Since writing my post last week about curing my addiction to “more,” I’ve continued on by dwelling on the idea of success. Gradually I’ve come to the conclusion that success is another one of those things that many of us waste much of our lives pursuing, without being fully aware of what it really means to us. Like Lily Tomlin says, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” With that in mind, maybe it’s time to stop striving for success at anything—anything that is—except for being the best “me” each of us can be.
What really brought up the question was an interview I heard on the Internet with an entrepreneurial hedge fund manager, book author and speaker I’ll call Alex. In the interview, Alex began by sharing that he was taking three months off from his normally very busy life to spend time in Aspen writing a book. While he and his wife usually spent a month or so every summer at his second home in Alaska, or other exotic locations around the world like Paris or Tuscany, this time he and his wife were attempting something new by living for 90 days in one beautiful location as an experiment in creativity. Without saying it at all, Alex let it be known that he was clearly a jet-setting successful man with abundant resources and plentiful options at his disposal. Not only did he sound like a nice guy, I couldn’t help feeling curious about his new book, as well as a bit envious of his lifestyle.
The thing is, as the conversation continued, he started sharing other aspects of his life that didn’t sound that great. For one thing he explained that sometimes he and his wife hardly saw one another and that they eventually had to schedule a monthly “date” night in order to spend any time together at all. He continued by sharing that he normally was so busy with travel and meetings that he slept only about 4 to 5 hours a night. So, when he finally got to Aspen he slept for about 12 hours straight for the first week. Apparently he had been so busy he didn’t even realize how tired he was. By the end of the interview I started feeling sorry for him and the sacrifices he routinely made, rather than holding even the tiniest bit of envy. By a certain standard, he may certainly be very successful with his books, his business and his bank account. But I wouldn’t trade my life for his for anything.
In many ways it also goes back to the article I wrote about trade-offs and opportunity costs. Alex started out with a number of trade-offs that I would never consider for myself. As he described his life, I was able to identify many of the opportunity costs that his trade-offs had required. Eventually it boiled down to the fact that he valued things that I was unwilling to sacrifice to live life—and vise versa I’m sure. Yet I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that when he first started talking about his life it sounded pretty darn desirable.
I think a big part of the problem is that most of us constantly compare ourselves and our lives to others. I’ve also written about the dangers of comparison before, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves (meaning me of course!) to watch out for ways it can trick us up. As a survival instinct, comparison can be useful when it comes to making choices and setting priorities. Unfortunately we also use the “success” comparison to measure what we consider to be valuable in us in relation to others. That innate and unconscious competition then shows up in just about everything we do, unless we can stop and remember what’s really going on.
So it seems pretty obvious that a good solution would be to stop comparing ourselves to others and we’d all be fine. But I think our unconscious envy of success goes much deeper than that. Don’t believe me? Can you remember a time when any parent you know told their child that it didn’t matter if they finished school—as long as they were happy? And meant it? Or how would you think if your spouse suddenly came home from his/her job and told you they were quitting to become a graffiti artist? I think our ideas of success and survival are so intertwined that we are constantly worried that the only way to be safe is to constantly be striving for success. And while success is very subjective—most of us are so creative that once we hit one level of what success looks like—there is always another one that pops up just in our line of site that needs to be met to be safe.
Now I know that there are some of you out there that are pretty fearless and can’t imagine equating success with survival. I think the younger you are the better the chance that you can put comparison and unconscious striving for success away and work on being true to yourself. But I think as we age it’s natural to start identifying yourself with your education, your age, your family, your job, your skills, and what you do or do not own. The longer you stay identified by any of those labels you’ve attached to yourself, the easier it is to be lured by the culture’s concept of success and how you compare against it. In the long run I think that in most cases our ideas of being a success is just a comparison ranking that we invent in our heads that tells us whether we feel worthy, safe or okay according to the world’s conditions.
I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to live my life based upon the world’s standards. That’s why I decided what I really needed to hear was “I don’t need to be a success!” And what I’m equally convinced of is that you don’t need to be a success either—and neither do your kids, your parents, your friends or anyone else. What we need instead is the permission to be the very best “me” that we each can be. Of course in order to do that well it that takes courage, awareness, and trust in ourselves and the Universe as we know it. Then when we start to value the unique and special aspects of each of us exactly as we are, rather than how we compare to one another, we’ll begin to know we are free of the need to be successful.
But let me be clear—I’m not anti-success. I just want to make sure that my definition of success is what I really find valuable and important to me—and me alone. I want to stop judging myself and my contribution to the world based upon what others think—and instead work to create the kind of life I believe fits my purpose. And I believe that the more I give myself permission to live the life I feel called to live—the better I’ll be able to let others do exactly the same.
That’s why it’s so important to be clear about the way we define the word in the first place. If we accept how our culture defines success it is usually in a very black and white way—you either are a success, or you’re a failure. Let’s never forget there are lots of interpretations in the middle. We can choose to define success any way we want as long as we stay conscious and aware and make it about us and no one else. I discovered my favorite definition of success back in high school written by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
So right here and right now I’m giving myself and anyone else reading this article, permission to not be a success. Instead I suggest that we all start recognizing that everything we need to be the best possible “us” that we can be is already within us. Let’s turn the focus away from what’s going on outside and around us, stop comparing anything we are and anything we do with others, and remember that our personal definition of success is really the only SMART one that matters.