One of the things I constantly struggle with is arriving at Inbox Zero while not missing out on any of the interesting newsletters that I am subscribed to. Being a regular reader of this blog, you can imagine that a lot of the content I end up reading has to do with Personal Growth. As a habit, while clearing my inbox, I end up opening a lot of the articles and posts in separate tabs. Whenever I am getting bored and am able to tear myself away from the other mobile addiction of digital jigsaw puzzles, I end up reading all of them in one shot and clearing the tabs. As I was doing this purging process the other day, I realized I was successively reading articles on a very similar topic – success. So, the topics ranged from “X things successful people do”, “Y things successful people don’t do”, “Z traits of successful people” and blah blah blah. You get the gist. And a lot of them were preachy (pretty much like I sometimes tend to do). However, reading them all at one go got me thinking about this label – “success”.
What is Success?
Is everyone talking about the same thing while using this word “Success”? Is it a standardized definition? Is there an algorithm or a model that can tell you as to who is successful and who isn’t and what it really takes to be successful?
Like so many things in life, the answers lies in two words – “It’s complicated”. I think in this one word of “success”, at times we aim to encompass so many things and distill this patchwork quilt of sorts into one bland definition. So, I decided to use this post to break down my thoughts on this concept. As has occurred often, this blog ends up serving as a white board for the mish mash that often goes on in my head!
The two paths to Success
When we are navigating to a destination, there are often two possible paths. In my view, success has a similar story.
You can either listen to conventional wisdom and follow a straight path. Often enough, the straight path could light up blue in Google Maps with a smooth path and you end up reaching your destination of success. The risk here is that you either reach it too soon not knowing what the build-up about the place was for anyway. Alternately, you might reach there and realize that you would not have described it the way it was described to you. Your definition pretty clearly varies from the one given by conventional wisdom.
Another method is to make up your own definition of success, continuously expand and evolve it and just keep swimming (yes, I know I got the analogy mixed up but Dory from Finding Nemo is too adorable to miss out on this perfect integration). The point is that when you realize that you want to keep your definition of success personal, you not only pave your own path but then the journey itself turns out to be a wonderful road trip making it success all through. The risk of landing up at the destination and feeling short changed is much lower as you will end up taking enough detours or the joy of the journey will be rewarding enough.
How do you define success?
You might be thinking, ok problem solved. Let me go figure success and shut this thing right here. Alas, it’s not as easy.
Ask five people around you what would they consider as becoming successful. Most of them will come back with a blank look and have question marks floating around their head. In fact, I saw this live in action some days back. I was at an event where an ex-cricketer was on stage to give a motivational speech. Surprisingly enough, he was really good and I even took some notes.
He defined success pretty easily. He said it is important to “live your dream”, which is how he felt successful having played cricket for India for 16 years despite having a few regrets in that long spanning career. The eureka moment really came when he asked the audience, “How many of you are living your dream?”. In a room of almost 100 people, not more than 1 or 2 hands, if at all were raised. Even my hand was not, because to me, my current job is enroute to my dream.
I think it would have been even better if he had asked, how many of you know what your dream is? Finally, unless you know what your dream is, how can you even know whether you are living it or not. For all you know, some of the people have a dream or define success as a comfortable, structured, predictable life which a stable, bank job is really providing them. Why then would they not raise their hands at the question?
Creating your definition of success
For me, a life changing book has been Success Principles by Jack Canfield. That is one book which forced me to take a stark look at what I want from life and how do I go about getting to it. After reading it, I have now been writing my vision for my life which obviously has various milestones almost every working day.
My daily vision statement ends up covering various aspects of my life that I consider important, along with lofty career goals. While too extreme for a lot of people, writing this everyday helps me know how I am on track for some things and also a reminder to put in action for some of the things that I am aiming at. From my experience, I will jot down my thoughts on five areas of life that helped me craft my vision.
