We all want to succeed. There are truck-loads of literature out there aimed at helping us achieve success. From having specific and measurable goals, writing them out and sharing them with people who can help, to breaking larger goals down into smaller ones, strategic planning, to the power of optimistic visualisation there are countless methods and practices which can be immensely effective and beneficial. The most vital step we must take, however, is first defining what exactly success means to us. Before we can achieve it, we need to know what it is.
There is no shortage of societal pressures and depictions around what success is supposed to look like. All forms of media are filled to overflowing with images of how successful people are supposed to look, behave, dress. What kind of home they are supposed to live in, what kind of vehicle they drive, what kind of leisure activities they engage in and where and with whom. They are compelling images but they also tend to be focused primarily on the material trappings of success.
Financial success is certainly one form of success, the perks accompanying it part of the reward, and it can serve as an easily identifiable metric for gauging success, a measurement of our effectiveness at our jobs. The trouble is we have developed a societal impulse towards viewing independent wealth as the be-all and end-all in terms of perceived success, an image enthusiastically endorsed by the consumerism driven marketing machine.
The truth is there are countless different types of potential success, and just as many ways to measure and gauge them. Setting a target and achieving it is the base definition of success as a concept. Determining which targets are the right ones for us is both crucial and potentially quite difficult.
We are certainly capable of achieving goals which aren’t actually our own, which is a ‘technical’ success, but for our successes to bring us the fulfilment and satisfaction we are seeking they must have genuine relevance and meaning for us. And for that to occur we have challenge and question our definitions of success before we devote our efforts and energies towards them.
Is The Goal Actually My Own?
There is nothing inherently evil about a culturally common goal. All societies have them because they are in fact shared by large portions of the population due to commonalities in demographics, environment, and economic situation. The trouble forms when those cultural goals become assumptive and imbued with a tone of ‘should’.
We are at our core a pack species, we need to belong and fit in with the tribe around us. It is a legitimate need but there will be times when our personal needs will not always match exactly with those of the tribe.
The more extreme the disparity the greater the challenges we may face but disparity is not an automatic invalidation, nor is matching an automatic verdict of sheep-like conformity.
We will have countless different goals in all the varying aspects of our lives. The key is to make sure our targets are ones we are choosing on our own behalf and not simply ‘shoulds’ inherited from societal pressures. And the only true way to do so is by constantly asking ourselves if the goals we are placing in front of us are in fact our own or someone else’s.
We are particularly vulnerable to ‘should’ infestation when we are in periods of uncertainty or doubt. Decisive certainty and clarity of vision are lovely advantages but they are also rather rare. The vast majority of us are figuring things out as we go along and even the most driven and focused of us will have times when we feel lost.
One of the most clarion symptoms of a ‘should’ goal is the presence of its sister term ‘supposed to’. By a certain age I am supposed to…if I have worked at the company for a certain amount of time I am supposed to…before I get married I am supposed to…once I have achieved a certain success I am supposed to…
Sometimes it can be a reference to how well we are matching up to our personal targets and plans but more often than not ‘supposed to’ is the echo of someone else having rubber-stamped a nice big ‘should’ onto our perceptions of the world and our place in it.
Why Do I Want It?
This question can not only be immensely helpful for sussing out whether a goal is in fact our own or one which has been pressed onto us but is also crucial to figuring out if the goal is a genuinely right fit for us, regardless of the source. Goals are good things. They give us focus for our efforts and aim those efforts at achieving results. Results are also good things but all too often they get portrayed as the end of the journey. They are the products of our efforts but it is what we want to do with those results which truly matters.
Ceaselessly asking ourselves ‘why do I want it?’ helps to push past the reflexive surface level ‘should’ and dig down to connect with what it is we are truly wanting. Having a healthy amount of money in the bank is lovely and all but…why do I want it? So I can buy a house. Houses can be awesome but…why do I want it? So I can move out on my own. Independence can be very important to our sense of self and self-confidence but…why do I want it? So that I can start to follow my own dreams and start a family.
We can keep playing the ‘why do I want it?’ game pretty much indefinitely but already we have moved from simply wanting to make money to much more personal motivations. If at any point we run into ‘should’ or ‘supposed to’ language, then we need to dig even further to make sure we are aiming our time and effort at things we have genuine stakes in. Continuing education, career advancement, marriage, building a family are all very strong and common goals many of us share but they can also be heavily influenced by ‘should’ and ‘supposed to’ modes of thinking.
Rooting out externally imposed goals and images of success isn’t just an exercise in seeking autonomy it is also a pragmatic consideration. The larger our goals, for example starting a family, the more difficult they will be to achieve and the more they will cost us.
