“Success” is an ambiguous and elusive term. When we are younger and we are asked what our goals and dreams are for the future, a common response to proffer is the vague “to be successful” reply. It is as though we provide this response automatically, with the assumption that there is one objective and single definition of success. It’s not until my mid-twenties that I even paused to analyse what it means to be successful, and whether it can be defined in my own terms. For many people, success might mean obtaining a level of wealth and attraction from adoring admirers to the extent that people want to know the intricate details of their lives. It means owning a car that has a reverse camera (the pinnacle of success for a shit-parker like myself) and shiny emblem signifying the luxe brand that created it. Perhaps it means purchasing an investment property and owning the largest house on the block of beautiful houses that wind around the street over-looking the ocean. It might mean vigorously climbing the corporate ladder in a massive company and being paid a generous salary that enables you to whisk your family away on luxurious holidays twice a year in the Caribbean. It could be viewed as sending your children off to expensive private schools where they spent their days amongst other motivated and wealthy pupils before being whisked away to clarinet practice and maths tutoring (if they were my child, they’d certainly need it).
Growing up I always held similarly cliche notions of what it means to be “successful” in my mind. I defined the concept as something that we have reached when we have obtained a certain amount of monetary wealth and popularity. I looked at people who appeared wealthy and popular as the ultimate embodiment of success, and disregarded other metrics such as happiness, familial ties and connection with friends as irrelevant to the question of what it means to be successful. I observed people who had large followings on social media and who’s instagram grids were bulging with beauty and photographs that depicted a world so unlike the plainness of my own life. I’m sure everyone can relate to these feelings at some point. It’s normal to compare yourself to others on the basis of what they display about their lives on social media, and envy is a predictable response. If we define success based upon external factors like wealth, beauty and social media popularity, it’s easy to descend into a state of cyclical despair thinking about how objectively unsuccessful you are because you have $50 to your name, a nose as bumpy as a roller-coaster and less followers on instagram than your Grandma.
After several years of focussing on my own self-improvement through listening to podcasts, reading as many books as I could, and by simply growing the fuck up, I now define success differently. It’s crucial that we repeatedly and constantly engage in introspection and analyse our thoughts, feelings and values to determine what truly matters to us. It may very well be that we have been moseying on through our lives, guided by an assumption about what we value, but never truly assessing if these assumptions are actually correct. This was certainly the case in my situation. I simply assumed what success meant to me (being wealthy, attractive and popular) and didn’t pause to consider that “success” is intricately tied to the concept of happiness, and that pursuing wealth, beauty and popularity won’t actually increase my happiness levels.
After thinking deeply about what causes me long-term happiness, I now define success differently. Success is being able to wake up every morning and appreciate what I have right now – a comfortable house; a small and reliable group of friends; the ability to move my body freely; and all of the privileges associated with being born and growing up in Australia. Success is having a job that is fulfilling and being able to help others in some way. Perhaps because I don’t have children to support, or massive bills to pay, but my career has never been about money for me. Being happy and satisfied at work is success to me. Success is maintaining close relationships with my small group of friends, and my family members. I am experiencing success if I can have at least one person I can turn to when I need them. In high school, I was overwhelmed with a consistent desire to have as many friends as possible (slim chance for a shy introvert like myself) but now I feel lucky to have some close mates that I can have a laugh with but also discuss serious and intellectually-stimulating topics with.
To me, success is to be able to travel freely and experience other cultures and places as much as possible. To look back and reminisce on old photos and times thinking about how much fun I had, and re-visit all of the silly or hilarious moments with friends or strangers. Success is helping other people as much as I can. That is success. If I had continued to define success on the basis of inauthentic attributes that have no impact on my happiness, I would have been living a life that was unfulfilling and contrary to my true values. It’s important that you develop an understanding of what causes long-term happiness and fulfilment for you, and whether this knowledge helps clarify the true meaning of a successful life for you. So ask yourself, what is success to you? It’s important that no matter how you perceive the concept, that you are defining it in your own terms and not on the basis of other people’s perceptions.