“Success” is a tricky word.
Everyone intuitively knows what it means. But how often do you stop and think about whether or not the type of success you’re pursuing is what you really want?
External forces — family pressures, financial needs, social media influences, advertising, mainstream culture — are all too happy to define success for us. They push us along well-worn, dogmatic paths that conform to certain versions of success: getting perfect grades, obtaining a prestigious job, driving an expensive car, looking as physically attractive as possible, acing tests, making lots of money, becoming famous, moving into a big house.
We’re implicitly taught to chase these external signifiers that communicate to the world: I’ve made it, I’m a success!
And the media loves a conventional “success” story.
It’s easy to get swept up in the competition of it all, to find yourself running the default race in pursuit of a prize that, ultimately, may or may not make you happy.
And it’s perfectly fine if this version of success does make you happy. But it’s also fine if you realize someday that it doesn’t, that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. You can always recalibrate accordingly.
Because this is your life.
It’s your responsibility to figure out how to live it. To figure out what you really want. To move toward a more authentic, personal version of what success means for you.
How can you eventually structure your days to optimize happiness and become a self-actualized human being?
What if you love nothing more than smoking pot, listening to classic rock, and meeting up with friends for league bowling?
Or maybe you feel it’s your calling to be a professional gamer. Or it could be that your perfect life entails moving to a tiny house on the side of a mountain where you can peacefully make rustic furniture all day.
You have so many more options than you may realize. So how can you create a life that you’re excited by?
It’s not as easy as it sounds. You have to balance your drive for short-term, impulsive pleasures with the more meaningful pursuits that will give you long-term happiness.
And guessing what will make us happy is an imprecise art; it’s notoriously difficult. Over time, we learn certain hard lessons: The things we once thought we desperately wanted can actually leave us feeling hollow and empty once obtained.
Conversely, things we didn’t think we’d care about can end up becoming extremely important to our sense of well-being.
When Success Isn’t
As a college student, I thought I wanted a stable, corporate job that provided well-established opportunities for progressive career advancement. Then, after working hard and eventually achieving this, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted at all.
Too much structure and routine affects me negatively day after day. Corporate settings depress the hell out of me. Spreadsheets are, in fact, mind-numbingly boring. I’m unmotivated by projects without any creative components. Money matters to me, but only up to a point: I don’t care if I never become extravagantly wealthy. I see what it takes to achieve massive wealth and it involves a lot of sacrifices that I’m not particularly interesting in making.
On the flip side, I’ve always loved English and literature and reading. I love comedy and movies. I love to write and to play music. But I never considered any of these artistic endeavors to be viable career options. And ultimately, this conclusion was based out of fear — I didn’t want to struggle. I wanted a clear path. So I convinced myself to pursue something more pragmatic, like a safe career with financial stability and very little risk.
In hindsight, this was a mistake. I’ve learned that I would rather do something I enjoy, even if it’s fraught with uncertainty. Even if the money is harder to come by and the whole pursuit requires a leap of faith. Even if I have to risk failure.
And I’ve learned that accurately defining success for yourself can be messy. It involves more trial and error than society’s pre-programmed algorithms would have you believe.
Defining success is not a one-time, immutable decision.
It’s an iterative concept; it evolves as we evolve. Success looks very different to me now in my 30’s than it did when I was in my 20’s. I know more about the world, more about myself. I have more life experience and wisdom under my belt. And success will probably look different again in my 40’s, and beyond.
This ongoing process of learning about ourselves — who we are and what we really want — helps us narrow down the process of determining which goals we should pursue (or abandon) as we move through life.
Since we never know which experiences will make the biggest impact, it helps to:
- Constantly try new things
- Maintain an open mind
- Be introspective
- Be willing to fail
- Be willing to laugh at yourself
- Go on adventures
- Face fears
- Work a variety of jobs
- Make mistakes
- Take chances
- Have conversations with people who are completely different from you
- Read about other people’s lives and journeys
- Cultivate new hobbies
- Revisit old passions
- Learn something new every day
- Be brutally honest with yourself
- Make big changes when necessary
- Focus on consistent self-improvement
- Challenge yourself
- Never stop growing as a person
Define your success.
Luckily, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at identifying what makes me happy day-to-day. It’s often the simple things: walking my dogs, going out to eat with my wife, meeting up with friends and family, reading, working out, setting aside ample time to think and reflect, drinking good coffee, getting enough sleep.
And I have a much better idea of what I should be striving for that will give me more genuine long-term satisfaction. Things like: immersing myself in creative projects, teaching and helping others whenever possible, working alongside people who inspire me, and constantly adding to my skill set so I can tackle more and more ambitious projects in the future.
I’ve also recognized the benefit of continually revising and redefining what “success” means to me. Sometimes it only involves a little tweaking, while other times it calls for a major life overhaul.
My latest version of success has very little to do with chasing external signifiers: the bigger career promotions, fancier titles, the quest for prestige — achievements designed primarily to impress others.
This newer version of success doesn’t make for flashy or impressive Instagram posts, but it’s way more personally fulfilling. I’m focused on authenticity, on contentment, on what I actually want and care about.
And I’ve finally realized that, since it’s my life, I’m the only one I should be trying to impress anyway.