The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, answered
“Man! Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
“I just want to be successful.” This sentiment is one that many of us share, and brings up the question, “What does being successful actually mean?” Success has become a word big enough to hold billions of hopes and dreams. With a definition so broad, we’d scarcely be able to spot ‘success’ if we ran right into it. And despite the word’s unintelligible meaning, we fight tooth and nail to achieve it. Whether for our own sense of accomplishment or to stand proud in the eyes of others, we want to be ‘successful.’
Assuming that general well-being, like comfort and security, play a role in ‘success,’ there is an irony to our obsession with this goal: if you’re reading this article, you have access to wifi, a computer or phone, a safe place to read, and probably some time to spare. These conditions would have sounded like success to almost anyone 50 years ago. To many, the elusive search for “success” is never ending though. It’s a journey without a destination, but not the fun kind where we stop cool places, eat new foods, and buy souvenirs along the way.
And we’re not advocating for a “success” free existence. We instead recommend creating a definition of “success” that is intentional and based off of what matters most to you. And, it’s alright if this definition includes money. Even in financial terms, both the progress and accomplishment that come from pursuing success produce happiness. Success also gives us the ambition to fuel us and a goal to strive for. Money enables loads of things, many of them enjoyable! Success need not define one’s self or worth though. Half the battle is remembering that success is not only found in the attainment of the goal, but also built step by step during the pursuit. Both the journey and the destination can be enjoyed equally, without an attachment to one over the other.
Join us as we take one minute to establish a general baseline of what success means to you. What are the first five words that come to mind when you think about “success?”
“I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure which is: Try to please everybody.”– Herbert B. Swope
Well, at least we know one thing: being rich will mean we’re successful, right? According to the Atlantic, “These days, not even the rich feel rich. According to a recent survey by the financial-advisory firm Ameriprise Financial, only 13 percent of American millionaires classify themselves as wealthy.”
“Social comparison, we know, is critical,” “individuals are happier the larger their income is in comparison with the income of the reference group.”
According to the Atlantic, people tended to be less happy the more their neighbors earned. Yikes! So, is success even about happiness, or trips, or riding around in limousines anymore? Or, for many of us, is it about having a nicer car and bigger house than our neighbors?
“Men do not desire to be rich, only to be richer than other men.” –John Stuart Mill
The Dangers of Success
In the absence of a meaningful life, our prevailing motto can easily become “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”
The word “toys” here can be replaced with whatever word resonates most: “status,” “prestige,” “worth,” “recognition,” “significance,” or more lifestyle purchases like a nice car, vacation time in exotic locations, or our dream house.
According to Forbes “With the increasing cost of higher education, spiraling student debt, competition for work and escalating house prices, we’ve created a pressured society that demands success. This carries over into the workplace, where mental health problems are now the leading cause of sickness absence in the U.K. 70 million work days are lost every year due to mental health issues, costing employers £2.4 billion per year.”
In her book Your Money or Your Life , Vicki Robin shares how the work of a Psychotherapist Douglas LaBier helped her realize how large of a toll stress is taking on today’s workplace. “. . . his book Modern Madness documented many professionals showing up to his office with exhausted bodies and empty souls. He found that focusing on “money/position/success” at the expense of personal fulfillment and meaning had led 60% of his sample of several hundred to suffer from depression, anxiety, and other job-related disorders, including “stress.”’
Success comes at a cost. For some, that cost is anxiety, loss of free time, stress, or the sacrificing of other goals and dreams. There is nothing wrong with success. The question is, “What price are you willing to pay for success?”
In a 75 year longitudinal study by Harvard, called The Harvard Grant Study, hundreds of men were studied over the majority of their lifetimes. They looked at factors even reaching back to their childhood, like how “loving” their mothers were. In 2009 the data was combed over to determine a Decathlon of Flourishing—a set of ten accomplishments that covered many different facets of success. These ten factors were based off of categories like economic success, mental and physical health, and social support and relationships. Any guesses as to what one thing predicted future “success” in all ten areas? IQ? Financial literacy? The family one was born into? Nope.
Nurturing relationships as a child, and even loving relationships as a young adult, led to later success in all ten categories. Even wealth? Especially so! Those with loving sibling relationships made, on average, $51,000 more per year. These individuals also went on to have healthier relationships and more mental, physical, and emotional health. So even when it comes to financial success, they found that nature trumps nurture.
“Barnes, a biologist at a university, was an extremely ambitious and conventionally successful man. He had won prized grants like the Guggenheim fellowship, was unanimously chosen to be the chair of his Ivy League department, and was associate dean of his medical school. And yet, in the middle of his life, he considered himself a failure. He didn’t have any goals that he considered worthwhile. And the things that he liked doing best—“being in a lab and being on a boat”—did not, in his words, contribute “a damn thing to anybody else.” He felt adrift. His whole life, he’d been driven by an “intense desire for kudos.” He wanted, above all, to be recognized as a first-tier scientist. But now, he saw that his yearning for recognition reflected a spiritual emptiness: “There must be something missing from one’s inner man,” he said, “if you need to be supported by having adulatory comments.”
