“It’s important to decide whether the things you’re striving for are the things you really want. The complication comes when you try to live someone else’s life and not your own. We need lawyers or doctors in the world, there’s nothing wrong with people striving for big salaries and major responsibilities. But it’s important to do these things because of an authentic inner sense of purpose rather than someone else’s expectations of what your life should look like.” – Raul Aparici, Faculty Lead at The School of Life
What is it? Not knowing what you really want
The unexamined desire for success
Purpose is often tied up in “the success story”:
“Overcome something, figure out what your purpose is, pursue it relentlessly, and voilà, success and happiness forever!”
Unfortunately this narrative is misleading for a couple reasons: partially because it postpones happiness, but mainly when it goes unexamined.
We’re all operating with ideas about the nature of purpose. Those ideas can hinder us when they go unexamined. Check out the Myths of Purpose page to find out what assumptions you may have and how they could be inhibiting your purpose development.
There is a conventional conception of success that we’ve been inundated with since we were little via media, stories we hear from or about family and friends, and through the ways we’ve been pressured to behave or things we’ve been pressured to desire.
This vision of success typically involves hordes of money, luxurious material items, a massive home, some amount of fame or social respect, and considerable power. It may include personal attributes like being attractive, courageous, shrewd, likable, and expertly skilled in something. Sometimes it includes an impressive, attractive family as well.
While all the above elements might be lovely to experience, they could also block you from purpose when they are not aligned with what you genuinely value.
It can be easy to follow the conventional success narrative as a guide to the good life– it was what we were taught afterall. Less commonly are we taught to sit down and define our values, consequently envision what success means to us personally (based on what we truly care about), and be open to this definition changing a few times throughout our lives.
Check out the following clips from the film The Little Prince. The Little Prince is visiting different planets to ask for help when he encounters some very strange adults. What do each of the following figures believe that their achievements or role should give them? What personal needs are they trying to meet? And finally, are their strategies working?
Once you can identify what is behind the desire to have conventional success (why are millions of dollars attractive to you? Really, deep down, what would it give you?) and you take the time to define what your unique version of success looks like, success can cease to be a barrier to purpose. Actually, it can transform into a buoy for your purpose journey. (Explored below in ‘What to do about it.).
It’s natural to want success.
If you’re currently aiming for conventional success (or have in the past), this section isn’t trying to shame you. It is perfectly normal to desire the elements of conventional success; they are enjoyable experiences! There is nothing wrong with wanting success. You can have both purpose AND success. And, it’s important to recognize that you’re motivated by brain chemistry to desire things that stimulate feelings of social acceptance or pleasure. Achieving bits of this type of success feeds a motivation loop within your brain. When we attain something on the typical success list our brain drops a pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine helps regulate behavior through ‘rewarding’ us with this sensation of pleasure. We then become motivated to seek out experiences that generate dopamine for us. (Sho et. al 2012) (Brooks 2020)
According to writer Arthur Brooks, the pursuit of success can function similarly to an addiction and have similar consequences on our lives. In the passage below he explains how success stimulates dopamine and potentially leads to the neglect of other meaningful parts of our lives:
“Though it isn’t a conventional medical addiction, for many people success has addictive properties. To a certain extent*, I mean that literally—praise stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is implicated in all addictive behaviors. (This is basically how social media keeps people hooked: Users get a dopamine hit from the “likes” generated by a post, keeping them coming back again and again, hour after miserable hour.)
But success also resembles addiction in its effect on human relationships. People sacrifice their links with others for their true love, success. They travel for business on anniversaries; they miss Little League games and recitals while working long hours. Some forgo marriage for their careers—earning the appellation of being “married to their work”—even though a good relationship is more satisfying than any job.” –Arthur Brooks for The Atlantic
Consider the following scenarios in how we may be continually motivated to pursue success:
|During Event||After some time has passed||Future Ambition|
|“Wow this promotion feels amazing. I’m proud of myself and people are acknowledging my value. I have more influence now.”||The good feelings have started to fade. “Things are starting to feel kinda normal again… why hasn’t the excitement lasted? Why am I questioning my value to the company again?”||“I need to keep progressing. I need another promotion; then I’ll feel well-liked, powerful, will be proud of myself again, and –bonus– earn even more money.”|
|“I love this new car, oh my gosh it’s gorgeous and powerful. It is so fun to show off and ride around in!”||The good feelings have started to fade. “The car doesn’t feel new and special any more since it’s become a part of my everyday. It’s starting to show wear and I can see some flaws now that I’ve spent more time with it.”||“Maybe I’ll sell this one and get a better one.”|
The trouble with this conventional-success-dopamine-loop is that it mimics the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is a never-ending pursuit of pleasure defined by the ephemeral nature of pleasurable experiences: the happiness we get from them doesn’t last, so we must continue to reach for them in order to experience more ‘happiness’.
