The Problem with Busyness and Success

by Ken Mueller on May 15, 2014 · 4 comments

SAMSUNG CSCHead on over to Facebook right now and take a look at your newsfeed. I’ll wait for you.

If your newsfeed is anything like mine, you’ll see plenty of pictures of babies, animals, and food. But you might also notice something else. Status updates that look something like this:

“35 tabs open on Chrome. How about you?”

or perhaps:

“Whew, just finishing off a 14 hour day of work, and still have a few more things to do.”

“Working on just 3 hours of sleep again!”

We relish in telling the world how busy we are. We wear it like a badge of honor. We use social media to say, “Look at me! I’m a hard worker! I work harder than you do!” It’s a constant game of one-upmanship.

But is busy always good? Is busy a sign of success and hard work? Do we really need to trump the efforts of others? It’s as if we use Facebook and other social platforms to write a 24/7/365 Christmas letter expounding on our accomplishments.

I have a friend of many years who I say suffers from EST disease. If I mention how hot or cold it is where I am, he’s sure to tell everyone that he lives in the coldEST place in the country, or perhaps the hottEST place. No matter where he lives (and he has moved around a lot), wherever he lives is the EST place on earth: richEST, poorEST, hottEST, coldEST, rainiEST, snowiEST, etc. You get the picture. And you probably know someone like this. It’s as if all of life is a contest.

On the other side of things, I work from home. I don’t have a 9 to 5 kind of job. As a result, my schedule is rather odd. I might even take a nap in the middle of the day (I’m old, I’m supposed to take naps), and I might even mention that nap on Facebook. Some take that as an admission to my laziness, that I don’t really do anything. After all, I’m online (on social media, i.e. wasting my time) all day, and then I have the nerve to take a nap. The thing is, I’m more likely to mention my nap online than I am to mention the work I’m doing for clients, or my writing.

Believe it or not, there is a middle ground between being busy and being lazy. There’s a middle ground between work, work, work, and being unsuccessful.

A few years ago a friend connected me with a “coach” of sorts who I “absolutely had to meet.” I wasn’t sure of the purpose of the meeting, except that this guy was someone who apparently had connections and could help me get my business off the ground. After we exchanged pleasantries over coffee, the guy asked me THE question:

“What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?”

I responded:

“I’m not really looking to make a million dollars. I just want to provide for my family, be comfortable, and do something meaningful for others.”

The look of indignance on his face was incredible. You would have think I had just told him that my hobby was killing and eating puppies and kittens. His response?

“Well…than you’ll never be successful!”

And with that, the conversation was over. Thankfully.

For many, success is defined solely by how busy you are and how much money you earn. If you aren’t in it to make a lot of money, why even bother? You might just as well give up.

What he missed is that in my answer, I had given him my definition of success. I didn’t then, and still don’t now, care about wealth. I don’t need a lot of “stuff.” I don’t need to have 39 browser tabs open. I don’t need to be sleep deprived at all times.

I’m not superman. None of us are. And yet, we want the world to think we are.

And this is not just a problem for us baby boomers. We’re passing this on to our kids.

This past semester my son had a college class which was a lower level communications class. The class frustrated him, because the professor’s entire focus was on being successful. She constantly pushed the need to “make it,” and for her, communicating properly was the fast track to a good job and money. You have to work, work, work in order to make something of yourself. For her, there was only one right way to create a resume, only one right way to dress (“professional attire” at all times), and so on. In reading the emails she sent to the class, she sounded more like a motivational speaker or televangelist, than a communications professor. Never mind the fact that she is actually very poor at communicating assignments clearly in emails. I scratched my head numerous times, trying to figure out exactly what she wanted.

As my son and I processed this, I was glad this frustrated him. I was glad it made him uncomfortable, even if he didn’t know exactly why. But the fact that her message bothered him was a good sign. At least to me.

What I told him was this:

Don’t let others define “success” for you.

Money isn’t everything. Not even close. I’m not about to be defined by my bank account, or the car I drive, or the vacations I take.

I have three kids who have turned out great, and have hearts for others. I’d say I’ve been pretty darn successful.

Guess what? I still don’t use a smart phone. My house isn’t filled with bigger and bigger TVs. I drive a 2002 Honda Odyssey (that I bought used) will soon roll past 200,000 miles.  I live in a home with a small yard that I rent in a fairly decent urban neighborhood. And none of this bothers me.

As I write this, the only reason I have 8 tabs open in my browser is that I’m about to speak to a group of small business owners in Maryland. My daughter just texted me on my dumb phone, from her dumb phone, asking me whether I had done the laundry yesterday. I won’t get a chance to get a nap today because I’ll be on the road during prime nap time.

Don’t let others make you feel that you are inferior if you aren’t “busy” all the time. And don’t let others define “success” for you.

Know what you want, and make it happen. Just understand that sometimes the way you define success might also have implications on what happens in other areas of your life.

Choose wisely.

How do you define success? And do you wear busy like a badge?



If we all judged you based on the minivan...let's just say that's a good thing we don't.


  1. […] going out into a world that will chew you up and spit you out without a care. Many of you will never be a success in the eyes of the world. Fame and fortune will be fleeting. In fact, those 15 minutes that Andy […]

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