If the goal is not rooted in genuine personal meaning we won’t have the fuel and strength needed for when the lifting gets heavy.
Are The ‘Means’ And ‘Ends’ Congruent?
Success is not simply a matter of achieving a result. To attain a state of genuine accomplishment the process we use is just as, if not more, important than the result achieve. The result is the culmination of our efforts so the shape and character of those efforts is immensely important. Regardless of their moral or legal ‘correctness’ if our methods are not in keeping with our core values then we will never be able to honestly claim the success as our own and the resulting internal discord can have disastrous effects.
To use the ‘money in the bank’ example, obtaining the money may be the result but the degree of success attached changes significantly if we stole the money rather than earned it. A rather nauseating ideology has crept into our cultural views on cheating and swindling, depicting it as somehow heroic or even patriotic to get away with anything you can manage to get away with, and we don’t have to look hard to find examples of prominent figures quite enthusiastic in their ‘not caring’ about the means they use to achieve their desired ends.
Those who truly do not care whether their methods are harmful have much more deeply rooted problems than figuring out how to personally define success.
For the vast majority of us we do care about the impact our actions have on the world around us. If not we wouldn’t feel so guilty and expend so much energy trying to convince ourselves, and others, otherwise when we know we have strayed.
Even setting aside morality and ethics, using deceitful and underhanded methods may seem like a short cut to a desired result but in truth they are methods which end up requiring exponentially more effort and engendering exponentially more anxiety. Results achieved through theft and deceit require much more effort to retain and conceal and create much more anxiety and fear of being discovered. And again, those who truly do not care about any harm their actions cause have deeper rooted issues than consistency and congruence in their goal setting.
Am I Allowing Room For Change?
Success is not a fixed state. Once a result has been achieved the achievement becomes an established fact but that does not prevent the results from being undone or overshadowed by some other achievement, our own or someone else’s. We tend to treat and view success as some form of permanent status which once unlocked can never be revoked and is guaranteed everlasting relevance and reward.
The truth is there is nothing stopping some other achievement from eclipsing or undoing the importance of a singular result.
Being overshadowed or overtaken is not the only way the importance or relevance of particular results can be diminished. Sometimes it is merely a case of our values and priorities shifting which then alters the stakes and parameters for success. Not only are our lives ever changing and evolving but we are ourselves as well.
It’s imperative that we allow our definitions and requirements for success to change and grow because, since we will always change and grow, if success is to be fulfilling it will need to adapt to match the changes in us. Something which was of paramount importance yesterday could drop to the bottom of the list today because of a sudden shift in our circumstances and something at the bottom, or not even previously on the list can get catapulted to the top.
This doesn’t cancel of negate the importance of the work we were doing to achieve the previous goal but if we aren’t able to adapt and evolve with the changes which occur in our lives we can end up slaving away for goals which no longer fit us and thus will cost us more for less genuine reward.
Am I Allowing Room For Failure?
It’s not appealing, and life would certainly be more enjoyable if it weren’t the case, but failure is an integral part of achieving fulfilling success. True and sustaining success requires us to overcome obstacles and make sacrifices in order to achieve it. A success which requires minimal effort and costs nothing will bring little meaningful reward, a rigged game generates only fleeting and superficial satisfaction.
Those who have achieved lasting success on any front have failed countless times in their attempts to attain it. Success gets portrayed as the absence or banishment of failure. In fact it is the culmination of a great deal of it.
Whatever targets and goals we set for ourselves it is vital we allow for, and embrace, the presence and necessary role of failure. If we are not failing than we are not trying, and any success which does not require us to try is not real success but instead a result which was already present just unclaimed.
An important cautionary final note, one of the most dangerous expectations attached to images of success is that it guarantees happiness. Success can bring us a sense of satisfaction which can inspire happiness but it is also all too possible to be prominently successful on a variety of significant fronts and not be happy.
Sometimes it can be the result of fatigue from the effort and costs required, sometimes it can be a sign the goal was not entirely ours in the ways it needed to be. Not feeling instantly and thoroughly happy in the face of success doesn’t mean we are ungrateful or flawed but it does point to something being out of balance. Perhaps we pushed ourselves too hard to attain the goal or perhaps we didn’t vet the goal intensely enough to ensure it was rooted in significant enough personal meaning to offset the costs.
The quest for success and the quest for happiness are not synonymous. They share the need for clarity of personal definition but one neither requires nor guarantees the other.
There will be times in our lives when those definitions are clear and easy to identify and there will be times when they are slippery and opaque. The key is to keep asking, challenging, and exploring. We only get the one life. We might as well do our best to make our efforts during it as fitted and relevant to us they can be.