“Achievement without fulfillment is the ultimate failure.” –Tony Robbins
In this 4 minute video about the pursuit of happiness, a rodent is followed along his journey from one guarantee of happiness to the next. The story illustrates the nature of the hedonic treadmill in that the rat is continually unsatisfied and continues to seek out the next dopamine hit.
“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” -Lily Tomlin, Actress
The Unexamined Desire for Money
Money is a massive part of the conventional success narrative that deserves special attention. So much in fact that there is an entire section of the site devoted to it!
But you don’t have to run off and go there (just yet). The relevant gist is that money becomes a barrier to purpose when it distracts us from what matters and we haven’t determined what role we want it to serve in our lives.
Money can get all the credit for giving us access to the things we want in life. However, research has shown us that it often doesn’t make us as happy as we expect it to (Ahuvia 2008). Money doesn’t predict well-being as well as having healthy relationships or exercise, for example (Argyle 2001) (Myers 2000) (Chekroud et. al, 2018). The linchpin in money’s impact on well-being is how you use it- spending money in ways that align with your deepest values is more likely to lead to greater well-being.
“Money itself isn’t the problem. Money itself isn’t bad or good. Money itself doesn’t have power or not have power. It is our interpretation of money, our interaction with it, where the real mischief is and where we find the real opportunity for self-discovery and personal transformation.”― Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life
For someone who does not have their purpose(s) or passion(s) worked out, pursuing money can end up distracting them from doing activities that will help them cultivate purpose or passion because it begs them to spend the majority of their time working to earn it (this is assuming, of course, that they aren’t currently in a situation that easily sparks passion/purpose).
Instead of getting out into the world to play and experiment purely for the sake of the activity itself, people can find themselves stuck in a cycle of going to a dull but well-paying job, feeling unfulfilled and uninspired, returning to that job every day because they don’t know what else to do and the-money-is-good-so-why-leave, then continuing to feel unfulfilled and uninspired, etc. Or perhaps this person is in the perpetual pursuit loop, putting their effort into climbing the ladder and progressing in their earnings so they spend the majority of their time over-working. (Check out Purpose as Your Work for a deep-dive into assessing our jobs).
Writer James Altucher offers the examples of Marie Curie, Einstein, and DaVinci (amongst many others) to illustrate this idea. These were people who weren’t initially getting paid to do the things that ended up defining their lives in the eyes of history. If Einstein had the prerequisite that he needed to get paid to daydream about physics, would he have come up with relativity?
Consider the implications of removing money from the picture when weighing your options. Yes, money will play an inevitable role in determining what we can do, but only has to up to our minimum need for security (depending on how you choose to look at it). This may be a tough thought experiment to jump right into, but bear with it for a moment and imagine money isn’t a concern (you can do the personal excavation on your beliefs around how much money you need in the activities below).
When we look at the Bliss Map, the “Paid for it” quadrant readily disqualifies a broad range of activities that could constitute a blissful, purposeful work opportunity. It could be that we feel we wouldn’t get paid enough for the task for it to be a worthy pursuit, or perhaps it doesn’t pay at all.
Now, let’s recall that ‘bliss’ and purpose are not the same thing. The Bliss Map is a tool for finding work that maximizes four components: Paid for it, Good at it, World Needs it, In Love with it. Purpose may or may not overlap with this map because being Paid for it is not criteria for purpose. Technically you don’t have to be In Love with it either for something to be a purpose. However, when you do maximize everything on the Bliss Map in regards to your purpose, your experience will likely be far more enjoyable! You would have ‘blissful purpose’ (like Optimal Purpose).
Removing money as a condition for how we invest our time and energy can be a huge leap for many of us- however it may not even be an option if our basic needs are not met. That being said, there are still a variety of ways to relate to money and ‘enoughness’ that can create more possibilities for purpose.
