It is so easy when working in a high-pressured job to get caught up in constantly wanting to move forward in your job and that progression being the mark by which you measure the successfulness of your life. I should know, I did it for years. But what about everything else in your life? Do the things you achieve outside of work not class as determining whether you are successful or not as well? And shouldn’t those things you achieve in relation to work that don’t even necessarily move you up the career ladder still count as making you successful too? Why are we sticking to such a narrow definition of success? If we continue to judge success purely on how high up someone moves on the career ladder we’re just perpetuating the myth that you have to work yourself into an early grave to succeed at life.
Well I call bollocks.
If you’d asked me when I was 20 what my definition of success was I’d probably have said to be the CEO of an ad agency. Yet now, at the age of 30 I’m the furthest I’ve ever been from that goal and couldn’t be happier about it. I also now earn less per month than I used to in just a few days and yet still I feel much more successful now than I ever have before.
And that’s because our standard definition of success is total rubbish. Whether someone is successful shouldn’t be determined by where they’ve managed to get to in their career or how much money they earn. We’re all just people at the end of the day and someone can be successful even if they’ve never worked a day in their lives before, because they can be successful at life and that is far more important.
“Perpetual devotion to what man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.”
Robert Louis Stevenson
So here’s how I define success now. It’s a definition that makes me feel so much more fulfilled when I get close to it than anything else ever has. What your exact definition of success is may vary from this. Working out how to be successful is a very personal thing, but for me it’s as simple as this:
How to be successful
Can say “yes” to the following 4 questions at any moment in time?
- Have I got the freedom to do what I want each day?
- Am I happy?
- Am I still learning?
- Am I making a difference, even if it’s just to one person?
If I can answer “yes” to the above questions I now think of myself as successful. Here’s why I deem this to be the key as to how to be successful.
If I had to pick just one word to define success it would be freedom. It would be freedom because what makes one person feel fulfilled will differ from what makes another person but being free is what we all fundamentally crave as human beings. That’s why we feel so miserable when people take our freedom away from us, why it’s a punishment when we’re grounded as a child or even why we class locking people up in jail as a form of punishment. On some level we all want freedom. Maybe the thing that makes you feel fulfilled is progressing in your job, or spending time with your family, or balancing those things but none of them in and of themselves make you successful. Having chosen them and continuing to be able to choose them or anything else that interests you is what makes you successful. Working out what makes you feel fulfilled and having the freedom to do exactly that is what matters.
“You are the master of your destiny. You can influence, direct and control your own environment. You can make your life what you want it to be.”
I would hope this one is self-explanatory because, really, what is the point in any of it if you’re not happy? No amount of money, or recognition for achievements will make you successful if you’re not happy; happy with what it is you do everyday, happy with the relationships in your life, happy in someway everyday that you’re alive. And you should be happy, being alive is a pretty wonderful thing.
It’s impossible for anyone to know everything and not continuing to learn, whether that is simply through our daily interactions with others, our own mistakes or more formal training, is one of the biggest indicators of ignorance that I can think of. No one can learn everything in this life but if we don’t at least try to continue learning and actually put time and effort behind the endeavour we will never manage to be successful. You may through luck acquire money or status but if you’re not even learning on the most basic level, let alone putting concerted effort behind acquiring more knowledge, and so keep making the same mistakes over and over or never improve at anything that should not be deemed as success.
I’m a huge fan of learning, in all guises. Whether that be through the things that I mess up (and there’s a lot of those), other people, specific formal training (such as when I learnt to code the other week) or more generally through the wealth of information there is out there about different topics. That’s why I read so much, so I can learn. As Ryan Holiday says at the end of a great collection of quotes to make people re-think going to college (although still relevant if you’re years past college and especially in relation to why you should read):
“Remember: education is your job. No one else’s. Even if you’re in school, it’s on you to get the most of it.”
4. Making a difference to others
I really never would have anticipated that this would be in a definition of what it means to be successful for me. I’m not exactly the touchy feely type and never understood people’s desire to volunteer or the like to selflessly help others. I’ve just never been that nice a person if I’m honest. Yet over the years I found myself gradually doing things to help others without even thinking about it. The first company I ever set up, ThePropertyBuyingExperts.com, wasn’t created to make any money. It was started to share the knowledge I’d gained about property and help others who might be struggling with the same things I’d struggled with before. Now it’s gotten to the stage where almost everything I do is for that reason of helping others. And the fact that I’m able to do that, that I can make at least one person’s life better makes me feel more successful than ever. Maybe it’s my selfish genes wanting to make sure I’ve left a mark on the world in someway. But whatever the reason, if I were to write a thousand blog posts or books or set up hundreds of companies, even if they didn’t make any money, as long as they helped someone that would be enough to have made spending all that time and energy worth it. That would feel like success.
Answering yes to this, shouldn’t just be restricted to helping just those you don’t know either. It should apply to everyone in your life. Are you making a difference in your friends and families lives too? Are you making their lives better in some way? Once you start thinking about what you’re doing in terms of others rather than yourself that’s when you find true fulfillment and purpose.
Having changed my definition of success and what I’m aiming for has made me happier than ever. If you haven’t worked out what yours is yet you may be beating yourself up for not having succeeded when actually the standard by which you’re judging yourself isn’t the right one. You need to know what you’re aiming for to make sure you’re going in the right direction and will know when you’re close to getting there.