What is Success?

It’s the age old question; how do we define our personal success and thus identify whether we should feel happy and satisfied with ourselves?

Success as a human construction

In his really good TED talkYuval Harari points out that one of the main reasons that humans have become the dominant species on this earth is because we are able to “create and believe fictions”, for example he says:

“Take a human being, cut him open, look inside, you will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA, but you won’t find any (human) rights.”

Human rights, he argues, are merely an abstract construction of the human mind; a fiction, if you will, perpetuated by stories throughout the centuries. They are a great fiction, of course, but nonetheless they are fictions.

Similarly I argue that many, many of the things we interact with every day are fictions (money, authority, value), including the concept of success.

This is a good starting point; without the human mind to contain the concept, there is no such thing as success, so it must be subjective by nature.

Success is in the eye of the beholder

“Value is in the eye of the beholder” is a wonderful aphorism to illustrate this concept. Somehow, through our interaction with reality and each other, we’ve come to realise that there is no such thing as objective value. There is only what this person is willing to give up for this thing in this moment.

Similarly, there can be no such thing as objective success. Even if every human being in the world were to look at something and say “that is success, this person is successful”, there still exists the possibility that, someday, someone would not see it that way.

Thus the question becomes, not “What is success?”, but “What is success for you?”

My success as “serving one’s values”

Now that we’ve identified that success is entirely personal, and thus can be quite arbitrary, I turn briefly to some thoughts on what success is for me, and assume that some people will resonate with this idea.

Part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is the concept of clarifying and serving one’s values. Simply put, for me this idea constitutes much of what I consider to be my “personal success”:

  • What values are most important to you?
  • Do you strive to live those values?

My values

I’ve thought for a long time about what values are important to me; what principles form the foundation my life? These change and evolve over time as I gain further clarity, but here’s where they are now:

#1 Discipline

“Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great.” Jim Collins

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” John Greenleaf Whittier

  • Work ethic: all worthwhile things take work, nothing is truly free. Effort makes me value my contributions to my family and society.
  • There are no quick fixes or shortcuts to success in life.
  • Instant gratification never yielded discipline, patience or true joy.
  • Discipline is almost always inconvenient and difficult, but is way worthwhile.
  • I work hard first and play hard after

#2 Integrity

“We cannot keep all our promises, but we can honour all our promises” Tom Hanson

  • Integrity lies at the heart of personal security, self-worth and power.
  • I do what I say and say what I think
  • I honour my promises, starting with those I make to myself
  • I acknowledge my faults and weaknesses, without becoming bogged down by them
  • I am honest in my dealings with my fellow man

#3 Love

“Never let a problem to be solved be more important than a person to be loved”

  • I am here for my family and friends, through sunny and rainy days
  • I avoid gossiping or speaking ill of others
  • I love my family and fellow man without judgement or prejudice
  • I serve those around me out of a sincere desire to help
  • I am an unending source of encouragement for those I meet

#4 Education

“A truly educated man never ceases to learn”

  • I strive to educate myself, both in the classroom and out
  • I believe that I will pursue learning for my entire lifetime; learning never stops
  • I appropriately blend open-mindedness with tempering scepticism
  • I am an honest seeker of knowledge and value all truth
  • I recognise that I can and will be wrong about my ideas, opinions and worldviews in practical, everyday situations.
  • Learning is a joy, and gaining greater perspective is a major goal of my life.
  • I seek to learn about anything good, valuable or interesting to me
  • I don’t demean knowledge; all knowledge is important, even if some I choose not to pursue because it’s not highly relevant to me at this time.

#5 Spirituality

“They are never alone that are accompanied with noble thoughts.” Philip Sidney

  • I strive to live my core values in everyday, practical ways
  • I have a deep sense of awe and admiration at the beauty and majesty of the universe
  • I practice gratitude often to reflect on the great gifts and opportunities I’ve been given
  • I live my life with a deep sense of hope – hope to build a better world, a better life and a happier family
  • I reach out for and embrace many sources of inspiration in my life; great examples, leaders, books, poetry, literature, podcasts, blogs, and so on.
  • If there is anything virtuous, lovely, of good report of praiseworthy, I seek after these things.

Am I successful?

I like to think I’m successful. Chasing success is like chasing a guiding star; you never really reach the star. However, we hit milestones along the way and as we look down, I think we should be willing to give the credit to ourselves;

“Yes, I am successful!”…

“And I will keep going”

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