For example, not burdening our purpose(s) with the responsibility of supporting us financially creates more possibilities. Suddenly you’re free to engage in your purpose(s) as a volunteer or have it be a side project that is meaningful regardless of whether or not the other aspects of the Bliss Map ever materialize.
Think about the examples in the Bliss Map images above. If this person is only considering purposes that pay, they have fewer options. But when they remove money as a deciding factor they suddenly open themselves up to other pursuits they love and find meaningful. Ironically, some of those things (creating music, making people healthy, advocating for preservation, etc) could eventually end up pulling in income.
What To Do About It: Define Success and Money for Yourself
Ultimately the antidote to being thrown off course by success or money is getting intimate with what we believe about them right now and then clarifying what we want them to mean in our lives.
Money could mean all sorts of things to you:
- Perhaps you equate it with power and influence.
- Perhaps to you it means safety and comfort.
- Maybe money means freedom because it expands your choices and leisure time.
- Maybe money represents love for you because you prefer to express some of your affection or loyalty through providing things, or perhaps you equate having it with being loved, accepted, and admired.
- Perhaps deep down you connect money (and how much you make) to your self-worth.
Visit the Money section to learn more about your relationship with money and scientifically backed approaches to making money enhance your well-being.
And your version of success could look different from the conventional version, like:
- Spending a significant portion of your time invested in meaningful activities like quality time with friends and family, working on purposeful projects, or learning about something you’re passionate about.
- Living a life dedicated to uncovering and working through personal biases and limiting beliefs.
- Living in alignment with your personal values.
- Understanding your personal needs and practicing self-care.
- Cultivating healthy relationships.
- Actively pursuing your purpose(s).
The process of defining your purpose alone will probably reshuffle your success and money scripts. Sitting down and deciding what matters to you, why it matters to you, and committing to related goals could naturally rub up against these conventional narratives in a contradictory manner. If you sit down to define your purpose(s) and find this is the case, it’s an indication you’re likely onto something.
However, if you sit down to clarify your values, interests, dreams, and skills and come up with something like, “My purpose is to be rich and famous!” then (aside from missing a few key points on what purpose is) it may be more helpful for you to start with exploring your narratives around success and money. Going a few levels deeper than what is commonly desirable can yield you more fulfilling directions to pursue.
The following series of exercises are designed to help you flesh out the meaning of success and money in your life. Once you define these, you’ll be better prepared to cultivate purpose relative to your individual values and goals. You’ll be less encumbered by unconscious beliefs around money and success- woohoo!
“What is success? It is an inner and indescribable force, resourcefulness, power of vision; a consciousness that I am, by my mere existence, exerting pressure on the movement of life about me. It is my belief in the adaptability of life to my own ends. Fortune and success lie within ourselves. We must hold them firmly—deep within us.”— Thomas Mann
“There’s only one success… to be able to live your life your own way.” –Christopher Morley
“Do something you really like, and hopefully it pays the rent. As far as I’m concerned, that’s success.” – Tom Petty
“When people say “success” they usually mean achievement, yes? To “be” successful is to have enough money to do what you want (achieving freedom); be good at something and recognized for it (achieving significance); enjoy relationships, have a family (achieving emotional happiness and stability); do good and be respected in your community, etc., right?
Here’s the thing: I’m not saying all these things aren’t great, but they aren’t the true measures of success. My definition of success is quite simple: living your purpose.” – T. Harv Eker (Author)
Check out the following pages to explore ways to look at life and success more deeply.
Try This: Understanding Your Definition of Success
Note: There is tons of exploration that can be done to help uncover and refine your definition of success. This reflection is only a starting point. Check out the Clarify section to be guided in defining your values, interests, dreams, and skills. All of these components relate to your definition of success.
Grab a few pages of paper and find a quiet spot to write. Try to free-write responses to the following questions and give yourself permission to record what bubbles up without editing or judging yourself.
Part One: The Past
- What bigger goals/states of being/circumstances are you drawn to or currently pursuing in life?
- How are the things you listed above related to being “successful”?
- When you were growing up, what did you learn success meant? Who or what taught you this?
- In what ways has this definition affected your life? What choices has it influenced?
- Does this definition leave anything out?
Part Two: Rewriting the Script
- Imagine you are on your deathbed at the end of a long life. Someone comes into the room that you do not recognize at first, and then you realize it is a different version of yourself! This version of you is totally fulfilled and satisfied with their life and their personal character. They are the absolute best version of you.
- What would they say to you?
- What are their best qualities?