The point here is that success is seldom realized by only pursuing financial means. Nor is it based off of accolades or something that we can purchase. Success comes from a deeper sense of contribution (Service), Love, Discovery, and Expression. By pursuing these things we can increase our sense of meaning in life. The more meaning we have, the more happiness we feel, and the more money we end up making too. And for those of us saying, “what if we didn’t have a loving childhood?” It’s alright! It’s never too late to focus on loving relationships. No matter our past, now is the perfect time to foster a side of ourselves that is more “successful” all the way around.
Who’s Currently Defining “Success?”
The myth of the American Dream is everywhere; consumer culture, advertisements, and influencers on social media present a strong message. It’s become easier than ever to base our perceptions of success on those around us. For many of us our self-worth and a sense of success is measured by where we’re at in comparison to those we work with, our neighbors, and the price our company is willing to pay us for our time. Social Comparison, there’s that word again!
So can we escape it? YES!
“The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.” –Theodore Roosevelt
So What’s the Solution?
A simple place to start is through understanding what “success” means to us. It’s virtually impossible to be successful at our job, keeping the house clean, raising kids, being in a relationship, a good friend, and taking care of ourselves at the same time. Time forces us to choose priorities. Knowing what things are most important to our definition of “success” gives us the clarity to pursue a specific definition of success, rather than the ideal of success.
Try This: Activity to Help Better Understand Your Definition of Success
Join us as we take 4 minutes to figure out when and what makes you feel successful.
- Name a moment from your past when you’ve felt the most successful?
- What one goal or achievement would equal success to you?
- Is there a certain career aspiration that would make you feel more successful?
- Name one personal aspiration that would equal success to you.
- Who is a person in your life that you view as successful? What makes this person successful?
Change Your Perspective
Another huge step towards being more successful is perspective, and one quick way to change our perspective is through gratitude! Now we might be saying, ‘but I can’t even afford to go on vacations out of state, like to Disney World, the Eiffel Tower, Bali, or to the Taj Mahal. ’ And, how can one’s child ever be happy without having vacations to go back and tell their classmates about. Great Question!
Let’s look at this question with a little perspective:
We first want to acknowledge though that life can be hard in many ways. Rarely does anyone make it from infancy to grey hair skipping the whole way. However, despite current challenges, perspective and gratitude can help us appreciate the level of success that we already have.
According to Brene Brown, author of five #1 NY Times bestsellers “You know, I made a commitment to never talk about joy for the rest of my career without talking about gratitude. Because in 12 years of research, I have never interviewed a single person with the capacity to really experience joy who does not also actively practice gratitude.”
One thing that we can be grateful for is a better opportunity at life. Even 150 years ago though, losing at least one child to natural causes was a common story. According to PBS, “Prior to 1900… The infant mortality rate would fluctuate sharply according to the weather, the harvest, war, and epidemic disease. In severe times, a majority of infants would die within one year. In good times, perhaps two hundred per thousand would die. So great was the pre-modern loss of children’s lives that anthropologists claim to have found groups that do not name children until they have survived a year.”
Better chances of survival aren’t going to negate the hardships of life. However, having an extra $20 at the end of the week to go bowling can feel more successful in comparison. Through the eyes of gratitude, we can learn to enjoy these small things along the road to success. By finding success or joy in the present, we can begin to live into success rather than chasing it.
Through gratitude we can begin to see other small things in life as successes too:
- Having the choice to eat different things. Our modern cuisine is a marvel of cross-cultural resources and industry..
- Having enough gas in the tank to know we will make it to a destination without running out. Maybe we’ve forgotten the days of being a high schooler with a part-time job, who was still learning to budget for gas money.
- The ability to choose what we wear. It sure beats getting dressed in that ugly sweater grandma would sometimes knit us for Christmas. For most of human history it was typical to own only ONE pair of pants..
- A job with benefits – while not a category that everyone falls into, the idea of working for a company that ensures we have a little help if we fall into any issues with our health is a small blessing.
Maybe none of those resonated. And that’s okay. Coming up with our own list of things to be grateful for is probably an even better solution. Starting each day by thinking of three things we are grateful for is an easy way to remind us of the success that’s already present in our life.
“Your ability to see beauty and possibility is proportionate to the level at which you embrace gratitude.” –Dr. Steve Maraboli
Try This: Simple Gratitude Practice
Join us as we show you one of our favorite gratitude exercises that takes only two minutes.
- Think of one thing in life that you are grateful for and why.
- Think of one person in life that you are grateful for and why.
- Think of one thing about yourself that you are grateful for and why.
Little actions like these form the foundation for an attitude of success and enough. And, this practice done daily is also likely to increase levels of joy and appreciation as well. And yes, in this section we’ve begun to define success. For more guidance as to how to find success through work, look here. Inherent in our definition is the belief that having success and enjoying success are two different things. A life of being successful, without ever feeling successful is one that not many people would choose. Practicing gratitude, perspective, and joy though enables us to feel the success that we are already working to achieve.
