Somebody once told me the definition of hell: “On your last day on earth, the person you became will meet the person you could have become.” — Anonymous, CNBC
I like to think my family and friends consider I’m a success but we’ve had many conversations over the years that has made me realise it is a concept we don’t always agree on. Success is perceived differently in the eye of the beholder and can be quite a divisive term. Let me try to explain.
The domain of success is much broader than we initially attribute. It encompasses the small step to the large exclusive accomplishment; a mundane completion to the critical evolution the world hails. You may not even realise you have had success for a long time after; you may not consider something a achievement that others do. Some times we set out to realise it; sometimes it is a by product or a happy accident. It can make us proud, shameful. It can be all consuming, unobtainable, unrelenting….
You only need to scour the internet to see we are all on the look out for how to be successful by way of quick fixes or through fundamental life changes. To my mind talent, skill, tenacity, hard work contribute to our success but we shouldn’t underestimate the potency of luck. Right place, right time, right people. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers makes the point — success can arise from accruing advantages we are given or create; mediocrity is not always the barrier to achievement. Unsurprisingly it is rare for someone to admit as much, though not so much for someone looking in…
But a basic sense check also makes me aware many of us think about our success via the lens of work and career through comparisons with peers, titles, the tangible benefits of wealth and recognition or the glamour success supposedly bestows. Our triumphs are informed by externalisation. 10 years ago, when I took a deliberate decision to step out of the career I loved and before I knew the what next, I found the uncertainty difficult and perturbing. As I legislate in my head I suspect it was because suddenly I didn’t know how to define myself, what to achieve and even if I should be aiming to achieve. I believed work imbued much of my life’s success. Without that my ego was lost. It took me a while to dis-entangle my-selves; to remove me from my hubris and arrive at personal revelations about what it means to be successful or strive for it.
I now appreciate I have many facets and my work is one element of me. My success in any one of these facets does not have to be narrowly defined as greater, better or moving forward. It could also be distinguished as me being who I want to be in the way I choose. On this definition any extrinsic validation is subservient to creating multiple successful me’s where I have autonomy. Not having one dimension of my life completely characterise who I am should make me no less successful as a whole.
I came across self determination theory which is a conjecture of human personality and motivation. It focuses on the interplay between extraneous forces acting on us (e.g the drive for money, being popular, achieving power) and intrinsic motivations (such as taking on responsibility, aligning activity with your values). It suggests an optimum balance drives sovereignty or self motivation for what we turn our minds to — whether it is in the workplace, socially, sporting prowess, the everyday. For each of us this equilibrium will vary and depend on the activity. I took away from it, all else being equal, it is in ourselves to understand balance and being conscious of this interaction is how we determine the breadth of our mantle of success.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I have achieved this nirvana state where I can rely on my inner zen to feel success. Far from it. I am quietly arrogant with a cloying need to prove myself better and better than others and I definitely love the external affirmations. But hey — I now recognise my previous definition of success was very narrow and my therapist has less of an egotist to mould….
But it makes me wonder how far we would go for external validation for our success? Because no matter how virtuous we’d like to be the truth is, it is hard to step off the hamster wheel and not wish for outside authentication. Some people never feel they have enough success. You hit a goal and then you need the next high otherwise failure beckons. Psychologists have termed this the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Studies show successful people can be inexplicably jealous of others they deem more successful. Compounding the effect, praise and recognition stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine which is highly addictive. If you thought you would never get caught — would you lie and cheat your way to being on top? In the 1980s, Robert Goldman an American doctor found more than half of a set of determined athletes would be willing to take a drug that would kill them in five years in exchange for winning every competition they entered today. Later research suggested in exchange for an Olympic gold medal, up to 14 percent of elite performers would accept a fatal cardiovascular condition. History offers plenty examples of sabotage, theft, murder even, to ensure top dog status whatever time period or sector you observe.
Someone once asked me what I was looking for in life, what I was aiming for. I honestly was stumped. Outside of the tropes of being happy, healthy family etc etc. I couldn’t offer a pithy answer. But now I’d say I want to be successful and leave it at that. Because despite the various positive, negative connotations and nuances it embraces, hopefully I’ve shown you success is personal and importantly, can be whatever you want it to be.