To be successful, as defined by society, causes us to focus on wealth and power, not on one’s ability and goals. When I can say that I’ve done my best, and am comfortable with that, then I’m successful and at peace.
“If I try to fail and succeed, which have I done?” - anonymous
I use the above quote with my college students when I'm lecturing on the topic of being successful, challenging them to look at life from a different perspective. In challenging our perspectives, and even our definitions, I am not merely playing semantics as I firmly believe that words actually do hold meaning. If you aren’t sure about the validity of that statement, think of the last time someone’s words either caused you joy or caused you pain. Words do have the power to affect our emotions, therefore, by challenging ourselves to look at our own definitions from a new perspective can change how we feel.
How I define being successful, or how successful is defined for me, influences how I feel about myself. Many of us have culturally learned that success is defined by tangible goods and/or wealth. We hear expressions such as “If I have more things than someone else, I am successful”; or, “if I have a title or initials after my name, I am successful.” These cultural statements aside, I hope that people who have worked hard to accomplish what they feel is a level of success takes pride in themselves. Yet, the question remains, does someone else’s level of success negate, or take away from, my perceived level of success? In other words, is one’s success defined by another’s accomplishments?
For example, a person who works hard and deservedly obtains the position of CEO is perceived as reaching success in life. While another person who works hard, and is known to be the best plumber in town, although an employee of the company, not owner or partner, would we agree that that person also has attained success? What about the trash collector who strives to be the best trash collector there is; have they achieved success? If we agree that the people in these examples have attained success, would we also recognize that each of them is as successful?
So why is it that many of us, although accomplished in what we do, continue to feel less successful than the person holding a higher position or making more money? I believe that one answer is due to our drive to challenge ourselves to strive for excellence. These motives and qualities are positive, yet at the same time, they also perpetuate a self-told narrative that others are better than I. Does this mean we shouldn’t strive for betterment? Of course, we should strive to better ourselves, but not at the expense of sacrificing our core beliefs or inner peace.
A quote attributed to the Catholic priest Fr. Joseph Martin (co-founder of Father Martin’s Ashley, now named Ashley Addiction Treatment) states, “the good is the enemy of the best.“ Striving to grow, mature, and gain wisdom leads us to feelings of accomplishment and possibly even success. But that depends on our definition of success; ah I have just taken us back to the beginning of this article, yet not any closer to an answer than when you started reading.
Is there a definitive definition of success? Can we objectively apply one description to everyone, or are we left with a personal understanding of the concept of success? Personally, I believe it’s the latter. If the definition is subjective, then how I define success for my life is based partly on my perspective about my life and the idea of success.
Therefore, I suggest that each of us change our perspective on success from one based on societal objectivity with its comparison to others, to a view wherein we strive to obtain success as defined by our values, thereby leading us toward inner peace, happiness, and self-worth.
Making this perspective shift requires us to look within ourselves to examine our motives for wanting to better ourselves and attain success. As mentioned above, the desire toward betterment is a positive goal, yet it depends on my motivation. We need to ask ourselves, “Why do I desire to be better?” Why do I strive for success, and how will I know success when I achieve it?” If my motivation toward betterment and success is based solely on the belief of “beating everyone else,” then I may be willing to compromise my core being and values to achieve that height of success, or else I may view myself as a failure. In this scenario, one’s success comes at a price. The idea of seeking betterment is not the issue; the motivation guiding you is what, in the end, causes one to gain everything, yet continue to feel empty and restless.
How can I change my motivation and perspective about success so that I may attain the best I can be and feel inner peace?
- Meditate: Take time each day, even just 10 or 20 minutes to meditate. Either find a quiet location or take a walk; whichever helps you best to focus. Now, focus on your breathing, not trying to control your breaths, just noticing them. Be aware of the air entering and the air leaving. Be mindful of what you are feeling. Don’t judge the feeling, just notice it. Practice this daily, and over time, you’ll notice that not only is the act of meditating becoming more natural, but you are feeling more at peace.
- Examine: Take time to reflect on what success means to you. Don’t judge your definition, simply define it. How does the definition make you feel? Does your definition match your beliefs and values? If not, ask yourself what you will need to change to create a match? Keep in mind that sacrificing who you are for temporal gain will not, in the long term, bring you inner peace.
- Confer: Take time to meet with family or close friends whom you trust to discuss your thoughts and feelings from numbers 1 and 2 above. Listen, without judgment, to their opinion. The next time you meditate, reflect on the feedback and your feelings concerning what you heard.
- Act: A saying I often repeat is “there are no problems, only solutions.” I don’t know who first said it, but its meaning motivates me to reframe my thinking and change my perspective from “problem-oriented” to “solution-oriented.” Creating a deep belief that solutions are possible, we will reach for success while maintaining a sense of inner peace.
To be successful, according to society’s standards means doing whatever it takes to get to the top! But if your beliefs and values are not focused on hurting other people for your own gain, you will either never find success, or you’ll find success at the price of hurting yourself. To avoid society’s view of success, change your perspective, and redefine success based on what’s important to you and your beliefs and values. Striving to be better is a great challenge, but feeling successful with who you are today will bring you peace.
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