“Sometimes I worry about being a success in a mediocre world.” — Lily Tomlin, American actress, comedian and writer.
People today are doggedly pursuing a rather bizarre notion of success. They are focusing more on grandiose visions of success and less on sustainable, deeply satisfying happiness and success. What’s particularly unsettling is that many people today believe that it’s beneath them to settle for anything but the shiniest, most glamorous and fastest track.
Record numbers of young people, for example, are flocking to law and business schools primarily because, for the individual, a law degree is not only considered a safe ticket, but also a glamorous career path to follow. Under these kinds of ideas, it’s not entirely surprising that liberal arts colleges are struggling to get enrollment because studies designed to provide general knowledge and intellectual skills often aren’t considered ''successful'' enough.
And according to certain television and digital media commercials, success inheres moving up to a premium brand of beer that costs a dime or so more per bottle. Car manufacturers would also have you believe that success entails owning their particular make of vehicle. Similarly, credit-card companies would have you know success means owning their specific piece of plastic.
If these examples of “success” sound petty, it’s because they are.
Success isn’t all about what others can see externally
In the fall of 1984, The Paris Review did an interview with Julio Cortázar (1914–1984), a man hailed as a modern master of the short story and one of Latin America’s greatest writers. They asked him if his eminent fame and success was pleasurable. Cortázar answered:
“Ah, listen, I'll say something I shouldn't say because no one will believe it, but success isn't a pleasure for me. I'm glad to be able to live from what I write, so I have to put up with the popular and critical side of success. But, I was happier as a man when I was unknown. Much happier.”
Just because you look happy and successful externally, doesn’t mean you are also happy and successful internally. On the other hand, just because other people can’t see your success, doesn’t mean you are not successful.
Writer Logan Pearsall Smith had a point when he wondered why people doubted his success. “How can people say my life is not a success?” he questioned. “Have I not for more than sixty years got enough to eat and escaped being eaten?”
It’s sad that some people - including writers, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs - don’t seem to realize that success is not about what others can see. The “success” that people can see; the one that everyone craves for; the one that’s the brightest and trendiest is tempered by a recollection that there was some kind of happiness that was supposed to come with it.
Meaningful success and happiness, however, is determined not by what you have achieved (or not achieved) in life, but by the truthfulness of your efforts and how you feel inside. Material successes and obvious privileges might be desirable, but ultimately what matters more is your significance.
If you base all your decisions on today's hothouse notions of ambition and success, you may be limiting yourself severely and losing more than you know.
Be unique. Be confident. Be true to yourself.
People are locking themselves into unfulfilling careers that will define and also limit their activities and happiness for virtually the rest of their lives because they succumb to societal pressures to appear a certain way or pursue certain things denoted by worldly reward, rather than by a firmness of will and purpose.
Today’s engineers and accountants, for example, have invested so much in their training that only a tiny percentage of them will ever opt out of their early chosen fields to pursue their truest passion career paths, if it be different. And so they forego what would make them truly happy; what resonates with their own person for what is supposedly the logical, safe or clear path to “success.”
The effect of making decision in this way based on hothouse notions of success is that fewer people are taking on the sublime challenges of the arts and sciences. Fewer are putting themselves on the line, making as much of their minds and talents as they can. Fewer are asking the right questions – the questions that engage the heart and creative mind.
Not surprisingly, therefore, many people - by external standards - appear to be ''successes,'' but they are actually depressed. Many people own a mansion on the hill, dine in the finest restaurants, dress well and, in some instances, perform socially useful work, and yet there remains an emptiness in their hearts.
Michael Josephson in his entirely inspiring poem “What Will Matter” (2003) reminds us that ready or not, someday it will all come to an end. Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance. So too your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire. What will matter in the end is not your success but your significance, he says.
In essence, even as Donald A. Miller also observed, “Some aspects of success seem rather silly as death approaches.” Since how we spend each day ultimately determines how we spend our entire life, it’s important to focus more on what really matters to you every day, than what society says should matter.
And as Albert Einstein advised: “Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” That’s a helpful piece of advice we should all heed because, as renowned journalist Walter Cronkite noted, “Success is more permanent when you achieve it without destroying your principles.”
If you want to know what true happiness and success looks like, perhaps you should turn to the immortal words of Bessie Stanley who summed it all very well for us when he said:
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth's beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.”
Image credit: Thomas Hawk via flickr.com