We all want to be successful in life. We spend our lives doing things that we think will lead to success, but do we really know what “success” means? Is success only about achieving career or financial goals? If that was the case, how do we explain the existence of those people out there who are wealthy and miserable? Is success only about achieving personal happiness? What if we reach the end of our lives and realize that the parameters we defined for our success were incorrect to begin with? Are you willing to take that chance? I am not.
There are some common mistakes we make when it comes to understanding success:
The first mistake we make is not clarifying what success means to us. We think we know what success means, but when we begin to open our mouths, very few of us have any idea what it actually means.
We tend to use the yardstick of others for measuring our success rather than coming with our own. We fall prey to whatever society has us believe about success: having a big house, stable job, trophy spouse, fancy car, big bank balance, etc. Of course, there is nothing wrong with having (or wanting) any of those things, but we need to question if having those things defines success for our lives.
The next mistake we make is believing that there are only particular kinds of success, such as those related to a career, acquiring wealth, or our family’s happiness. The truth is there are many different kinds of success, such as doing selfless work for others, striving to become a person of high integrity, living to our full potential (and then some) for ourselves and others, etc.
The third mistake we make is that the goals we define are set too low relative to the high potential we carry within ourselves. In short, we fall far short of setting inspiring and concrete goals for our lives.
The fourth mistake we make is that once we have defined success for ourselves, we:
- Falsely think that our life will automatically lead us toward it, which never happens. In fact, even after we have defined it for ourselves, it is quite possible to lead a paradoxical lifestyle.
- Mistakenly think that we no longer have to monitor our lives (more below).
- Don’t question our perception of success frequently enough to see if it still holds true or if it has evolved.
Now that we have covered some of the common misconceptions about success, let’s talk about what success actually is and how to be successful.
There is a certain amount of success in being unsuccessful. For instance, when we put in the work but do not get the results, we work hard to learn sincerely and grow through this struggle of facing challenges. We work hard to achieve success and we develop ourselves in the process. In other words, the thrill of life lies in being unsuccessful.
Success is both a goal and a process. Most of us wrongly believe that success is only about achieving goals. When we work hard to achieve our goals and we don’t reach them, we get depressed. One of the greatest joys of life is being able to do work that matters and that makes us happy. When we pursue our goals with excellence, enthusiasm, and joy, the process of attaining our goals becomes a bigger success than the success of achieving the goals. In other words, success is less about arriving at some destination and more about the journey we embark on.
Success is inseparable from true living. Would we call ourselves successful while living to society’s expectations and ignoring those of our own and our family? Would we call ourselves successful if we go to the temple/church religiously every week but fail to do good karma toward others? What if we earn lots of money but neglect to take care of our health?
As my friend and guide, Sanjiv Shah, likes to say (and I concur):
There is no success in this world which can be separated from right kind of living.
Now that we’ve discussed the misconceptions of success and the real definition of success, how do you obtain it?
Here are some things that successful people do regularly. In other words, this is a mindset:
- They have learned to accept or change things. They focus on things that they can do something about rather than complaining, criticizing, condemning, or worrying about things they can’t change.
They focus on finding ways of making things possible rather than finding reasons (excuses) why doing those things won’t work.
They make decisions quickly and course-correct later because they know they rarely have enough information to make the best decisions. The next best thing is to make a decision and make changes later. But the worst thing is to make no decision (that comes from inaction, which is the worst kind of decision). In other words, they move when they are 80% ready.
They are highly proactive people with an abundant mindset — there are enough resources for everyone.
They always think in terms of win-win. That includes not believing in the zero-sum game, which means in order for me to win, you’ll have to lose.
They always prioritize their lives. Call it healthy selfishness if you like. They know they can’t help others (if they want to) until they help themselves first.
They are always growing (and never stagnating) in their relationships and results and also in the four dimensions: physically, emotionally/socially, mentally, and spiritually (more below).
Rather than wanting to be successful so they can be happy, they enjoy their work so they can be successful.
Once we have the mindset of success, we can apply specific strategies to be successful.
Success is highly individual and subjective for everyone. We have to come up with our own definition of success. Having defined success once for our lives, we need to spend time with ourselves to ensure that our definition of success is correct, up to date, and that we are actually living it.
For me, success begins with starting with the end in mind. It is about defining and valuing the relationships and results in our lives and figuring out those few things for ourselves that we care about strongly.
Spend some time in solitude regularly (by creating space for yourself) to see if your definition of success is the same or if it has evolved. One reason our lives don’t change is because we don’t think about them frequently enough due to being so busy living them. Meditate and reflect on your life.
You can also think of success in four dimensions:
- Physical: being physically fit (this is the dimension that makes all the others possible).
- Emotional/Social: enjoying the company of those we care about, enjoy, and also learn from.
- Mental: doing good work, reading good books, etc.
- Spiritual: search of truth and its practice at every moment.
I like how Jonathan Fields defines success for himself:
Find something you’re madly passionate about, surround yourself with people you love to be around, work your buns off and make a ton of money…as a byproduct of the fact that you’re having the time of your life and contributing value to the world along the way!
For me personally, success is about doing few things better and having lots of discretionary time for doing things I want, such as spending quality time with loved ones and pursuing things of interest.
My work contribution includes doing creative work (writing for this weblog to provide lasting value to my readers for years to come), doing consulting work (serving my clients in improving their effectiveness and performance), and volunteering for a nonprofit that works with children to advance the science and practice of character development in the world.
For me, success boils down to work and play. It is about leading a self-paced, proactive life and not reacting to life’s inputs. It’s about doing the work you enjoy that adds value to others’ lives while having as much discretionary time as possible to do things you want.
Success is about being the best we can be in terms of our character and contribution, living life to our fullest potential, and impacting others in the process. In terms of character, it’s about becoming the best person we can be in our closest relationships. In terms of giving back to the world, it’s about doing work that matters and impacting others’ lives along the way.
(Note: I have borrowed some of the ideas of success from Sanjiv’s book, The Gift of Success.)