Success is Overrated

If we were all to close our eyes and think of the word “success,” it’s likely many of us would come back with a tragically low amount of innovation in what we see.

Suits. Big houses. Stages. Nice cars. Bill Gates. Picket fences. Beach homes. Brad Pitt. Magazine covers. etc.

Unfortunately, this lack of creativity comes from the fact that most of our definitions of success are not personal to our lives. They’re simply inherited from others. These ideas may come from our parents, or Hollywood or some slightly overweight, middle-aged ad man who drives a red convertible and gets paid far too much to create TV commercials. To quote Alain de Botton, “The interesting thing about success is that our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own.”

In other words, if we don’t intentionally create new associations with “success,” we’re in danger of living someone else’s life.

3 problems

There are countless problems with inheriting our ideas of success, but here are three worth considering:

1. Most modern versions of success are overrated.

According to Webster, success can be defined as “the attainment of popularity or profit.” This obviously plays nice with most of our projections. Yet, history seems to think that luxury and fame rarely amount to much of a life. We hear warnings of the emptiness of success and fame from celebrities we aspire to be like:

“Fame makes you feel permanently like a girl walking past construction workers.” —Brad Pitt

“Don’t try to be a billionaire. It’s overrated.” —Bill Gates

“Fame is overrated, and it frightens me when kids say ‘I want to be famous.’”—Keira Knightley

The Bible warns us of this, too:

“Even when a person has an abundance, his life does not result from the things he possesses” (Luke 12).

2. Most modern definitions of success are incomplete.

It’s not that money or fame are bad. We all know the meaningful role finances and influence can play in life. It’s just that money and fame are often the only parts of our definition—leaving relationships, health and spirituality to be slotted in and undervalued.

Haven’t we heard too many deathbed regrets about how they should have cared less about their career or money and more about family or friends to believe that wealth and fame make a good brand of success?

3. We were made to be successful.

This doesn’t sound like it should be a problem, but inheriting our ideas of success makes it one.

We all have a deeply felt need to be successful. Call it whatever you want—being faithful, meeting expectations, winning—but feeling successful is a healthy part of being fully human.

The problem is, when we inherit our ideas of success, we are driven by another person’s definition and miss the unique existence only you or I can live.

3 Questions

I assume that if we all were to take a look at our current ideas of success, most of us would quickly realize that we don’t like, nor do we want, these inherited and impersonal definitions. If that’s you, these questions have proved to be a great starting point for anyone interested in not living another person’s carbon copy life:

1. What is success to you?

Success doesn’t have to look the same for everyone. It doesn’t have to look like what your family or friends expect. We all function differently and have different ideas of what a fulfilling life would look like, so you’re free to define success for yourself.

If your answer is a specific job title, salary or amount of prestige, you should probably spend some time really considering your motivations (see question #2). This question is meant to target more valuable goals that will inevitably create a healthier priority framework and more whole expression of life.

When I discussed this questions recently with some friends, we all approached our answer differently. I redefined success as “a simple and local life that is professionally-exciting, relationally-connected and spiritually-inspired.”

See Also

Here were some additional pieces of the definitions that came out of our time: “No matter the income, my work has a sense of purpose and progress.” “My wife has life in her eyes and my kids are emotionally empowered.” “The time and geographic location to foster relationships with people who challenge, encourage and inspire me, and of whom I can reciprocate the same.”

No matter where you are in life, this question can help you evaluate what you want in terms that are more holistic than just the number of digits on your paycheck or the recognition you receive.

2. Why do you want this brand of success?

Answering why you want this new brand of success is arguably the most significant layer to redefining it. When we inherit our ideas of success, we are often pushed by fear or what we feel is expected of us. When we define it for ourselves, we can be drawn onward by purpose and vision, which is ultimately more powerful.

Again, here are some examples I’ve come across in recent conversations with friends:

“For the time and energy to invest into my family and friends.” “To offer my wife and children the opportunity to fully experience and enjoy life: education, international exposure, skill training, adventures.” “To take care of friends and family with finances, quality time, a safe place, life wisdom.” “For independence from ‘the system’ and freedom of choice.”

Someone revised a phrase from author Wallace Wattles: “I want to be financially successful to eat, drink and be merry when it is time to do these things, in order that I may surround myself with beautiful things, see distant lands with my kids, feed my mind, spend time with people I love and develop my intellect; in order that I may love others and do kind things, and be able to play a good part in helping the world to find truth.”

3. What’s one thing you’re willing to give up for this brand of success?

Oftentimes, there is natural resistance built into the process of reaching any goal. Answering this question helps you identify that resistance, put a target on it and in essence, overcome it before you’ve even begun.

Often, this means working on giving up bad habits and tendencies that are holding you back.

Recent examples I’ve heard include: “Obsession with working too much.” “Fear of criticism and preference for hiddenness.” “Need for security and financial control.” “Finding my identity in what I do.”

Your idea of success will probably shift many times throughout your life, but thinking through your priorities now will mean the world for your future. Whether you are working your dream job, just trying to get by or still unsure of exactly what you want to do, take some time to ask yourself these questions to design your brand of success and thus, find a more meaningful expression of life.

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