Success can be generally defined as the accomplishment of a purpose, the acquisition of popularity or financial profit. What success looks like varies to each individual, though. Some women see success as looking like a supermodel, while many men want to own or lead a company and drive their dream car. For these generalities, there is a full spectrum of variations.
We live in a success-driven culture, and it appears that achievement-oriented life has grown in the past century. With the increasing records broken, the number of millionaires, and feats accomplished that humans once thought impossible, there comes a dilemma.
The Paradox of Success
The paradox of success can be viewed in a few different ways, but the primary idea being when you give up so much to be the best, you have a “shadow life.” These will inevitably be areas that suffer, and many who are at the top don’t feel they can live a genuinely authentic life.
This can be observed in the numerous scandals among politicians, athletes, and celebrities who attempt to hide secret lives, affairs, deny their sexual preferences or commit illegal activity to get ahead or push their kids toward success.
It can also become extremely competitive to run in wealthy circles, and even once individuals reach a certain level of riches, there is an aspect of keeping up with even more successful people. The never-ending treadmill of ambition can not only be tiring but can cause depression and anxiety over materialistic and shallow parts of life.
Success Is About Being the Best, but There Is Always a New Best
Many people think once they’ve achieved something, they’ll be able to rest. You’ve made it to the top, so now you can just enjoy life, right? As it turns out, like anything in life, success, too, is fleeting. In the book Just Enough: Tools for Creating Success in Your Work and Life by Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, they examine examples of triumph, such as Sir Edmund Hillary’s very first climb to the top of Mt. Everest.
Once Hillary did it, the achievement was done, right? In a sense, yes, but then came a continuous onslaught of those who had to top his victory. That first climb was taken over by new records and continues to be to this day. Sometimes the accounts, such as oldest climber, or first amputee climber, happen within the same week of each other. The records for Mt. Everest ascents in 2013 are a perfect example of this.
What people frequently fail to remember is that success requires maintenance, and over time, that can be exhausting. CEOs get replaced, extreme dieters rarely can keep up their lifestyle indefinitely, and even that fancy car will eventually get wear and tear—that is, unless a person never drives it, which defeats the purpose in the first place.
This can be a despair-causing thought for those who base their entire happiness around the achievement of their ambitions. If it’s just going to be fleeting anyway, what is the point? Many reasons could be debated as to why we should still aim high, among those being valuable contributions to society.
However, when we detach our entire basis of joy from success and see the act of achieving our goals a bonus rather than a necessity, we are freed up. What if we can feel success now, even without hitting the highest levels, breaking the record, or making the most substantial profits? First, exploring more on the root of this drive can help us understand why we want it in the first place.
Standards of Celebrities Are Unrealistic
Comparing yourself to your neighbor is undoubtedly something that has happened for eons, regardless of what success looked like in any given time in human history. Present day, we not only have those around us to compare ourselves to, but also celebrities, CEOs, and even old acquaintances on social media. It’s too natural to look around and see how much “better” everyone else is doing.
The world online connects us faster, but also causes us to compare our lives to others without knowing the full story. It’s crucial to remember that almost everyone puts their best image out there, with the right lighting, amid the most exciting activities, in the coolest car, or on the most luxurious trip. Not to mention all of this is often happening with the help of photo editing.
What we don’t see when we compare ourselves to celebrities, CEOs, or people on social media is the personal struggle every single person is going through. We don’t view when someone knows in the gut their spouse is having an affair, or that their company is in trouble, or when someone is fighting anxiety or depression. We don’t see the crippling eating disorder, the constant guilt a person feels over a life regret or the unbearable stress of their job.
Attempting to keep up with what we think other people are living, feeling, or have can result in an almost immediate sensation of defeat. When even those with plastic surgery edit their photos, how can anyone expect to look like that?
Even those individuals don’t look that way naturally. When someone with wealth is seen in their desirable car or mansion, we aren’t seeing the possible debt they have.
Looking at the rest of the world and others’ “success” should be taken with a grain of salt. Just as the façade we all display for others is not the whole truth including the sad moments, we must remember that we are only seeing the hand-picked appearance others want us to see. When we picture the possible struggles they could be enduring, it’s easier to let go of comparison.
A One Note Definition of Success
For most people, success is firmly associated with money. However, another aspect of achievement to remind ourselves of is that it does not look the same for everyone. For example, even if you want to make partner at a law firm to impress others, many people have no desire to be a lawyer.
Some people want to travel the world to show off how worldly and experienced they are. While many people are sitting at home perfectly content to be homebodies who have no desire to risk the headaches of travel and the dangers of certain parts of the globe.
When Success Is About Showing the World a Specific Picture
While reaching a specific goal, you might impress a niche group of people. Two things are imperative to remember, though. First, only some people will be awe-struck, the rest just won’t care. Secondly, sometimes reaching a certain level of success can actually alienate us from others.
