I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about what success really means.
We grow up in a world where we are taught by our parents, teachers and the media that success means getting a good education, a good job, and then buying a nice house, fashionable clothes, a nice car, lots of nice things and going on holidays to exotic places. Money and prestige are how we define success.
We refer to wealthy individuals and celebrities as being “very successful” just because of their financial wealth and social status, even though often these people have significant problems in their personal lives. Our view of success does not take into account whether they are actually happy, healthy or making a positive contribution to society, but instead assumes that their wealth and status must assure them the health and happiness that we all dream of. We put them on a pedestal and use them as the template on which we build our own ambitions.
Since I was very young I rejected the common ideology of success. Somehow it just never seemed to add up. I became acutely aware that it didn’t seem to matter if I had the latest Lego set or the fastest radio control car, it only ever gave me short term pleasure and not any true lasting happiness. I would always desire something more, or better and believe that the next thing would bring me the true happiness that I was craving. Similarly, it didn’t take me long to realise that the coolest kids in the playground were often not very nice people and often didn’t seem to be very happy in themselves. Looking back it seems strange that I picked up on this at such a young age, but then children are actually often much more perceptive than adults.
By the time I was in my mid-teens I had reached the conclusion that I didn’t need lots of stuff. Instead what I needed was time to figure out who I was, time to enjoy the simple things in life and to have people on my wavelength to share my experiences with. Despite strong encouragement to get as much work experience as possible, I did my best to get as little as possible and to instead spend as much time as possible out in nature, cycling, reading philosophy, writing, drawing and trying to seek out (not very successfully) like minded friends. True success should be defined simply as “health and happiness”.
I had created my own vision of success, and having lots of money and stuff was not really part of the plan.
There was one caveat to that though. I was critically aware that we all live in a material world and that living a truly simple, natural life is not really an option. Whether we like it or not, we need money to ensure that we have a roof over our heads, clean water to drink, clothes on our backs and food on our tables as a bare minimum. Although I knew that we don’t need to be rich, I also knew that we need enough money that we can stop worrying about meeting our basic needs.
Skip forward over a decade and I find myself pondering the same question. What does success really mean and how can I achieve it?
I think I spent most of my twenties trying hard to “survive” in our modern world and trying to ensure that I did in fact enough money to meet my basic needs. Despite trying hard not to, on reflection I actually did a lot of what I was taught to do. I got a good degree, built a successful business, bought a nice house, a nice car and lots of nice things and I travelled to lots of exotic places. I have achieved a reasonable amount of “success” and I’ve been very very lucky so far. I actually have a fantastic life and it has taught me that there is a balance to be struck.
We are taught to pursue a life of materialism, and when we rebel we naturally tend to reject it completely, but what we really need is a more balanced approach. We need to see money as a small piece of a much larger puzzle. It is a tool to meet some of our essential needs and achieve some of our bigger goals. We do need money, but we need a lot less than we are conditioned to believe, while we also need many other things in life that do not form part of the conventional definition of success.
Once you pass a certain point, having more money and stuff doesn’t inherently increase your happiness or health, especially when you are sacrificing your time and health working for money that you don’t need. When you pass that critical point, increased success in the true sense comes from taking the opportunity to give yourself more time, look after your health better and do more for those around you. To be truly healthy and happy, we need only a little of what we been taught to pursue. Every minute of our lives that we spend chasing money that we don’t need is time that we could have spent pursuing true meaning in life.
They say that time is money, but true success only comes after we realise that time is priceless and non-refundable.
The flip side of success is our definition of failure. We judge people as failures when they don’t get the “good education” or the “good job” and don’t have the nice house, car, clothes, possessions and holidays that we are taught to pursue. This permeates our culture to the point that the first thing we ask almost everyone we meet is “what do you do for a living?”, because we believe that this will enable us to judge their level of success and their worth as a human being. The tragedy of this is that we treat people as failures even when they are often not failures at all. We respect the wealthy businessman who cheats on his wife and exploits his suppliers and yet look down upon the homeless person who has nothing but is a compassionate and honest person who’s life simply went in the wrong direction.
But the beauty of defining success as health and happiness is that it levels the playing field. It is a non-competitive perspective on life that treats everyone as equals and encourages compassion and collaboration. It allows us to see that having more than someone else does not make us better than them and that having less does not make us inferior. Our failures are defined by the mistakes that we make, rather than our lack of wealth and status. This is a totally different type of failure, because we can all learn from our mistakes and turn failure into an opportunity to become better people and live better lives. A failure today could be the seed that leads us to health and happiness in the future.
The only true failures are those people that never learn the true meaning of success.
We teach our children that to be successful they should obtain as much money and status as possible. We need to change this and teach them to spend as much time as possible figuring out who they truly are, enjoying simple pleasures, building deep friendships with like minded people and making a positive contribution to the world around them. We should be teaching them that money is a tool to help them along the way, but that health and happiness is what they should aspire to.
We also need to change our role models so that we look up to people who are genuine good people who are successful in their pursuit of health and happiness. Some of these people might happen to have a lot of money, but we would then also see that we have far more to learn from many happy people with modest lives than we do from many of the rich and famous people that fill our magazines and television screens.
Your definition of success is important because it influences every decision that you make in your life and defines the life that you end up living. If you want to achieve true health and happiness, you need to take the time to pause, clarify your own vision of success and then redesign your life around it.
You only get one life and you must know what success is before you can succeed.
For some inspiration on what success might mean to you, these videos might help get your brain cells buzzing:
In addition to thinking about how I define success in my own personal life, I have also recently rewritten the mission statement for my own business to clarify what our true end goal is and why we all come to work each day. This is valuable not just for me but for every member of the team, to focus their minds on what really matters, encourage them to support each other and to spend time reflecting on what they need to achieve their own true happiness.
We will have achieved success when we recognise that Wholegrain Digital is not a company, or a brand, but a team of unique and special people. When we recognise that our clients too are not businesses, but also groups of unique individuals whose needs we aim to serve.
When we have found health and happiness as individuals within our team and are able to spread that health and happiness to each other, to our clients and to others that we impact.
When our team is supportive of every person as an equal yet unique individual, gives them the opportunity to flourish and helps them each to grow. When every person makes the team stronger as a whole.
When we do work that doesn’t just pay the bills and feed our mouths, but challenges us to think, to learn new skills and to become better people. When we do work that at worst does not sacrifice our values and at best will make our hearts sing.
When we can achieve all of this not just temporarily, but sustainably in an ever changing world.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading. I wish you the best success in life.