Our society promotes a broken idea of success.
Social media, magazines, Twitter, movies, the music industry, Hollywood all make us feel as if success is this sort of uphill pursuit of a happy ending (read: the American dream). Success is a point in time where we 'made it'. We are now 'successful' and we are worth of unconditional happiness.
Yet this concept of success as a destination never made sense for me. Are we unsuccessful our entire lives until we reach 'success'? How can success be a destination when we are built to seek growth, in a world where we are slaves of hedonic adaptation, when we are conditioned as species to keep finding and solving meaningful problems.
“The sort of life which I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created. I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. This was security at last. I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed.” — Tennessee Williams
Each person should have their own definition of success. I wanted to explore what could be my definition. And so I started with inversion.
What is not success.
The happiest cannot be the most successful since—because they are content—they are starved of the joy that growth can offer them. The happiest are also not able to satisfy their highest needs according to Maslow: self-actualisation (desire to become the most one can be).
The most comfortable are not necessarily the most successful. Comforts such as a nice house, a nice car, nice clothes, a private chef only satisfies the bottom layers of Maslow's pyramid. You can be as comfy as you want but comfort means nothing if you have nobody to share it (the 3rd level) nor does it offer any sense of purpose whatsoever -something essential for humans-.
Being the best at anything does not necessarily mean ultimate success either. Ranking life success according to a singular scale like career success or athletic success, is the same as saying that the best cars are Volvos because they are the safest. How about reliability, cost of maintenance, performance, interiors, steering? Being the top of your field means you're successful in your field, but not necessarily successful in life.
Being the richest doesn't imply any other sort of success other than financial success either. Money on its own means nothing doesn't it? Money is a means to an end. Only the appropriate use of money matters like using it to give a good life to your family, enabling you to create your dream business or for somebody to do your laundry. You can also see financial success from another lens: having money but having made the money unethically or inheriting it. Is that success? Maybe, but not for me.
My definition of success
Success, for me, is a mode of operation. It is a mode at which you hit your resonant frequency. At that frequency you are your most radiant self and thus you are able to give to the world at your maximum capacity.
Success is ephemeral. If success is a mode of operation then it is also fluctuating. You sometimes hit the resonant frequency, sometimes you are close and you sometimes are far from it. You have to work to sustain success. So success is not a destination, like we are thought to believe, but a present state only.
This mode of operation has four components:
A successful person has the freedom to choose which pursuits are worth suffering for.
Success is waking up in the morning and going to bed at night and in between be in full control of where you choose to allocate your time to.
Suffering is unavoidable in life. Humans are built to be perpetually dissatisfied — it's what keeps us 'progressing' as society and as individuals. This means that one of the most important decisions one can make is: what is worth suffering for? In more practical terms, What pursuits are worth taking a punch or two for? As Mark Manson describes it, we are built to seek problems non-stop and go through struggle to solve them. This is cycle of problem-solution, tension and resolution is the closest thing I know to the rhythm of a meaningful life.
Do I want to start a family - and be deprived of most of my personal time? Do I want to go through the logistical nightmare of renovating my living room? Do I want to commute 2h a day to pursue a career in London? Do I want to learn how to play the saxophone and go through a long period of sucking at it? Do I want to set up a little bakery and have the risk of losing it all? Do I want to save 100$ a month by cleaning the house myself?
There are two components to this freedom:
- External: Money, time, responsibilities, abilities, possessions. People that have enough money can use them to buy time, and that is freedom. People who have skills can use them to do things on their own without relying on others that is another form of freedom. People that have less obligations and responsibilities, like having children or paying a loan, are also freer.
You might not have the most money or time to pursue that educational startup or to take your family on that much wanted roadtrip but the first step to freedom is to appreciate that there is always a path forward. While you are not in full control of the entire path, you are in full control of the next turn you pick. Free individuals appreciate that no matter how limited they might seem to be externally, they are in control to choose the next step towards gaining more freedom and hence being more 'successful'.
