I coded my first TI-83 calculator game in high school, then studied computer science in college. (I'm just as impressive as Arnold, I know.)

Startups like AirBnB, Ethereum, and YIMBY are 10-year overnight successes. Behind their victory is a decade-long grind. Behind the grind is a kernel of belief.

Success spirals are quite powerful, so let's understand them. First, understanding why they don't naturally spark. Second, how to start them. Third, how to judge their health. Fourth, how to magnify their impact.

I. Releasing self-limiting beliefs

Often, if your success spiral hasn't begun already, it's because you have a self-limiting belief. These beliefs are (untrue) negative stories in your head that stop you from taking action and keep you in a bad orbit. Your beliefs become your future.

Some examples:

  • Perfectionism: "I need to be perfect." (Why?) "If I mess up, bad things happen."
  • Imposter syndrome: "Others are capable. I am not." (Why?) "My parents didn't believe in me."
  • Fear of commitment: "I can't commit to that." (Why?) "Things I love have left me."
  • Need to control: "I get stressed when things are outside my control." (Why?) "I've lived in unsafe places without control."

Everyone has self-limiting beliefs. Find them by: a) Asking yourself where you want to be in 1 year, then b) Locating the internal thoughts that keep you from taking action.

It's often some kind of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of what others think of you.

For me, I had a fear of success. My parents often told me to "stay in the background" and so I did. I wanted to be ambitious, but I had a self-limiting belief that I wasn't allowed to be. I changed this belief, and now feel more free to live up to my potential.

Remember, you are allowed.

Understand where the fear and negative self-limiting beliefs come from, curiously question why they exist, then build positive beliefs (+ habits & evidence) in their place.

To start your success spiral, release your limiting chains first.

II. Starting a success spiral

The main way to start a spiral is by celebrating small wins.

Note that I said "small" wins. Why? There's a cold start problem here. How can you believe in yourself if you haven't done anything? How can you be confident if you aren't already competent, have motivation without existing momentum, and curiosity without a life full of learning?

You need to manufacture belief. You do this by celebrating small wins:

  • Start by celebrating process goals, like learning a new email or coding hotkey.
  • Then transition to outcome goals, like celebrating a demo you shipped or an article you published.
  • At the end of every week, reflect on your success, be grateful, and create more of it.

To spark a success spiral, you need to meme it into existence.

Once you've started a success spiral, you need to continue it. Spirals only work when they're repeated. Build good habits. Write weekly. Read a few books every month. Use Anki. Exercise. Sleep. Go to therapy.

In 30 years, you'll look back in awe of what you've accomplished.

III. Judging the health of your spiral

There are three ways to judge the health of your spiral: 1) Do you believe in yourself? 2) Are you learning? 3) Is it fun?

First, and most importantly, success spirals come from believing in yourself. Do you believe? Are you proud of what you're doing? Do you have self-efficacy, self-esteem, and an internal locus of control? If not, celebrate small wins and become aware of negative self-talk. You get to choose whether to believe in yourself. Choose to believe!

Besides belief, the second best metric to judge the health of your spiral is your rate of learning. Are you being a sponge, drinking from the information firehose? If not, surround yourself with sharper & more ambitious people & ideas. Are you spending time and money on books, coaches, and lessons? If not, start working on yourself, like sculpting a piece of clay. Bet on yourself—$1,000 today will be worth $10,000 in a year. (Here are some tools for learning that have worked for me.)

Third, and finally, make sure your success spiral is pointed in the right direction. Don't put good effort toward a bad goal. Like the great pyramids, success spirals are only recognized after decades but are built minute-by-minute. You take thousands of actions per day that add up: reading, writing, coding, facilitating, listening. Because spirals are built from lots of micro actions, any amount of friction will build up.

Check in with yourself to ensure you're on the right path. Are you aligned with your Ikigai? Are you doing what comes easily to you? Are you following your relief? Are you doing what others see as your strengths? Are you excited? Are you having fun?

It's hard to continue a success spiral when you don't want to succeed at that thing. If you're unsure what to work on, spend more time learning about yourself and the world, then double down on a direction. Search for low friction, then simplify simplify simplify.

Trust yourself and surrender to the complexity of the world.

IV. Increase your leverage

Once you have a great success spiral, look to magnify it through leverage.

Leverage is a multiplier that takes a unit of goodness and spreads it as widely as possible. If success spirals are finding a good thing, leverage is scaling it.

As Sam Altman notes: "there are many ways to get leverage, such as capital, technology, brand, network effects, and managing people." Leverage comes by productizing your strengths, creating impact while you're asleep.

You'll know you're ready for leverage once you feel comfortable but unsatisfied. When you’re in a healthy success spiral, but want more. At the beginning of your career, each unit of your time should build more and more belief. But by the middle, each unit of time should generate more and more impact.

With a spiral, success begets success. With leverage, each success begets larger success.

To summarize:

Dents in the universe are the result of leveraged success spirals that come from kernels of belief, sparked by small wins.

To start: Release your self-limiting beliefs, celebrate small wins, believe in yourself, follow your energy, and increase your leverage. Then, at the end of life, you'll look back without regrets.

P.S. Thank you to Daniel Gross who first brainwormed me with this framing.

P.P.S. Self-belief must be coupled with self-awareness. Here's How To Build Self-Awareness.