I’ve been grappling with the issue of failure for a couple of weeks. I’d now like to flip it and look at success.
Yes, I know! Soon I’m going to write about something completely superficial – I promise – but I feel like I need to wrap up this series with a little exploration on success, succeeding, and being a ‘successful person’.
What do we mean by ‘success’?
Success is the opposite of failure, isn’t it? That’s what we are striving for – to be successful? (and I thought so initially, but after tossing it around in my mind, I’m less sure. At least – without writing this out, I wasn’t clear that I knew what I meant by ‘success’.
- Are we ‘successful’ if we achieve our goals – or is success determined by some other measure, for instance, living against a set of values? Are we the ones to make that call?
- Are these goals and values worthwhile? Are we even clear on what they are – or do we care?
- What will happen if we are open about what is important to us, and a) we are dismissed or argued with (or ignored) for them or b) held to account against them, if (when) we slip up – or change our minds?
- Am I overthinking this?
Well, in terms of the last dot point, probably I am, however I know no other way to get it clearer in my mind, so I hope you’ll bear with me (and join in through the comments) as I try to unpick this.
Success – the ‘how’ doesn’t make sense without the ‘what’ and ‘why’
What I have recently realised is that success is a topic you can make as simple or complicated as you like.
There is a wealth of material on ‘how’ to be successful – lifestyle habits, attitude issues, attributes you can develop and the like. There is probably even more on how to determining ‘what’ success means – how to work out personal goals, evaluating them and working out actions that fit and help you to achieve them. Plus, there are coaches you can engage, networks (including your friends and family) that can help with this.
I’m not going to talk about what I think are worthwhile goals or values. For one thing, you’ll probably come to different conclusions than me. You might focus on self achievements, the impact you have had in other people’s lives, or the influence on issues that you see as significant. You might even operate without any clear goals, living life according to your values and let the outcomes take care of themselves (I can’t fully get my head around this one, but it’s possible and probably just as valid).
I do think it is worthwhile looking up some good sources and reflecting, periodically, on where you would like to head, why and how. But that is a topic for another day.
My thoughts about success
I do think that discussing the values underpinning our view of success is important – it shapes where we place our attention, energy and time (or it should). So what do I think? I think it is actually fairly simple. In my opinion:
A successful life is one that is ‘well lived’.
Yes, ‘well lived’ is very open to interpretation – but that’s the point, isn’t it? It is up to each of us to define this.
We all come to life with different backgrounds, abilities, circumstances and talents. We will all have different interactions and experiences through our lives. We all have one life, and that life will last for an undefined period. Yes, there may or may not be another life afterwards – but let’s not go there at the moment. Let’s just focus on this life for now.
If you’ve lived as fully as you can, given the circumstances, then you should be proud of that. You’re a success. I don’t always believe or feel this (as I can be hard on myself, but I’m working on that), but it’s what I know is true. And these are some of the reasons that I think this.
Just as people are different, our measures of success can differ
For some people, competing in a race is great achievement, for others, completing it within a certain time is their benchmark, and for others, being ranked in a certain place is their main goal. For yet others, they have no interest in running in a race at all – their interests lie elsewhere.
By limiting success to ‘winning’, we narrow the pool, and create a far bigger group of ‘losers’. It’s all in the way we judge success – if it is judged on effort and improvements, not only do we increase the confidence of those who are involved, but we may well encourage improved performance across the board. And we all have the ability to be successful
Your goals will differ, depending on the barriers you face, your expectations, or the importance you place on certain outcomes. Only you know what ‘success’ in this circumstances can be.
Success is often diminished through comparison
I know we live in a material, competitive world. However, judging how successful you are based on what you see of other people can be destructive.
We often see outward signs of ‘success’ – possessions, relationships, or influence, for instance – without fully knowing the whole of the story. For all we know, those people we earmark as ‘successful’ may well be still searching for something better, or ‘fearfully consumed by trying to sustain and protect their success’.
Is that the success that you want to experience? Would you really define people who feel this way as ‘successful’? And as I said above, I think we all have the ability to be successful in different ways.
Success involves contentment
This is the next logical step, isn’t it? Yes, there are people who seem to have it all, and are very happy with their lives. Which is great. Isn’t it even better when you can celebrate their hard work and good fortune with them, rather than than feeling envious, inadequate or less successful? Feeling joy for others, rather than resentment of what we don’t have by comparison, is worth aiming for.
If we do fall into the trap of ‘comparison-itis’, we’re less likely to appreciate how many things we actually do have. In reality, most of us in Australia have ‘enough’ – although there are always more things we might want. Often what we don’t have is enough time – time to enjoy the many things we do have, the experiences we can participate in, and the people we can enjoy being with.
In other words: ‘You can resent your bald spot or be glad you have a head’ (an expression I’ve just heard, but quite like).
Self-worth and success are not necessarily the same thing
It’s worth remembering that achieving a goal or outcome will not necessarily help us with any existing dissatisfaction or poor self worth. We are worthwhile because of who we are, not because of what we have done (or will do).
If we are content in ourselves, we can continue to focus on other goals without the pressure of feeling ‘a failure’ if we don’t quite get there.
We can take the perspective of Bruce Lee, who once said ‘A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at’.
Success is likely to involve greater connection with others, and with ourselves
Becoming better people requires us to consider how we ‘function’ – how we think, feel, what we like and dislike, to be honest about our strengths and weaknesses, and give ourselves some slack. It is also likely to involve interacting and working with others – which is great. The relationships that develop through living life can be key benefits of working towards goals.
It also may mean that we focus more helping other people rather than satisfying our own wants. We might do things not solely to make ourselves happy but because doing them feels like the right thing to do. In doing so, we will be more fully and deeply sharing the ups and downs of life with others (directly, through relationships, or indirectly, through assistance). Helping others can be one of the best aspects of life.
Succeeding is not always within our control
This is hard for the control freaks amongst us to deal with, but we don’t live in a bubble. Other people and other factors impact us. That can be annoying. Or it can be freeing. It depends how you look at it.
Getting stressed about achieving – quickly, rushing from one thing to another, worrying about whether we have made the right decision, and constantly upgrading our goals, can mean we don’t actually enjoy the here and now. And we can forget what is important to us. We’ve lost our sense of purpose.
Recognising that we are not fully in control is one way to help put things back in perspective. So we didn’t succeed this time? Will that matter in five years’ time – or even next week? No? Then so what!
Success, in many (most?) cases, requires work and persistence
Even though we are not fully in control, most of us still need to work towards achieving our goals. Yes occasionally someone can float through life getting all the breaks – but that is very rare. Yes, that is annoying too. However, although we don’t have complete control, we have some degree of influence on how we shape our lives. We can put things in place to increase our chances of living our life well. Luckily, if we choose to, we can gain satisfaction in undertaking this work.
Success is a journey – enjoy the process as much as the outcome
We don’t become ‘successful’ and stay there for ever. Well – most of us don’t. If we reach our goal, we will often have another one following it (or further refining and improving on it). Most of our time therefore is spent working towards success, rather than being successful.
There can be a joy in doing and striving and getting there (and most of our time is spent on the ‘getting there’) – and ironically, there can be an emptiness in reaching our goals. So let’s enjoy the journey!
This Becoming Minimalist post expresses this very well
Two final thoughts on success:
- Success is not measured by what you have, but what you become.
- We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.
Part of the reason I wanted to write this out is that I think it is important to understand some principles around a life well lived. Not just for me, but also as I think about how my husband and I raise our children. So I’d love your thoughts.
What are your thoughts on what makes up a ‘successful life’?