Success is an abstract concept, almost as difficult to define as it is to achieve. To make matters worse, in our world of ultra-connectedness and changing priorities, the traditional path to success no longer applies.
Yet while many of us would agree with that sentiment, the systems set up in corporations and society overall still reward traditional, standard success, while de-valuing the intensely personal journey people take to actually feel successful.
That doesn't sit well with me, so, over the past year, I've set out to explore that fundamental disconnect, and to chart a blueprint for personal success. Perhaps because I had no better place to start, I first looked to the dictionary. There, the definition of success is: “the attainment of wealth, position, honors or the like.” And, unfortunately, this definition accurately depicts modern society's attitude. That’s troubling, especially when you consider the order of attributes.
- “The Like”
Perhaps this is a self-serving philosophy, but I don't wish to exist in a world where success is measured primarily by wealth. I know plenty of people whom I would consider successful in their chosen paths who are not “wealthy” by census criteria. Conversely, there are many wealthy individuals who don't personify the type of “success” I would aspire to (cough, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, cough). A consideration of 1 percent in monetary value doesn’t necessarily correlate with 1 percent in work ethic, or intellectual ability or passion.
“Position” is another concept that shouldn’t be solely used to define success. While people who ascend to positions of power may very well be successful, should the decision to not pursue a position exclude someone from success? Remember the old adage, “The best candidate never runs for president.”
Third, and possibly most preposterous, is the idea of “honors.” Honors include awards and recognition bestowed upon people through a supposedly objective process. But,often, that process is anything but objective and can’t possibly be used as a true reflection of success. Of course, if anyone reading this wants to toss me some honors, I’ll take 'em, but they won’t define whether or not I am ultimately successful. There has to be something more.
In interviews with people across a myriad of disciplines, including clinical psychiatry, education, athletics, film production, entertainment and more, I've determined nine principles that repeatedly surface in individuals who say they feel successful:
1. Create Often.
People who feel successful often spend considerable time creating, whether those creations are companies, art or even a small backyard garden. They report a cathartic and meaningful feeling from being responsible for something new in the world.
2. Understand the self.
Another trait of truly successful people is their ability to understand themselves, both their positive and negative traits. Successful people spend time working on themselves and reflecting on their motivations. This is never a one-and-done process; it continues throughout the course of life and helps inform decisions and behavior that can lead to greater achievement.
3. Have fun.
This one sounds almost foolishly simple, but it's really important to feeling successful. One of the biggest regrets of traditionally successful people at the end of their lives is that they worked too hard and didn't spend enough time enjoying people they cared about. Incorporating a consistent emphasis on plain old fun and happiness is key to feeling as if you're building a life you can be proud of.
4. Suspend judgments.
Judgment not only can kill your career, it can dramatically decrease your ability to grow and move forward. Everyone has things they regret; that's a virtual certainty in our lives. Spending time learning from mistakes is productive, but spending time judging yourself or others for mistakes drains valuable energy better used elsewhere.
5. Seek challenges.
Failure is not the opposite of success; stagnation is. People who say they feel as though they are moving in a positive direction are often those who purposefully seek out challenges, both professionally and personally. Your friend who's training for a marathon isn't doing it just for fun; she's doing it because it's hard and will push her limits.
6. Pursue meaning.
People find meaning in different ways. Whether volunteering for a humanitarian group; raising smart, well-behaved children; or just being a good friend: Whatever path you must take to find meaning, take it.
7. Make change work for you.
There are changes that we openly initiate, and changes we must react to. In either situation, making the most of the hand you are dealt is imperative to making progress and achieving success. Resisting and being unwilling to adapt will only slow you down emotionally.
8. Develop resilience.
Resilience is a trait some people develop through childhood. Essentially, it is the ability to overcome obstacles and bounce back from setbacks positively. While we don't control the obstacles sent our way, our response to them is within our control. The key, I've found, to creating resilient character is to find and surround yourself with positive, supportive individuals.
9. Constantly improve.
Finally, this behavioral trait connects with each of the others in a fairly profound way. No one can be perfect in his or her acceptance and application of this blueprint, but continuing to pursue perfection is the clearest path to success.
Do you feel successful? What are the ways that you set up your life in order to grow, achieve and enjoy what you do? Wealth and power are great, but at the end of the day, they won't adequately define who you are, and the narrative of your legacy. The latter is far more important, it's time we treat it that way.
To learn more, check out my new book, The Success Disconnect: Why the Smartest People Choose Meaning Over Money.