Think about people you’ve encountered who seem to have it all, and because of that, are individuals you want to avoid. Being around authentic and successful people can be uplifting. However, those who are a façade of success and superficiality are rarely the kind of people others want to be around.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t aim for your dreams. We all have something unique or special to offer and contribute to the world. However, going for your goals for the right “why” is crucial (we’ll expand on that idea of why). If we strive for success only to impress others, we often make others feel inferior, and people don’t like to be around those who make them feel as if they are failing.
The False Premise of Limits Meaning Failure
So, what if we don’t reach the absolute heights of the picture we’ve painted in our minds of success? What if we realize—gasp—that we do, in fact, have some limits on what we can do or achieve?
Many inspirational quotes are circulating these days, sometimes it seems too many. Seeing them can almost make you feel like you’re doing something wrong if you accept some limitation.
If you feel content with “settling” for something less than a millionaire lifestyle, you might get the sense from all of these uplifting sentiments that you should be trying harder. Maybe you feel there is something wrong with the goals you’ve set because they don’t aim as high as others.
It is imperative for each of us to remember that limitation is built into the human condition. Whether you make millions or not, whether you have the perfect family or not, whether you get the home or the body you desire or not, we all meet the same end.
Again, this could be looked at as a dark thought, but it can also be freeing. Humans are mortal, and therefore, born with the ultimate limitation.
Perhaps, setting high yet realistic goals and being happy with what you have is the ultimate success. Accepting that a particular outcome may never happen and being freed up to be pleased with the life you have—thereby enjoying it more—could possibly be one of the greatest successes of all.
Thinking Back on Your Truly Happiest Moments
An exercise everyone could benefit from (and do this every now and then when you lose sight of what’s important) is thinking back over the entirety of your life. What were your most authentically happy moments? It can be beneficial to answer these questions:
- What is your best memory from young childhood?
- What made you feel successful as a kid?
- What made you happiest when you were a teenager?
- If you’re an adult, what are the five most pleasant memories from your adult life?
Many people are surprised that their most genuinely blissful moments were not tied to success in the modern concept of the word. Your happiest moments could be certain holidays as a kid, memories with friends from college, a quiet walk while watching the most incredible sunset, the birth of a child or a night spent looking at the stars while having one of the best conversations of your life.
Sure, sometimes reaching a goal that was long sought-after will make that list. Again, part of the joy in life is challenging yourself with reachable achievements or contributing something you’ve worked hard on. However, writing down your most joyous life memories can be an eye-opening experience for many.
Most people will find that mixed in with some traditional successes, the peaks of their lives are frequently moments that no typical success or job could bring them. Paying more attention to those small flashes when they happen in your present-day life can fill us with an immediate sensation of victory and happiness.
Offering Kids Guidance to True Happiness Rather Than Superficial Pursuits
Some people would argue that securing loads of wealth is vital for future generations. While giving your offspring a comfortable life and making sure they have their needs met it imperative, it could be argued that leaving a child an excessive inheritance or giving them every last thing they want does not offer one’s child happiness.
As Nikhil Sapkota recalls, finding financial success at 14-years-old did not bring him lasting joy. Every time he achieved enough to buy something new, another desire took its place. No material item brought lasting bliss. Most parents know you can buy a child something and within weeks (sometimes less) it finds a place in the closet along with other forgotten toys.
It’s been studied in everything from the newness of love to the growing tired of new gadgets, cars, or other purchases. Everything because mundane over time, and it takes a continual appreciation of things in our lives for us to remain satisfied with them.
While we all want to do the best we can for our kids, teaching them the value of solid character and appreciation of what they have could possibly set them up for more happiness than just an inheritance.
One doesn’t have to look hard today to see children of privilege having money but appearing to lack human decency. In the case of recent college bribes, it could even be argued this pushing for a parent’s specific idea of success hugely backfired on the lives of their kids.
The Root of All Successes Is a Hope It Will Make Us Happy
One of the most freeing concepts a person can realize is that the core of everything you desire, regardless of the type of success, is the thought that it will make you happy. Even if a person initially wants money for other reason than happiness, if you scratch the surface enough, the root is still happiness.
Say someone wants financial success for the ability to travel, to live in a giant house, or thinking it will land them a romantic partner. All of those wants are desires that they believe will bring them happiness. It’s true that some of these experiences can add to contentment in your life. However, on their own, they cannot bring lasting joy.
As mentioned, the “why” you want success is imperative to evaluate. Whenever we have a “why” to satisfy or impress other people, we are inevitably set up for disappointment. We need to take an in-depth look at the exact reason behind our desire for success.
- Am I trying to impress someone?
- Am I living to accomplish an old dream that no longer calls to me?
- Am I focused on money because of what others taught me?
- What is my fear surrounding the idea of failing?
- What would make me happiest if no one else was involved?
- If I got what I wanted and still wasn’t happy, what would I wish I did differently?
Many times individuals will try to please their parents or spouses. However, it’s usually parents or spouses or other people in our lives who we feel need to be impressed who are the exact people that will never entirely be satisfied with us.
People who support us and are proud of who we are will not need to see external successes. Sure, they will want the best for us. However, these people will not need us to be a CEO, a famous actor, or have a family that looks a particular way to accept us.