I love nice things! Don't get me wrong, but the primary success indicator for me, however, is not maximizing revenue. My success metric is maximizing free time. The ability to do whatever the fuck I want. – Joel Hooks
- Internal: Pick the pursuits you want, not the ones they expect you to want. We often think we want something but eventually realise that it is not us who want it, but society, friends or family that wants us to want it. As per per Hunter S Thomson: 'to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual'. As per Epicurous “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor. If you shape your life according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.”. And as per Alain de Botton: 'To be free, ultimately, is to be devoted – in ways that might be strenuous – to meeting our own expectations."
- To be free is not to be a prisoner of the expectations of others. To be successful is to be free. Hence successful people pick their own path and if there is not one, they pave it themselves. "He who cannot rule himself will certainty be ruled by others" said Nietzche and formulated the idea of the Ubermensch, a human able to rethink all preconceived notions and values they have inherited and hence break free and be able to think independently.
Success after all is not being at the top of any hierarchy but standing outside all of them. Success is personal, not a competition. It can only be internally evaluated.
To summarise: To be successful is first to be free. To be free is to be able to set your own rules as to what struggles we want to spend our energy on. First be internally free and then work towards becoming more and more externally free. While our external freedom varies depending on our situation, as long as we appreciate that we are in control of ourselves, then we do have freedom.
The second piece to success is to have found meaningful struggles.
A successful person is engaged in activities that lead them to eudaimonia
The freedom to pick is not enough. Picking your struggles is an art of its own. The successful person has managed to find pursuits that give them eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is a state of blissful suffering. It is felt when one has ups and downs, moments of progress and moments of stagnation, moments of joy and pain but still, because the pursuit is meaningful to them, the person finds bliss through the suffering, and not despite it.
“To love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.” — The Prophet
A tough 100km bike ride, a hard study session, an intense argument with friends, a day sweating while tending to your garden, a humiliating ski session, a failed chocolate cake, a half disappointing but good enough UI design. All involve challenge and thus pain; but for some, these is meaningful, joyous pain.
There are some prerequisites to finding those pursuits and hence experiencing eudaimonia:
- Self-knowledge. Successful people, through self-reflection and relentless exploration have built the self-knowledge to be able to pick pursuits that are intrinsically motivating and hence lead to fulfillment.
- Flexibility. Successful people appreciate the fact that we are fluid in nature. They have a habit of listening to their inner voices and having the courage to change course when an activity has stopped bringing them eudaimonia.
[...] to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. We strive to be ourselves. But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. — Hunter S. Thompson
- Being driven by activities, not outcomes. As Alan Watts points out: “A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning.”. The point of dancing is the dance, it is not the last bow. Successful people hence find bliss in the activity itself, not only in telic outcome, reward or goal. They have realised that The reward of work well done is the opportunity to do more of it. They want to paint, not sell paintings. They want to create a business because they are passionate about solving a problem more than selling the solution.
The successful person appreciates that even if they get exactly what they are aiming towards, that will never be enough. They recognise that we are built to seek more in every turn. This has a name: hedonic adaptation. And it is why the high of an achievement dies down before it gets replaced with the discontent that a brand new goal has now created. The novely of the new car diffuses, the excitement of a new place disappears. Success is hence not found through the achievement of goals but through an appreciation of the process that will, at the time, seem ordinary.
So the successful person has found meaningful pursuits that fulfill them. The next step is of course, execution.
A successful person has the discipline to execute on their chosen pursuits.
You might pause and wonder: 'Wait a second, if we choose the right pursuits, why would we even need discipline? Wouldn't we be jumping out of bed every day, executing every activity while being full of joy and energy?'
Since our pursuits are inevitably involving suffering, we will by nature gravitate away from them at times. We are built to avoid pain even though we reach the deepest levels of satisfaction through it. This is what Steven Pressfield referred to as the Resistance in War of Art. Where he spends the entire book discussing this mysterious artefact.
You might pause and observe: 'Boy aren't we strange creatures...'. Yes. I back you up on that. We are weird creatures indeed.
Getting into the activity does involve a lot of friction. The obstacles along the way will offer plenty of disappointment and the inevitable failures might feel like a roller coaster ride.
The successful person has the grit and the discipline to push through the Resistance and actually execute on their vision. They are able to channel their precious energy, in serving those pursuits that they deemed meaningful.
So now we have the freedom to choose, the pursuit of eudaimonia, and the discipline to execute. There's one more thing.
A successful person is able to hold onto pursuits without attachment.
