WHAT IS SUCCESS?
Everyone wants to be successful. But few people take the time and energy to define the success they want. As a result, they spend most, if not all, of their lives chasing what society superimposes on them as success. Examples include a bigger house; a faster car; a more prestigious position; greater relevance on the internet. Yet, even if someone finally attains these so-called successes, they are often left wanting.
In ancient eastern psychology there is a concept known as the hungry ghost. The hungry ghost has an endless stomach. He keeps on eating, stuffing himself sick, but he never feels full. It’s a severe disorder.
The survival of a consumerist economy, like the one most of us live in, depends on the creation of hungry ghosts. But you, me—all of us—can choose to opt out of this game. We don’t have to become hungry ghosts. We simply need to step back and reflect upon what it is that we actually want. We have to define success for ourselves. Simple, sure. But not necessarily easy.
“Most people never stop to question the premise of their true wants and all of the activity aimed toward them,” writes the psychologist, sociologist, and philosopher Erich Fromm, in his 1941 book, Escape from Freedom. “In school, children want to have good marks, as adults people want to be more and more successful, to make money, to have more prestige, to buy a better car, to go places, and so on. Yet when they stop to think in the midst of all this frantic activity, this question may come to their minds: If get this new job, this better car, if I can take this trip—what then? Am I not running after some goal which is supposed to make me happy and which eludes me as soon as I have reached it?”
These prompts, when they arise, are frightening. “For they question the very basis on which man’s whole activity is built,” Fromm writes. “People tend, therefore, to get rid as soon as possible of these thoughts.” In this day and age, we do this by heedlessly throwing themselves back into frantic activity or by numbing themselves with mass-produced booze, mass-produced drugs, mass-produced food, mass-produced porn, or mass-produced television. And so the cycle of not-so-satisfying success repeats. Consumer confidence is high. But individual fulfillment and genuine happiness is low.
We owe it to ourselves to interrupt this cycle. To ask the question: What do I really want? Sure, this can be scary. But even scarier is lying on your death bed and realizing that you lived as a hungry ghost, that you spent most of your life striving for empty goals dictated to you by external forces.
It’s high time to redefine success.
Success is not something that you reach—not something that is outside of yourself, just down the field. Success is creating a life you want to live in right now. The great tragedy, Fromm writes, is that “man misses the only satisfaction that can give him real happiness—the experience of the activity in the present moment—and chases after a phantom that leaves him disappointed as soon as he believes he has caught it—the illusory happiness called success.”
Modern researchers call this the arrival fallacy, or the notion that if you just accomplish whatever goal you may have, then you’ll be content and feel happy and successful. The fallacy, of course, is that the goalpost is always 10-yards beyond wherever you find yourself in the present moment. By desperately trying to arrive somewhere you ensure that you’ll never arrive.
According to decades of psychological research, a successful life is one in which you live in the here and now, with your basic needs for food, shelter, health care, and income met; and in which you have a strong sense of autonomy, mastery, and belonging—qualities that are far more important than anything you can buy or achieve.
- Autonomy: Control over enough of your life, from your big goals to how you spend your days.
- Mastery: The ability to make progress in your chosen endeavors, ideally in a way where the outcome of your efforts can be directly traced back to the work you put in.
- Belonging: A sense of connection and community, be it to other people, to a cause, or to a tradition.
Success is also about creating a life that is not about enduring means you can’t stand in order to reach ends you are supposed to want; but rather, about selecting pursuits based on how much you’ll enjoy the process of doing them.
After all, it is the process that makes up ninety-nine percent of your life. End results, good or bad, are ephemeral. But the process? That’s how you spend your days, months, and years. That’s what really matters.
This new definition of success might mean not taking the promotion that offers a better title and salary; not buying an expensive car because your neighbors have one; not going on the fancy (but probably stressful) vacation because it’s what you’re supposed to do.
Success is about stepping back and asking yourself What do I really want? And then doing what you can to align your actions—the unfolding process of your life—with how you answer. It is about living in alignment with your deeply-held internal core values, not superficial desires perpetuated by a superficial culture. It is in this way that you own success, and not just figuratively, but literally, too. It is how you make success yours.
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