Imagine you're in a race and every time you're about to cross the finish line, it's moved another 50 feet in front of you. Cripes! Our pursuit of success often feels like that, a tantalizing mirage that forever shimmers just out of reach.
And what is success? Achievement? Status? Money? The car? The house? The clothes? These are often cultural markers of success which become interwoven with very specific expectations from our family and friends. Yes, our loved ones want us to be happy, but would it kill us if we were also a doctor, a lawyer, a super dad, or the hostess with the most–est? Given how ingrained these assumptions and expectations of success are and yet how elusive it can be, it's no wonder we are often on the hunt for the secrets to success.
Secret #1 Success is a process, not a goal.
Success is best measured in terms of making progress toward our ambition, versus focusing on the moment of achieving the goal. Sometimes we do find ourselves experiencing one of those cultural markers of success: receiving our college degree, winning employee–of–the–month, or giving our Oscar acceptance speech. But most of the time success is simply being in the race and headed in the right direction.
Secret #2 Real success arises from our very personal ambitions and reflects our deepest desires and our highest selves.
If we adopt our culture's or our family's definitions of success we may appear successful, but we will not necessarily feel successful. Success is not always what you see. In the 1972 film The Candidate, Robert Redford plays an idealistic young man who gradually revamps his political views in order to win the election. In the final scene after learning of his electoral victory, instead of feeling successful he feels empty. He turns to ask his advisor, "What do we do now?"
Defining success for ourselves is yet one more of those life–long processes. Some of us find our way early on and set a straight course for years and years. Others may zigzag across the waters of life, seeking to catch the wind in our sails. Whatever your
experience, a set of self–made metrics is essential for good navigation.
Money—Let's get the obvious out of the way. Money and success seem to go together like martinis and olives. We say we need money, but what we really need are food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care, etc. How about money as a signal that others value us? Perhaps, but monetary compensation in the U.S. and other parts of the world is way out of whack with value. Teachers, farmers, circus clowns and just about everyone else in the 99 percent often make less than they are worth. It's best not to confuse money with success. However some amount of money and/or material goods (land, food, housing, etc.) does mean we can successfully meet our needs, which is a worthwhile goal.
Achievements—There are specific goals we want to achieve, like finding the cure for cancer, baking the perfect pie, or learning to speak Klingon. Some of these culminate in a marker of success like receiving a degree or getting a merit badge, and they can become important to our feeling of accomplishment, at least for awhile. The irony is that often by the time we've attained our objective, we have our eye on the next shiny target. For example the high school graduate who is already contemplating college or her first job as she walks across the stage, or the Oscar nominee busily pursuing his next starring role.
Freedom—Everyone who doesn't want freedom raise your hand. Exactly. Most of us want some degree of freedom. According to Daniel Pink, the author of Drive, autonomy is one of the chief motivators that gets us out of bed and doing. So freedom is both a goal and a means towards success. You may seek autonomy as part of your success (work your own hours, be your own boss, etc.) and by having more autonomy you are even more motivated to pursue your dreams.
These are but three possible metrics for success. Others include personal growth, status, impact, types of experiences, quality of life, etc. Once you have figured out your metrics, the next not–be–forgotten step is to actually use them. The risk you run by not measuring how you are doing is that you can perpetually feel unsuccessful (ugh!). Conversely you may think you're successful only to discover that by your own metrics you really aren't. Which brings us to our third so–called secret:
Secret #3 If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
Check out this classic story about a fisherman and businessman entitled appropriately enough, "The Good Life" (3 mins.) Note the fisherman's metrics of success and how they guide him.
Biographies can offer insights about the often rocky road to success. For example Genius of Place by Justin Martin describes Frederick Law Olmsted's difficult life as a visionary designer of Central Park and other American landscapes.
Pick three metrics to monitor your progress toward success. For example:
1) Money to pay the bills for 6 months.
2) Freedom to meet my needs for well being every day (sleep, eating, playing, etc.)
3) Learning a specific skill that helps me in my work.
Now take a few minutes once a month to evaluate progress based on your metrics. What's the impact of having metrics? How do you feel when you do and don't make progress?
Wishing you bucket loads of success,
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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