I am always fascinated by lists like “The Most Powerful People In The World”, or “Forbes’ 30 under 30” and especially by how those lists are compiled and then interpreted by the public. In this blog post I would like to show you why the public definition of success strikes me – and how I would describe it myself.
Societies’ definition of success
We live in a society of hustle about how many likes we get, how fast we are going to run and how many comments we get. Every year there are awards for Influencer Of The Year or the Richest Newcomer as if popularity and net worth are important factors to strive for. I’m often fascinated as much as I’m allergic to lists like these, because I find them so vacuous. The rankings don’t say anything about our individual needs and preferences or whether they make us happy.
As human beings it seems to be in our bones to want to conform our circumstances. We strive for money and flawless bodies and we want the people that we love to like us. What I know for sure, is that these conditions are based around the single thought that we need things from the outside world to make us happy. It strikes me how often we use these kind of factors to define success and it concerns me a little bit too. It makes me wonder how healthy this is for the way we live our lives.
I believe that we are not defined by the thoughts in our heads, or the things that surround us. Although we might strive for certain possessions, titles or positions in life, it’s senseless to have one of them as your main goal as they in itself have no intrinsic value. What I think would be more useful to ourselves and the younger generations to come, is to make room for different standards of success.
How I see it
We often look at the people we admire and then focus on their perfectly executed vision that they would have had from the beginning and that would have led them to where they are now. We may all know books like “the 10 steps to success”, or “5 habits to become a millionaire”. Those books are being sold as if there must be a recipe for success that you can follow. But the thing is, you can only put that success story together in retrospect.
What we intrinsically want
There is no real success for me without taking the time to reflect on what success means to us, since we spend so much time of our lives trying to achieve it.
That in itself is not an easy task, since our earliest ideas of success come from others. It starts at home with what our parents and families think and then continues at school and work with what behaviors our teachers and bosses reward.
We tend to internalize the versions of success we see around us, and respond to them by making certain choices. Those choices are most of the times influenced in subtle ways. It starts with how much time our boss thinks we should spend in the office, what our parents want us to study, or what career will impress our friends.
Those ideas can overwhelm your own vision of what a successful, happy and meaningful life should look like. Not knowing your own version of success easily makes us fall into living a life based on the priorities of others. They can cause us to follow the well-worn path to a life that we might not want to live.
In order to get the life and career we intrinsically want, it’s smarter to start with what we truly want. A lot of times our lives do reflect into the things that we are doing at times. Because of that, we can start with our true goals and then work back to what we need to attain them.
Luck and humility
I like to emphasize that the success that certain people have enjoyed has been due to their own efforts, but it’s also been due to so much beyond them. For example, due to the efforts and support from others and due to twists of fate beyond their control. I feel like success is more like a cocktail of things that you can – and can not control.
Along the way I’ve adopted the belief that success is also dependent on luck – and I’ve been so lucky along the way myself. I mean, where you are born is (still) the main predictor for the level of success in life. Amsterdam is a safe and prosperous place, which has kept me away from things that some other people had to endure. Besides that, proper schooling was part of my childhood and I was able to go to university as well. The world also treats me differently because of my skin color, and if I become sick, I can seek medical care immediately.
The tricky thing about privilege is that you often don’t even think about it. Those privileges are just given to me. They are just there, and it’s easy to take them for granted because you’ve never experienced otherwise. Every once in a while I try to realize that things easily could have been different for me.
As a result, I feel like it’s important to hold on to your awareness of yourself. Even as the world tells you how important and powerful you are, the moment you start to believe it all too much, the moment you look at yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you truly have lost your way.
But creating a career and life that you want and love is also a lot of work. I feel like it is part of the artist’s or entrepreneur’s work to make it all look so easy. And to a certain extent it is also part of their jobs to let it all look as if it just happened. From my own journey I can say that’s not reality. And from what I’ve seen in my surroundings, neither. The most creative ideas take a lot of hard work, don’t happen overnight and take many hours of your time.
Therefore, nothing extraordinary in my life has ever happened from the safety of my comfort zone. Most of my achievements come from efforts that were new to me and did not bring immediate visible rewards. You put in long hours and lots of hard work, but the results do not always show up immediately. And when they do, they don’t always offer you what you hoped for.
I’ve continuously worked with full efforts to create compelling content and find an engaged audience for it. Only much later did those long hours, instincts and knowledge start to shape themselves into particular qualities that I could articulate. After a long process of trial and error, I’ve seen my personal blog grow and change into something that stands out from the crowd.
You need your mistakes
To me, success is also about making mistakes. I mean, we all make mistakes and we make them all the time and everywhere. We get in the wrong marriage, the wrong relationship, we take the wrong job or we have the wrong friends. We all make mistakes and most of the times they are really hurtful and we want to get rid of it as soon as possible. But, I believe that mistakes are inevitable and that we actually need our mistakes to be able to grow at all.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Victor Frankl writes that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. If that is true, then there is no such thing as failure. Then failure is just that thing, trying to move you in another direction. I like to put it like that because then even the most hurtful mistakes become things that can learn you something valuable.
Along the way, I’ve developed the belief that it’s my job to feel that cue. To hear it, to know it and sometimes, when you’re not listening, you get taken off track. So I like to act with the idea to make a move that feels right. From that space I’ll make the next move and the next right move and not to be overwhelmed too much by it. If mistakes are indeed an integral part of our journeys, then there is no such thing as perfection. Instead, the only true focus we can adopt is striving for progression.
Ofcourse we can take steps to ensure these mistakes don’t happen again, but we can also start to see them as ways for improving our lives. Failure often cause us negative emotions, but the experience of it’s basically there because you are supposed to do something. I have now learned to see my mistakes as a way to make my life better and that I can get as much from my losses, as I get from my victories because the losses are there to wake me up.
What I’ve learned and now consider to be true, is that all the great things in my life have always been preceded by some sort of learning process. I try to see even the most hurtful mistakes as a call to action. This way of thinking helps me to not be completely thrown out of the field by a rejection or a circumstance. I know that my life is bigger than one experience and that the mistakes that I made along the way have taken me to where I am right now.
How we as a society define success has been in my mind for years. Using a more personal approach to create a definition of success and see it as something that requires time, a good understanding of yourself, dedication and patience, is in my opinion a more healthy and realistic way of looking at success.
However, we can create the most glorifying definitions of success for ourselves. A beautiful house, a partner, creating worldpeace or to become just rich. We can start any career and work our asses off to climb that ladder. But it makes sense to grab a moment every once in a while, to take a step back and determine if the ladder stands against the right wall.
Because this is what I know for sure. If you don’t like to start your day in the morning and you don’t like the way you spend your time – then what is success anyway?
Because we all have different things that make us happy, we tend to have individual and personal ideas of how we want to spend our time as well. The things that get us inspired and empowered might differ from others. If we find a way to align our lives around what’s important to us individually and use some playtime to figure out what that is, we end up living our own lives in which we determine what makes us happy and what makes us feel valued.
I know for sure that every challenging experience offers the opportunity to grow, improve your life or learn something valuable about yourself. Those lessons can help you come closer to doing the things that you really want.
Please share your personal definition of success in the comment section below. I’d be more than happy to hear from you!
Head over to my bookshelf to see the books that I’ve been reading lately.