Hundreds of self-help experts clamour to tell us how to succeed, but what does success mean? Becoming rich? Being top dog? Fulfilling one’s potential? Living a happy life?
In primary school we have to pass Year 1 to get to Year 2, and pass year 2 to get to year 3, and so on, until we get to High School, and the whole process begins again. By the time we have completed our studies we are thoroughly used to the idea that the purpose of life is to prepare ourselves for something better than what we have now, that Life is a series of stepping stones towards something finally worth having, that Life is something we have to wade through in order to get somewhere important.
What a negative way to look at Life! It’s no wonder that when we get a career we look for a better one; we get car and want a better one; we get a house and want a bigger one. At each stage we feel obliged to seek another, higher level. It’s the donkey chasing the carrot.
How often do we live a year for its own sake?
‘In the hope of reaching the moon, men fail to see the flowers that bloom beneath their feet.’
In seeking success, many of us measure it in terms of money, power, or achievement, because those measures are quantifiable – they make it easy for us to compare ourselves with others, to see if we are passing the test. The trouble is, money, power and achievements are poor measures of how we feel about the life we lead, so even if we do get the money, the power or the kudos, we can be left feeling unsatisfied.
To some people, achieving success is so important they discard their principles to get it. Athletes might cheat with performance enhancing drugs to win medals and fame; executives climb corporate ladders at the expense of their integrity – think of anyone so attached to success they lose themselves in the game. When the end result becomes paramount the journey there can be corrupted.
When a person aims to succeed they set themselves a benchmark by which they will either pass or fail. If they fail they feel like a loser. If they pass they simply set the benchmark higher. Either way, they never really succeed. Most successful people will tell you, ‘It’s never over. You can always to better.’ They say this to guard against complacency, but it confirms our position: we can never really ‘get there.’ Success will always be just around the corner.
Even if we do succeed, will that success make us happier? When we achieve our life goal, or win that award, or get the top job, we experience the temporary happiness talked about in the book’s introduction. But pretty soon we return to how we felt before. Some of us might even wonder, ‘Is that all there is?’
I have no problem with anyone succeeding. Let’s value our achievements. Success is a wonderful thing. But if we believe that success will make us happier we might end up following a path not meant for us, and lead a flat, dissatisfied life.
And, because we have focused on the future, we haven’t fully enjoyed the present. My point is: don’t aim to succeed. Life is not a test to pass or fail. You are not on this planet to prove yourself to anyone. Your life is yours and you don’t have to justify it.
Your current life is not inferior to the life you intend to have, so treat it with respect. Avoid the ‘Pass or Fail’ mindset. Aim instead to live your life the way you want to live it.
In short, the notion of success is an empty one. Ignore it. Run a business as well as you can, but don’t run it to prove you can succeed. When cricketer Adam Gilchrist was interviewed about his world record breaking 414 wickets as wicketkeeper he said: ‘Yes, it was a satisfying achievement. Something that will be nice. It is not something you set out to achieve. If you set out with that in mind you re never going to get close.’
Adam didn’t aim to succeed. He aimed to take wickets. In the process, he succeeded.
‘Anyway, how can you possibly be a success, because we can’t have it all. Even if we do manage to run a successful company, AND be a wonderful attentive spouse and parent, we can’t also do the voluntary work we want to do, travel, write the book we want to write, produce the film we want to make . . . we just don’t have the time. Most of us will die having not been able to fulfil certain goals, and those of us who don’t feel that probably had no interests at all.’
Alain de Botton in his book, ‘Status Anxiety’.
Some people’s view of success:
‘Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.’
When television’s Andrew Denton asked author Lee Stringer ‘Are you comfortable with success . . . . with what appears to be success?’ Lee replied: ‘I’m comfortable with the real part of success, which is: gaining by inches an inner serenity. That’s success . . . . The rest is just noise.’
From Richard Carlson’s book, ‘Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff’: ‘If you ask the average person . . . What is a meaningful accomplishment? The typical responses will be things like, Achieving a long-term goal, earning lots of money, winning a game . . . being the best . . . and so forth. The emphasis is almost always on the external aspects of life – things that happen outside of ourselves. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with these types of accomplishments – they are a way of keeping score and improving our circumstances. They are not, however, the most important types of accomplishments if your primary goal is one of happiness and inner peace. Seeing your photograph in the local newspaper may be a nice thing to achieve, but isn’t as meaningful as learning to stay centred in the face of adversity.
‘ . . . I think of my most meaningful accomplishments as stemming from inside myself: Was I kind to myself and others? Did I overreact to a challenge, or was I calm and collected? . . . Did I hold on to anger or was I able to let go and move on? Was I too stubborn? Did I forgive? These questions, and others like them, remind us that the true measure of our success comes not from what we do, but from who we are . . .
‘Rather than being consumed exclusively with external accomplishments, try putting more emphasis on what’s really important. When you redefine what it means to achieve a meaningful accomplishment, it helps you to stay on your path.’
Q. ‘Mark, the quotes above undermine the people who work hard, make significant sacrifices, and manage to gain wealth, respect or fame. Those people have earned the right to feel successful, yet they have to cope with people sneering at their achievements.’
I doubt the achievers worry about what people think of them, but point taken. Let’s go easy on each other. If someone claims to be successful, by any criteria, let’s accept their claim. There is no firm definition of success. It’s a matter of perspective, and values.
Q. ‘I can see what you’re getting at, Mark. My neighbour spent years building a boat, and now it’s finished he only sails occasionally. Being successful isn’t as satisfying as it’s cracked up to be.’
Did your neighbour enjoy building his boat?
‘I think so. He was always talking about it.’
For those years he was successful. It’s the journey which is important, not the elephant stamp at the end.
Q. ‘The self-help experts are always telling us how to succeed.’
Yes. They assume their own happiness comes from their success, and because they want you to be happy, they want you to be successful too.’
‘And they’re wrong?’
It’s an easy mistake to make.
Q. ‘Surely it’s okay to try to win at something? Or get a promotion?’
Of course. Strive to win. An award is an acknowledgement from one’s peers, and to be valued. A promotion in a company can provide more rewarding work. But don’t equate awards or promotions with success. They’re included in the journey.
‘Is it okay to achieve?’
Of course. Achievements are special. They are a testament to our skill and persistence.
Q. ‘Let’s say I am a scientist searching for a vaccine for a horrible disease. Why shouldn’t I aim to succeed in finding that vaccine?’
Why not simply aim to find it?
‘But wouldn’t it be good if I succeeded in finding the vaccine?’
Wouldn’t it be good if you simply found the vaccine? Adam Gilchrist didn’t aim to succeed, and he didn’t aim to collect 414 wickets. He aimed to catch each ball one at a time. He didn’t focus on success; he focused on the job in hand.
(You’re more likely to be comprehensive if you write the answers.)
1. What would have to happen for you to be successful? (Be specific.)
‘If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience, you will find your definition of success.’
Stephen R. Covey (From a Douglas Martin article in The New York Times, 16th July, 2012.)
2. What would have to happen for you to feel successful?
(Would you need someone to say something to validate your success? An award? If so, how likely is it that you will receive those words of acknowledgment, or that award?)
3. What would success feel like? For how long would that feeling last?