Predictably, the most important part of our lives considering we end up most of our waking hours working at it and it also provides us with a huge part of our identity. I think one of the things to remember is that it is a marathon even though we so often treat it like a sprint. Two questions that have helped me arrive at twin highlights of how I want my career to shape up are: What makes you happy? Is what you are doing, helping someone?
Funny as it may sound, I want to be able to help people with a lifetime of making smart money decisions while writing great books in genres that I myself love to read. Personally, these are the two things that tick both those boxes for me.
However, these questions are not something that can be answered instantly. Ideally, they come after a search and after some time of perpetual brewing in your subconscious. When these two questions find a place in your subconscious, there will be a point of experiencing something when you suddenly realize you could be happy doing it all your life, or atleast a really really long time.
For a lot of us, there is no better marker of success than material acquisitions. In my view, there could be a hygiene level of material possessions that is necessary to be deemed successful. However, beyond a point they really swing more as per an external compass. Also, it can very soon turn into an unending race, leaving one feel hollow. When it comes to my vision statement, not too many material acquisitions find their way in it.
To give a simple example, look at kids. They will hanker after something and pester you like only they can. Once they have it, the joy and experience of it in most cases is short lived. For adults, often enough the run up to acquiring that shiny new car or the latest iPhone can feel much more satisfying than the product itself.
As it is famously said, “No man (or woman) is an island”. Most of us are well aware that we humans are highly social animals, which is also what has helped us evolve to where we have come. Success in my books is a mindset where the important relationships always have priority and you are able to balance it with all other metrics.
Considering it is your personal definition of success, you alone get to decide what relationships are important as well what does “important” even mean in the scheme of things. One of the best instances that I realized of this was my in my previous boss with whom I was unfortunately able to work only for a few months. In one of our parties, he defined life simply as “spending good time with friends”. Mind you, when it comes to a career he had come a long way and was leading a large team and on his way to a speedily growing wealth management firm. He was also a man more of action than simply these words considering even in a sales role, he was adored as a boss by one and all and is still missed as a leader by the team, months after he has left. In my books, he is highly successful.
So often, while chasing different measures of success we tend to give short shift to ourselves, burning both ends of the candle. In the recent past, instances of conventionally successful people like Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade committing suicide gave me enough food for thought to realize that self-care is so very important. How do you navigate anything else till the time you are taking the time to take care of yourself?
How would you define this self care? Yet again, my answer remains that it is personal. Self care could be as simple as being able to find half an hour of complete peace in the crazy pace of life, where you can put your feet up and do exactly what you wish or nothing at all. For me, twin pillars of exercise and right nutrition are two big parts of the puzzle. Over the past few years, I have tried to align myself to focusing on and making efforts on these two fronts and seen a vast different in how I feel mentally and physically.
Another piece here for me is learning for the sake of it. As I have been taught by my parents over the years, absorb and learn whatever you can for you never know when it comes handy or even becomes a passion. I have realized this insane greed to learn whatever I possibly can and see it as self care too.
Sometimes, I think I have become a walking-talking treasure chest of clichés for I do believe experiences provide far more than material acquisitions do. For instance, my dream is not to own a Lamborghini (definitely not on the potholed streets of Mumbai) but to drive it on a German Autobahn or an American freeway.
Are there experiences which will make you feel successful? It could be a trip across the world or it could even be about having the confidence to wear a bikini in public or learning how to play lawn tennis. I have yet another lofty list of 100 goals which has quite a few experiences listed. Check out this cool list for inspiration and craft your own. In case it makes you anxious as goals tend to do, remember it is only an instrument to help you towards your personal definition of success rather than talk about it in the air. Ticking off any of the things is bound to make you happier if those are really what you want.
The best thing about having your own definition of success is the fact that it grows and evolves with you as a person. If you keep a record of it, they could very well become a rich documentation of your personal success journey which then doesn’t have to heed to some of the silly articles I end up reading. After all, life is all about living on your own terms, which can only come after you yourself know what your own terms are.
What do you think about the label of success? What is your definition of success? Let me know in the comments below.