To be successful one has to continuously remind themselves that control is an illusion. At any given point, everything might come crumbling down. And that is ok.
One has to appreciate that no matter how meticulously we plan, how well we perform, how masterfully we negotiate, how hard we work, things might not go our way. This is the essence of ancient Stoic wisdom.
The successful person might be using goals, plans and dreams to guide the way but at the same time embraces that the goals they might aim towards, they might never achieve. They thus pursue with passion but not with obsession.
In the same way, on a daily basis, our wonderful day of peaceful writing might be interrupted, our dream date might end up being a disaster and our lift session at the gym might be subpar.
"Expectation is the root of all heartache," Oscar Wilde suggested. Indeed it is. We should hold desires close but not cling onto them. We should aim for a hit, but also be ready to miss.
It’s still useful to make plans. But do that with the awareness that a plan is only ever a present-moment statement of intent, not a lasso thrown around the future to bring it under control. The spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti said his secret was simple: “I don’t mind what happens.” That needn’t mean not trying to make life better, for yourself or others. It just means not living each day anxiously braced to see if things work out as you hoped. — Oliver Burkeman
To summarize, the successful person knows that a pursuit or a goal is not fully in their control and hence they have adopted a mindset of 'good enough but not quite'. They are in a state of healthy tension in which they are grateful and mostly content with the present yet they are mildly dissatisfied. They are hence able to balance 'happiness' in the present without dimming down hunger to chase their pursuits in the future. Or to reverse this, they are able to chase their pursuits with passion but not so blindly and ferociously that they are always unhappy in the present -until they reach them-. This is way way harder than it sounds.
So, success is a mode of operation with four components:
- Having the freedom to choose the pursuits I want to suffer for
- Being able to find pursuits meaningful enough that put me in a state of eudaimonia
- Having the discipline to execute on them
- Holding those pursuits without attachment
Are you successful today? Are you operating in a humble, peaceful, quiet state that is merged with hunger, ambition and fire for a better future? I certainly am far from it. But hey, now at least I have my definition.
May you have the freedom to pick your adventures, may you have the luck to discover ones that bring you meaning, may you have the strength to embark on the journey and may you, along the way, remember that it is all about the journey and not the destination.
👊 Huge thanks to Ellen Fishbein for helping me cleanup the mess in my head and put these thoughts down on paper.
This definition was based on the following beliefs:
- suffering is a given (coming soon)
- we should be extremely selective but not eliminate desires (coming soon)
- the degree of attachment to desires has to be at the right middle between obsession and apathy (coming soon)
- growth can only be a result of some discomfort that inherently contains suffering (here)
A successful person sets boundaries and rules for themselves
- Boundaries. Focus. One of my favourite quotes of all time is David Allen's "In life you can be anything but not everything.". One might have total freedom but unbound freedom is paralyzing. To be free is to, counterintuitively, set boundaries and rules. Your own boundaries, commitments and rules. The successful person realizes that they need to prioritise. Leading this life becomes much more peaceful, clear and effective.
The upside is that you needn’t berate yourself for failing to do it all, since doing it all is structurally impossible. The only viable solution is to make a shift: from a life spent trying not to neglect anything, to one spent proactively and consciously choosing what to neglect, in favour of what matters most. — Oliver Burkeman
- Less is more. Similar to the above, the successful person appreciates how little they actually need to have a great life. Though they can aim for a 3 bedroom lux house, they settle with a 2 bedroom apartment. If you aim at less in the first place, you don't even have to be worried about being disappointed since the probability of success is much higher.
- Good enough. Being able to be content with some pursuits frees up energy that can be placed elsewhere. The successful person might love basketball but maybe he just wants to be good enough to go have a good match with their buddies, they don't need to compete in the amateur national championship and win. Nor they need to create a basketball course and monetise their passion. The successful person knows when to take a chill pill sometimes and channel their energy to the pursuits they consciously prioritised.
- Balance. Successful people have the awareness and capability of finding balance. They know that too much of anything, even good, is a negative thing. They know that us humans do not have a singular need but fundamentally three: connection, self-expression and self-actualisation. Possibly one pursuit can satisfy them all but more often than not, one won't. The successful person hence does not only obsess over one pursuit but seeks a healthy balance.