- What accomplishments would they have made?
- What things did they prioritize most in their life?
- Fill in the blank (you can write as much as you need to):
If I had success I would also have __________________.
- What would you most like to be known for?
- Who is someone you look up to as having lived a worthwhile life and why?
- What are the top 5 moments you’ve felt most proud of yourself?
Part Three: The Definition
Considering the answers you came up with from all of the above questions, take a moment to reflect on themes of things that are important to you. Then write your own personal definition of success. Keep it to less than 3 sentences, and know you can always revise it in the future.
Try This: Think About What Needs Money Meets For You
Use the following chart to better understand things you spend your money on. Consider what you choose to spend your money on that is beyond getting your basic needs met (basic needs being housing, utilities, health; unless you choose to spend more than you “need to” on these things because you value what spending more gives you).
For example, do you buy coffees regularly? Do you like to buy new clothes? How about classes? Do you dine out often, purchase people gifts, spend money on vacations, or invest in creative projects? Do you like to prioritize saving?
- Make a list of 10 + common ways you spend your money. If you’re having trouble figuring this out, try a money audit (next exercise).
- Next, draw or print the chart below and put each of the items from your list into the categories below. Think about what need each purchase helps you meet. You can repeat one thing in multiple categories if you think it applies.
- Answer the questions below the chart.
Note: The following ‘needs’ are based on the idea from Non-Violent Communication that human beings have universal needs that we are seeking to meet in our lives through our behaviors and choices. You can read more about them in the dating section.
|Belonging and/or Connection and Love||Peace and/or
|Power||Inspiration and/or Learning||Freedom
|Purpose||Play||Add Your Own
*Go here for inspiration
- Looking over your chart, does anything surprise you?
- Do you see any patterns? If so, what do the patterns tell you?
- Are there any needs from the above chart that you think could use more attention?
- What other ways can you think of that you seek to meet each of the needs above? Come up with one thing you do for each that doesn’t involve money.
Try This: Our Money Memories
Join us as we engage in a quick 5 minute activity that shows us some of our most meaningful memories tied to money.
- What are your 3 most significant memories of money from childhood? Examples can include gifts, arguments, conversations, or times where you were most aware of money.
- Use three words to describe how you felt about your family’s financial situation as a kid?
- What was your first memory or realization around money?
- On a scale from one to ten, how comfortable did you feel asking your parents or guardians for money (or things you needed) growing up?
- How was money talked about in your family as a child? What thoughts or feelings come to mind when remembering these experiences? How did your parents/caretakers feel or think about money?
- How different or similar are the answers to the above questions from your current beliefs around/relationship with money? Would you like it to be different? What kind of belief/relationship to money would feel better that your current one?
Try This: Do a Money Audit
Auditing how we spend our money illuminates our priorities and can provide key insights into how we are aligned or misaligned with our goals and dreams. Do you ever wonder where all your money goes? Do you wish you had more money for things you enjoy? Do you wonder about what habits are holding you back? Do you want to be more intentional about how you live your life? This activity will help you clarify the answers to these questions and enable possibilities by guiding you to track your spending and plotting it out in a pie chart for you to reflect on.
- We’ve been inundated by conventional definitions of success throughout our lives. These definitions generally include things like money, fame, power, and reputation. While all these things might be lovely to experience, they could also block you from purpose when they are not aligned with what you genuinely value.
- It is perfectly normal to desire the elements of conventional success; not only are they enjoyable experiences, you’re motivated by brain chemistry to desire things that stimulate feelings of social acceptance or pleasure.
- Because conventional success stimulates a dopamine loop in your brain (although it’s more complex than that), it mimics the hedonic treadmill. Therefore, it is often not fulfilling since the pleasure caused by it doesn’t last. It can become a never-ending loop of pursuit.
- Money becomes a barrier to purpose when it distracts us from what matters and we haven’t determined what role we want it to serve in our lives.
- For someone who does not have their purpose(s) or passion(s) worked out, pursuing money can end up distracting them from doing activities that will help them cultivate purpose or passion because it begs them to spend the majority of their time working to earn it (this is assuming, of course, that they aren’t currently in a situation that easily sparks passion/purpose).
- Not burdening our purpose(s) with the responsibility of supporting us financially creates more possibilities.
- Ultimately, the antidote to being thrown off course by success or money is getting intimate with what we believe about them right now and then clarifying what we want them to mean in our lives.