If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will always feel like a failure. If you judge your success by someone else’s definition you will always feel like a failure.
Your success is not mine. My success is not yours. His success is not hers. Her success is not his. Their success is not ours.
I used to feel like success was a universally understood concept. Something that anyone from anywhere could relate to and strive for. Something that made me feel like we were all playing the same game, moving in the same direction, pushing for together.
But it’s not.
Success is not universal and the fact that so many people believe that Kanye West or Warren Buffet or Bill Gates or Oprah have it all figured out is worrying to me and does not bode well for general theories of happiness and contentment.
I know many wealthy people who are desperately unhappy. I know many famous people who hate their lives. I know traditionally successful people who just cannot bring themselves to be happy or stop working so hard. Success is nuanced, contextual and personal.
If your idea of success is wholly understood through watching Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed then you probably think that you need fake body parts, a rapper ex-husband who is batshit crazy (or an eccentric genius depending on your perspective), houses that are too big to clean and material things to make you happy. And that’s OK if you truly, one thousand per cent believe that you came up with that version of success all on your own. But you didn’t. You copied it. You subsumed it. You enveloped it through social media osmosis.
So here’s my question to you:
How do you define success for yourself?
I’m not asking you what you want to own to make yourself look successful. I’m not asking you what you think other people think success looks like. I’m not asking you about your parent’s opinion of success. I’m asking about your personal idea of success. What has to happen for you to think to yourself “I am a success”?
Success could be a family with two kids, a dog, two cars, a nice house in a safe neighbourhood and a job that you love.
It could be a one-bedroom apartment in New York where you live alone and get to paint all day without fear of being broke.
It could be travelling the world while you work.
It could be as simple as feeling loved.
But have you actually sat down and considered what success looks like in your life? Have you ever asked yourself that simple question? Have you sat down with yourself and taken the time to quantify in fine detail what you desire, why you desire that specific thing and how you plan to achieve said thing?
This matters because the marker on the map will keep moving if we never lock in a destination. If you have no idea where you want to end up one day then how the fuck do you know if you’re on a path towards success?
Here are some questions I have asked myself to try and figure this out:
- What is important to me? Family? Money? Material things? Sleep? Work with purpose? Relationships? Food?
- What are my values? Honesty? Integrity? Balance? Beauty? Faith? Consistency? What?
- Who is important to me?
- Do I care about “stuff”? Cars? Clothes? Houses? First-class? Jewellery?
- Do I want to retire or find work that I want to do forever?
- What brings me energy?
- What takes energy away from me?
Life is filled with many different dimensions and each part should have its own definition of success. Here’s a list of the possible areas of your own life to start thinking about:
- Practices & habits
- Health & wellness
- Learning & growth
- Dreaming & longing
- Hobbies & recreation
It took a lot of thinking and observing of myself, my life and those around me to figure out that I was building a life that other people thought was successful.
When I was about 23 I purchased my first house, bought my first (and only) new car and had a well-paying job at a large corporate. I woke up one day and realised that I didn’t care about cars at all but I was spending 1/4 of my salary paying for a car. I realised I didn’t care about the outdated idea of owning a house because I preferred to move around a lot. I realised that a family which includes children felt more like a burden than an achievement. With time I understood that I had inherited other people’s ideas of success, mostly my father’s because he always wanted but never achieved real financial and material success.
I have my own understanding of success now which includes:
- Free time
- No obligations
- The ability to say no to anything at any time
- Working with the best possible people
- Surrounding myself with people I want to be like and am proud of
- Travelling as often as I want to
It’s easy to fail when you are being measured by someone else’s idea of success. It’s easy to feel shit about what you have when you have been tricked into thinking you want what someone else has. It’s much more difficult in the short term (but easier in the long term) to set your own definition of success and move towards it confidently.
The difficulty is that we are constantly told to be ourselves as long as that looks like everyone else. We’re constantly told to move against the flow of traffic as long as we’re not disrupting the traffic.
I can’t claim to have it all figured out because my life is constantly evolving and changing. The important part is the practice of challenging your own understanding of success on a frequent basis. Don’t set and forget. Don’t sit idle as the world passes you by while you wait for success to just arrive.
Nobody is waiting for you to succeed or fail. In fact, nobody is waiting for you at all.
Here’s my hot take on the topic:
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