What does success mean to you?
Since reading Jordon Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life, I’ve been wrestling with this very question.
It occurs to me that the human brain is not very good at thinking through such large and complex matters very effectively. I’ve been listening closely to my thoughts lately, really paying attention, and the velocity of rubbish that flashes through my brain on a daily basis is truly astounding. I know I’m not alone in this.
Thinking effectively requires a lot of mental energy. Firstly, it demands a certain level of awareness and presence that is not conducive to our frantic pace of life. It also requires us to play the difficult role of being both the protagonist and antagonist of our internal dialogue.
It means stepping outside our comfort zones and challenging assumptions that we may have held close for a very long time. Instead of relying on friends and families to hear our difficulties, thinking well means listening to our own thoughts and providing critical responses.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Most worthwhile endeavours in life truly are. Yet what’s more worthwhile than figuring out what a successful life looks like for you?
The Money Myth
Let’s start with the archetypal model of success. When I first asked myself what a successful person looks like, my mind immediately flitted to the socially-accepted picture of wealth and career accomplishment.
In this paradigm, a successful person has material abundance; nice cars, a beautiful home and all the accoutrements that represent a high income.
Yet, is that all that success really is?
In a 2010 Princeton University study, researchers found that money does buy happiness…To the point of earning $50,000 per year. Beyond this modest income and the acquisition of basic needs, this study found that extra money made very little difference to a person’s overall happiness.
What About Fame?
In this smart phone society, all the world’s a stage.
In my humble view, it occurs to me that many young people do not think twice about the vainglorious implications of recording their entire lives on social media. Social hierarchies have shifted away from schoolyard antics to getting the most ‘likes’ and ‘followers’.
So like it or not, social popularity and external validation matters to a lot of people.
In fact, one in four millennials cite that they would quit their jobs in order to be famous. Disturbingly, one in twelve young people report that they would cut off their families in the pursuit of fame.
Whilst getting attention undoubtedly gives us a temporary dopamine hit, is it an ingredient for true success and happiness?
Personally, I cannot fathom how gaining celebrity status is a worthwhile trade off for ruining your familial relationships. And when we look critically at the rich and famous, it becomes clear to me that they are still just humans, privy to the same sufferings that are part and parcel of the human condition.
If not money or fame, then what?
Does Being Healthy Make You More Successful?
The sixteen year old version of myself would have sworn black and blue that health (and the pursuit of a ‘perfect body’) was a recipe for success.
In my aspirations to become a professional dancer, I had a fixed idea of what a dancer should look like. Somewhere along that messy journey, being thin became synonymous with being successful.
Instead of training more (which seems to me like a better choice to improve your dance skills), I started diverting my time and energy into dieting and gym sessions to burn more calories. Talk about missing the bloody forest for the trees!
In my life today, I do not question that good health improves almost every area of my life. But I simply can’t argue that it’s an absolute prerequisite to success. When I think of Sam Berns, who presented the Tedx Talk, ‘My Philosophy For a Happy Life‘ (which has had over 30 million views), I know that the ‘healthy = successful’ equation simply can’t be true.
Born with a rare, debilitating disease called progeria, which bound him to a wheelchair and ended his life very prematurely, Sam epitomised inspiration and successfully overcame his disability to inspire others to appreciate their lives more fully.
Health is nice but not essential to success.
Family and Relationships
When I think of people who exemplify family connection, I think of my parents.
I truly could not have been raised in a more loving and supportive home. My parents were united in their value of family above all else. They sacrificed careers, financial success and much more to ensure that one parent was always home and that we got lots of quality time together as a family unit.
This leaves a legacy in a meaningful way. It also provides a feeling of safety and support that I carry with me wherever I go and not a day goes by in which I am not deeply grateful for this incredible gift.
In research of the happiest people on earth, social connection is frequently reported as a key ingredient for mental wellbeing. But is this contingent upon what makes someone successful?
What if you are like me and lack the maternal urges that seem to have afflicted all my over-thirty peers? What if you made the history-altering decision of Nelson Mandela and chose decades of prison to overcome social oppression, at the cost of his marriage and raising children?
Family and quality relationships are meaningful and important – I don’t deny that – but this still doesn’t answer the question of what universally encapsulates success.
Perhaps Success Is Different For Everyone
As you can see, my rumination about success is rather conflicted.
When I think through the social constructs of ‘success’, it strikes me that there are trade offs.
A successful family life may compromise progression in your career. Earning a high income may require sacrifices to your health or relationships.
So Is Success An Internal Project?
Many years ago, I noticed an ‘I’ll be happen when I lose weight‘ pattern of thinking in my clients.
Much like my confused goals of becoming a better dancer, I noticed that many people put off meaningful projects in their lives. The were labouring under a cognitive distortion that their lives would get better if and when they managed to get weight, instead of damn well doing the things that mattered most to them at their current size.
This set me to thinking that our happiness (if such a black and white emotion even exists) is often tied to external successes. I’ll be happen when…
- I get a better job
- Earn more money
- Find the ‘right one’
- Lose weight
- Buy a house
- ‘Make it’
- Have a baby
- etc etc
I am not denying that external goals are very worthwhile. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that external accomplishment is not an adequate definition for success. Many people I know who land the dream job, find a new relationship or start acquiring material wealth still complain of their miseries and sufferings. There’s got to be more to the picture.
Take the death bed test
lnstead of relying on other people’s vision for success, I’ve been trying to think critically about how I define such a nebulous concept.
In doing so, I’ve found it incredibly helpful to do a little mental exercise called ‘The Death Bed Test’. At the end of my days, how will I personally define success and a fulfilling life?
In confronting our mortality and the astonishingly short and precious time we have on this earth, we are gifted with the enormous opportunity to wake up and think about how we want to make the most of it.
I’m beginning to understand that success means different things to different people.
I’ve also arrived at the conclusion that I have no right to say you what success should mean to you, any more than anyone else has a right to impose their ideas of success onto me.
The freedom of being a conscious, thinking being comes with the great responsibility of thinking for ourselves.
So perhaps, just maybe at the core of it, success is about autonomously choosing the things that matter most to you and having the courage to act on it.
What do you think?