A couple other ways to change one’s perspective are presence, non attachment, and acceptance. All we ever get is “today.” We will never spend a day in “tomorrow.” Acceptance of what is and a nonattachment to a “more successful” life enables us to appreciate today a little easier. Success can provide a hope for a better tomorrow. Remembering that hope has already been paying off and is the “today” that we might have hoped for a year ago, enables us to better realize “success.”
Where Is True Success Found?
When thinking about the word “success,” how many of us thought about something other than our jobs or careers? Success isn’t limited to the amount of money we make or the work we do. Success can be found anywhere else we choose to look for it. A few common places we can find success are:
- At home – Being a “successful” mother, brother, son, father, etc. Learning to find “success” in our relationships is probably the most rewarding place that we can find success. Researchers have also concluded that not money, but rather feeling a part of a community, is the single biggest predictor of happiness.
- In our social groups – Taking time to be there for our friends might sound small, but being counted on as a “successful” friend is another rewarding opportunity to find meaning in our everyday interactions.
- In our passions– It’s never too late to start that band, paint with our kids, cook an amazing dinner for someone, or spend an extra 15 minutes reading. Investing in our passions and sense of Expression nets a longer term and more sustainable definition of success.
- Through Service – In Okinawa, Grandmothers practice helping Pre-Kindergarteners by cheering them on and nurturing them as they run a race. These grandmothers show up to support these toddlers, even though these kids are completely unrelated to them. They give the kids hugs as they cross the finish line and help them up once they’ve skinned their knees.
- Loving ourselves – Maybe self-care looks like yoga, more time at the park, playing with our dog, or going for a hike. Who doesn’t want to be successful at loving themselves? Even choosing to prioritize our own happiness might lead to greater success, whether at home or at work.
- Literally any area of life – Play, dancing in public, eating our favorite foods, swimming, going to the zoo, sliding down slides, or making another person laugh. There are so many things that are opportunities for us to be successful. The more areas of our life that we allow ourselves to find “success” other than our career, the more joy there is available to us.
Try This: Take a minute to define what success means to you
This practice is one to be revisited as often as necessary as different seasons of life will result in different answers. For instance new jobs, kids, marriage, hobbies, and unexpected life circumstances will change our priorities.
Pick any five of the words below that currently equal what success means to you. (This list is not all inclusive, so feel free to choose any others words that better define how you feel about success.):
Being a parent
Career Growth and Advancement
Service/Giving Back to Others
Working from Home
Mental and Emotional Health
Financially providing for family
An attitude of gratitude
Write your words down here:
Next to each word write a sentence or phrase that describes how this word ties into your definition of success.
Congratulations! By defining success for yourself, you have a better chance of both achieving it and feeling a sense of fulfillment along the way!
A Few Other Ways of Defining “Success”
We’ve compiled a few ways others have redefined success in their lives.
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.” –Steve Jobs (Idea by Jack Kerouac, words by Rob Siltanen)
Neuroscience and studies of positive psychology suggest that happiness is a key driver and precursor of success, with two decades of research backing this up. One reason is that positive feelings make the brain work better. “Positive emotion triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine, which significantly enhance motor control, motivation, memory, problem-solving, mental focus and the ability to process multiple concepts simultaneously. So, positive thinking really can make you more successful.”
Forbes also has four simple steps they recommend for putting happiness first in our pursuit of success:
- Pursue Meaningful Engagement – Martin Seligman, “One of the best ways of discovering this value is by nourishing our unique strengths in contributing to the happiness of our fellow humans.”
- Practice Mindfulness – “ A study by Harvard psychologists showed that we spend about 47% of our waking hours thinking about what isn’t going on. And that this typically makes us unhappy. The solution? To focus on whatever we are doing and the experience we are having in this very moment. In other words, to develop the skill of mindfulness.
- Strengthen One’s Friendship Circles – “Whereas some people choose to retreat within themselves when the going gets tough, the most successful people will instead make time for friends, peers and family members, always seeking to strengthen their friendship circles.”
- Develop Our Softer Skills to Enable Us to Flourish – “When LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner was asked which professional skill is most in demand, he said that what the job market is crying out for at the moment is people with excellent soft skills. Those are personal and communication skills including empathy, listening skills and the ability to build a team.”
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” – Herman Cain
The Economic Times shares, “The need for a routine and to reframe the meaning of success can be your saviours. If you don’t have a plan for what comes after, even after signing the deal of one’s life, you could easily spiral into an abyss.” What happens after we reach a goal? Is reaching our goal the most important piece? The person that we become in the process of pursuing is just as important as the attainment of “success.” By focusing on creating meaning (a Meaning of Life), we can continually live in success rather than trying to be successful.
Four quick pieces of advice, from the book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari on redefining success. Technically they are more viewed as a way of looking at life; however, they also provide an alternative view of what “success” can mean to an individual.
- Success on the outside begins within
- The quality of your life ultimately comes down to the quality of your contribution. “The most noble thing you can do is to give to others. Start focusing on your higher purpose.”
- Never sacrifice happiness for achievement.
- Live Your Childrens’ Childhood – Don’t miss the real stuff of life in lieu of money, success, power, etc. There is much to distract us from what really matters.
“In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” -Jack Kornfield