The Paradox of Unpleasable People
Ironically, those who cannot accept us for the lives we live are not likely be satisfied with us regardless of our accomplishments. This is its own paradox—trying to please unpleasable people.
Most of us have encountered them in some form in our lives. It could be a parent who always focuses on the mistakes you made, or a friend who seems to celebrate your defeats more than your victories. Maybe it is an inner battle with a younger version of you that you feel would be disappointed if they saw how things turned out.
It is crucial to root out who we are trying to please, even if it’s ourselves, and figure out why. Then we need to examine whether achieving our idea of success will actually satisfy these people (or ourselves). Where did this whole concept of success stem from in each of our lives?
Aiming for ambitions that we will feel proud of for ourselves, even if no one else acknowledges them, are the goals we should focus on. If we can’t take anything with us when our lives are done, it makes sense that our primary ambitions should be finding joy in our lives and accomplishing whatever is most meaningful to us.
Being ambitious and driven is fantastic when it is inspired by a deep and meaningful motive. When it’s not a success for the appearance we give the world, but rather a success because it will make our heart sing, this is when we find the greatest triumphs of all.
The key to all of this talk is that the point of most goals is to feel happy. There are exceptions, such as finding a cure for cancer, which is something that is a success to be given to society. Yet even the root of that is to help save lives, which again, is to be thrilled and relieved. When each version of personal triumphs is boiled down, they all circle back around to the desire for bliss.
Success = Feeling Happy
So, understanding that the root of all of our desires is not actually money, impressing others, driving a specific car, or looking a certain way, but instead the feeling of joy we are then freed up.
It’s been said thousands of times; the mind is a powerful thing. When we realize we have the power to look at nearly any situation and see the positive in it, our brain can find success in most circumstances of our lives.
There will always be circumstances or events that make us long for more, or that bring us down. Yet even those help us clarify what we would prefer in our lives. When a lover mistreats us, we discover how important it is to find someone with similar morals to our own. If we have a business deal go south, we hopefully learn from our mistakes and know what to do or not do the next time around.
Success is still something to aim for, meaning we won’t have it every second of every day. We still need to make these mistakes and learn lessons. While it might be an over-stated idea, there is a vast amount of truth to the concept of appreciating the sunny days because of the rainy ones.
Meeting Our Basic Needs and Feeling Happy Is More Authentic Success
It’s been said that food, water, shelter, safety, and love are the essential needs for a human. There are some intricacies to these basic needs, such as healthy food, clean water, and unlimited variations of what love can look like.
Some experts include receiving some amount of attention from others, intimacy, and a feeling of value and social connection. All of these could be classified as nuances of love. Yet anyone familiar with music can tell you money can’t buy you love.
It’s been found that people who make an average of $60,000 to $75,000 a year (in the United States as of 2018) feel their needs are met and can be just as happy as someone making over $100,000 a year.
In fact, those who earned over $200,000 feel an added stress and dissatisfaction because of the comparison of superficial lifestyles in the circles in which they socialize. That holds that, in some cases, making more money can cause people to feel more influenced by materialism and a feeling of inauthenticity, and therefore, unhappiness in their lives.
How to Feel Happy Where You Are
It can be challenging to feel upbeat when you’re in the middle of a struggle. When all is said and done, others can throw out positive words, but it’s up to our own selves to take any action to make us happier.
Just as earning a million dollars takes hard work for most, lifting yourself out of a place that lacks “happiness success” can take action. We need to make an effort to maintain our contentment the same way we need to exercise our bodies, follow the stock market, or put in hours at work. Continual use of the following practices can raise your feelings of personal success.
- Write down the successes you’ve already achieved.
- Set a timer and meditate on just happy thoughts.
- Journal about what is going positively for you right now.
- Write down the general feelings of wellbeing in your life.
- Make a list of things you have that you’re grateful for.
- Spend some time thinking about what you have now that you wished for 10, 15, or 20 years ago.
Being general with these things can sometimes be the most beneficial, as getting specific about topics sometimes leads to thoughts about struggles in our life. If you get too specific about work successes, you can start to dwell on uncomfortable issues or aspects that are not entirely as you like them.
Going more general with these topics and paying attention to the positive can lift your mood. The bonus is that these practices can be done almost daily, and they are free to do.
In the End, What Is Success and How Much Is Enough?
When nine people who are or were considered traditionally highly successful offered their definition of success, they all had a core idea running through it. Success is not just being the richest, most fit, or most powerful. Instead, it is living a life you find satisfying and meaningful. Most agreed that money in and of itself did not offer bliss. Having a personal sense of purpose was more rewarding.
There is a significant amount of freedom when we embrace that idea. Success can’t be defined by anyone else, only you. We all have differing views on what the ideal life looks like, but the core thread is a life that would bring us joy.
When happiness can be found in something as simple as going for a walk or listening to music, we can breathe a sigh of relief. Of course, we all still would like to contribute something to the world or find a sense of meaning. Yet when we release the idea that we have to compete with those are the top—and remember that even those individuals can be unhappy—we are free.
We can then go forward and set our own personal definition of success, one that makes us satisfied.