Thoughts (and quotes) on happiness, realizing goals, and what defines “success.”
I’ve written about success in various ways recently (see this), and each time I think to myself:
“Self, what is success anyway? What does ‘being successful’ mean?”
Since I enjoy pontificating on these things — and also enjoy writing myself into corners to force constructive contemplation (resulting in admirable alliteration) — I set out to organize my thoughts on the subject, and hopefully justify my writing about it at all.
To tackle this elusive venture, I drew inspiration from books and writings, and sought the help of people I deem objectively “successful” through their thoughts on, well… success. I also thought back to communication I’ve had with students or young people, because they all tend to ask in one way or another, “How do you become successful?”
While I will lay out what I believe constitutes success in this article, my answer to them will simply be, “Stop trying.”
First, let’s try to define success.
“Success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realization of worthy goals.”
— Deepak Chopra
Chopra is a physician and author of the book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. Seems like a good place to start, so let’s break down his two points: happiness and realizing goals.
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
— Maya Angelou
Liking what you do, and liking how you do it. Great. But liking yourself? That’s where happiness comes in, which gets us into some dicey existential water. What does it mean to be happy?
In Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, he describes happiness as “a form of action… an activity.”
“True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving… Negative emotions are a call to action. Positive emotions, on the other hand, are rewards for taking proper action.”
Happiness is simply an emotion and, while emotions can get complex and ambiguous at times, we can always recognize what happiness feels like in a moment.
We can also recognize what success feels like in a moment — for example, when we get a promotion, receive an award, or meet a long-term goal (more on that later). Richard Branson describes feeling successful as being “actively engaged.”
“The more you’re actively and practically engaged, the more successful you will feel.”
If happiness is a form of action, I believe success is too. As I said in my post about acting and success, to succeed one needs to be working toward something.
“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”
— Albert Einstein
We can all agree that if you set a goal and reach it, you can say you’ve succeeded. Therefore, if success is a form of action, setting and realizing one’s goals would be a logical formula to being “successful.” Goals are actionable. Once you set clearly-defined goals for yourself, you can make decisions based around, and moving toward, those goals.
And yet, goals can be ambiguous. “To fall in love” is certainly a goal of many many people; however, there are not measurable actions one can take to fall in love. Going on dates, being social, maintaining a desirable appearance, sure, but the development of romantic feelings for another person is largely out of your control. As anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you, it “just happens.” (Also, if anyone attempts to make an actionable, measurable checklist out of falling in love, you may be dealing with a sociopath.)
Therefore, if we’re trying to decipher what determines success, let’s distinguish between actionable, measurable goals and aspirational goals. Take the following example.
Measurable goal: To make six figures a year from writing.
Aspirational goal: To inspire people through my writing.
To inspire people, while noble, doesn’t give me a practical road map toward success. How do I know I’ve inspired anyone anyway, a bunch of emails and comments saying “you’re so inspiring”?
To set and realize one’s goals is one thing; however, to feel “successful,” I think there is another component as well…
“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”
— Winston Churchill
The lead-up sentence in the aforementioned Mark Manson quote (“True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving”) was this: “Don’t hope for a life without problems. Instead, hope for a life full of good problems.” He goes on to say:
“Happiness requires struggle. It grows from problems. The solution lies in the acceptance and active engagement of that negative experience—not the avoidance of it, not the salvation of it.”
Success can be defined as the continued expansion of happiness — achieved by actively and practically engaging problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving — and the progressive realization of worthy goals by overcoming those problems.
Now I think it’s time to make an important distinction:
Success vs. Being Successful
You’ll notice that we’ve talked about what determines success. We’ve also talked about feeling successful. However, nowhere have I tried to lay out a formula for “how to be successful” or “what it means to be successful.” Here’s why:
The notion of being successful is a conclusion, an end, a completion, a resolution.
Let’s circle back to Chopra’s two points of success: happiness and the realization of goals. I think we can all agree that no one will ever achieve total and complete happiness (existential and theological belief systems aside). Furthermore, we can agree that we never want to be done being happy.
Goals, on the other hand, in and of themselves, are a conclusion. But here’s the thing about goals — they are ever-changing.
Back to my writing example: Once I make six figures, am I done writing? Do I go for seven? What if I make six figures and still no one knows who I am? What if I work so hard at it that my wife leaves me for someone named Todd? The same is true even with the aspirational goal. Even if I know I’ve inspired people, then what? I need to inspire more? How many is enough? Then do I do a TED Talk? Start a cult?
Therefore, while individual goals may each bring conclusion, the act of setting them, realizing them, and even changing them, should not.
The original quote by Deepak Chopra was, “Success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realization of worthy goals.” Notice the wording he uses: “continued expansion;” “progressive realization.” Everything — especially each of us as individuals — is a work in progress.
Maybe the pursuit of success is, in and of itself, success. At the risk of sounding hackneyed… It’s about the journey, not the destination.
Stop trying to be successful.
“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
— Albert Camus
Will this post make me lots of money? Will it inspire even one person? In the words of Mark Manson… “Who gives a f*ck?” I truly enjoyed writing it — that makes it a successful post. Similarly, if anyone aspires to “be successful,” they’re missing the point. Stop trying to be the noun. Do the verb. You achieve success one goal at a time, just as you become happier one moment at a time. Always remember to enjoy the ride.