The Myth of Success
A few years ago my therapist asked me, “What do you want out of life?”
I said the first thing that came to my mind: “I want to be successful.”
He looked at me, puzzled, and replied, “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” I said. “I want to be successful. I want to be wealthy, powerful, and recognized.” In other words, I framed a conventional vision of success, the one drummed into us by popular culture and other social dimensions.
My therapist chuckled at my naïveté for a moment and then asked, “Alan, why do you believe that wealth, power, and recognition are the definition of success?” He then went on to explain to me that success is defined as “accomplishing an aim or purpose,” but the definition of that aim or purpose is completely up to you.
My mind was officially blown.
Up until that day, I had never really thought about why I defined success that way—instead, I’d been obsessed with how I would attain those things. That focus on the how instead of the why had really tripped me up. It had led me to make some very bad decisions and to experience some very unhappy times. When you follow the influence of mainstream culture—television, movies, magazines, and more—to elevate the goals of wealth, power, and recognition above all else, it becomes logical to take selfish or negative actions in order to attain them. After all, that kind of approach—playing the game, playing for keeps, as they say—is put forth as the way to achieve success and happiness. Machiavelli’s writings are often referenced to support this point of view—statements like “the ends justify the means”—but it should be noted that Machiavelli died alone and in exile.
It’s only when you free yourself from external definitions of success that you’re able to comprehend the folly of this type of pursuit. Ask yourself: What’s the point of attaining a goal if it isn’t going to satisfy your internal needs? All you’re going to end up with is some form of a trophy (money, a big house, a nice watch, some press clippings) alongside a big bowl of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. You can only define yourself as a success if the result of your actions is the satisfaction of your internal desires, not that of some superficial, outside force.
It isn’t relevant if society deems you a success—it’s whether you believe you’re achieving success that matters. For some this may mean fame and fortune, but for others it may just mean putting food on the table every night for their family and having a loving relationship with their spouse. The determining factor is how you feel and what you desire on the inside. The first and most powerful step is realizing you have the power to determine what success looks like for you. Only then can you free yourself from the myth and begin the journey of living your truth.
The ancient Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu said, “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” To discover your success you must connect to your inner self. But Western culture prefers the world you can see and touch: to “be somebody,” you have to look good and have a lot of money. This is an unhelpful message, because your definition of success is derived from your purpose – which is completely internal. Generally, when someone is unhappy or lacking meaningful sustenance in their life or business, it’s because their internal self isn’t in harmony with their external self. For example, they love to paint or work with their hands, but spend all day working in an office on finance. While this may be an oversimplification, it’s precisely this type of dissonance that causes energy blocks that manifest in people as depression, anxiety, and frustration, and in organizations as poor performance, low engagement, and weak sales. Bottom line, and to quote Kanye West, we “worry ’bout the wrong things, the wrong things.”
In simplest terms, you won’t be able to unlock your potential, achieve sustainable success, or even be fundamentally happy unless you align your internal and external worlds—unless you’re true to yourself. Therefore, to begin the journey of discovering your success, you must focus on what matters to you internally, not externally. And the first step in this process is to eliminate obstacles that prevent you from hearing the signal above the noise. These obstacles include things such as commercial concerns, financial motivations, comparing yourself to someone else, and other manifestations of ego. Think of the little devils sitting on characters’ shoulders in cartoons—that is the exact function of these obstacles, confusing you by telling you the superficial or selfish thing to do. Your goal is to eliminate those voices and learn to concentrate instead on that small voice in the back of your head expressing your true desires and work to slowly build up its presence in your inner narrative. You must encourage your soul-level wants and needs to bubble up to the surface and take center stage.
According to famed music producer Rick Rubin, “One of the main things I always try to do is to create an environment where the artist feels pretty comfortable being naked—that kind of a safety zone where their guard is completely let down and they can truly be themselves and feel open to exposing themselves. It’s very powerful when people do that, when people really open up.” And that’s exactly what you must do to discover your success. Create a safety zone for yourself where you can shut off the world for a moment and ask yourself the important questions, exploring what really matters, without any concern for the implications of those thoughts or decisions. Because if you don’t access what exists deep inside you, as Lao Tzu says, you may end up where you are heading without knowing if it’s really where you want to go.