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 every night 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.
Cathy Lawdanski says
If we are going to focus on success, focusing on what that means for US is a most healthy way of thinking. We have been so shaped by society’s definition of the perfect body, having a stellar career & perfect children. Thanks so much for the insightful post and giving us all “permission” to look within and decide our own definition of success!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Cathy! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on this. I too agree (as you probably guessed!) that coming up with our own definition is critical. I think taking the time for each of us to do that is so very important–and then of course, is the challenge to remember to live it 365. Good luck to us both! ~Kathy
Great article and perception on Success. To many people success could be many things. Its great to hear someones viewpoint on whether this is really important or not.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi David! Thank you for stopping by SMART Living and sharing your thoughts. I think it is so important for us all to keep reminding each other of what makes for a happy life…not just a successful one. ~Kathy
Really good post. Could you please tell me where I can find the interview of the hedge fund manager?
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Chris….glad you liked the post. Because I realize that my interpretation of a man’s life based upon a 60 minute interview is very subjective, I do not want to to name anyone specifically. I meant his story to only be an example of how we can easily misinterpret the success of others to be without cost or clarity of the sacrifices such a lifestyle requires. I will say however, that I listened to the interview on Jonathan Field’s “Good Life Project.” Hope that helps. ~Kathy
Very interesting ideas. Perhaps we could say that success, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder?
Like you, I wouldn’t trade my life for his. I’ve met people like that who work so many hours each week that they don’t do much of anything else. They own a big home and have a lot of fancy things, but they never have time to actually enjoy them. Why would I do that?
I think it’s easy to see someone like him and think that he’s got it made. But underneath the surface you can see how it’s not all that great. We should keep that in mind whenever we compare ourselves to other people.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Steve…you are so right! Equating success with beauty is very similar. And that’s why it is so important for each of us to take the time to define it for ourselves rather than to automatically accept the current version our culture is promoting. Anyone that wants that kind of success is welcome to it–but I want to be very clear about how I spend my time and efforts. Thanks for your comments. ~Kathy
Thank you for sharing, Kathy. Your words are true and full of wisdom. Great insight in weighing the pros and cons in success and going for being happy.
I loved the definition of success by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I don’t think I ever heard it before but his words ring true.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Pat! Oh I am so happy to have shared that quote from Emerson with you. I think I first read it when it was published by Ann Landers in one of her newspaper columns. I cut it out and saved that scrap of paper–and still have it! I’m also glad you found the post helpful…as usual, I write what I most need to hear and hope others will get something out of it too! ~Kathy
Kathy, I don’t understand the thinking behind the second home and working so many hours that you have to make a date to be with your lived ones. Besides needing enough for the basic necessities a little more for experiences is all I need. Emerson’s definition is exactly what I want from my life. We can’t take the money or the things with us, but we can leave a lasting impression and fond memories with those we love.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Lois, Unfortunately I believe it is too easy to get caught up in that rat race (at least from my perspective) AND because we aren’t usually taught by our parents (or our culture) that we can’t have it all….in fact we are usually taught that if we just work harder, make more money, and are more successful we CAN have it all—but that ignores that fact that everything comes at a cost and that choices have to be made. Plus, some people SEEM to have much more than others and that is also part of the problem….most of the time it is impossible to know what others are going through and the choices, and decisions they’ve had to make to live how they live. As usual, my perspective is that only through awareness and growing our consciousness about what is truly important can ever get us off the loop of that rat race…but of course, I’m still a work in progress!~Kathy
Kathy, that is true. I never had the desire for the big home or the status symbols of the labels or particular make of car. I did get caught up for a while in wanting to purchase only the best when it came to things in my home, maybe to counter the fact that I was ignoring all the other material things. But when it came down to it family came first and I put away the need to have these things.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hey Lois…isn’t it interesting that if we take the time to see–that we all have different areas that trip us up? While I’ve been guilty of wanting a bigger house or nicer stuff than you, I was never tempted b the things that put “my family” first. I guess it doesn’t really matter what it is that we think we need “more” of to make things right, the awareness of that is what gives us the freedom to choose in the future. Thanks for following up with that..~Kathy
“Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”
I like that. We’re just learning that there is more to life than achieving success by society’s standards. Great post!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Bethany…I’m still working on this one myself (obviously because the blog post makes it pretty clear!) but I do think I’m making progress too. And who knows? It’s likely one of those things we have to keep reminding each other about because of how prevalent it is in our culture. But as it becomes more and more clear to us it should get easier….but if I forget again I’m counting on you and other friends to help remind me! ~Kathy