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Defining Success


The subject of success has been coming up a lot lately and it’s a strangely emotional topic for me as I put the finishing touches on my new book. Will it be successful? This podcast is described as successful, but what does that really mean? I make a comfortable living but am very far from rich. Is that success or failure?


My guest last week, Paola Knecht, talked about how we are influenced by others’ concept of success instead of defining our own version of success. In a world where we are rated daily by complete strangers through likes, retweets, and reviews, it’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on looking successful or in other words, defining our success based on other people’s opinions and expectations regarding our level of success instead of what we feel is successful.


I think many people are considering similar themes as the great resignation continuing into this year indicates, so I don’t think I’m alone in questioning what success means. I’m sure you won’t be surprised that I turned to the dictionary and what I discovered was the exact reason success is so confusing. One dictionary defines success as “attaining wealth, prosperity and/or fame.” Another defines it as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” Other definitions on the internet are “the achievement of desired visions and planned goals…an outcome that turns out well, is desirable or is favorable…and satisfactory completion of something.” So defining success is about as clear as mud from external sources.


It's fairly obvious that to define success, we have to understand our values. I don’t place a high value on money for example, so that shifts my aims and purpose away from wealth, prosperity and fame. Don’t misunderstand, money is important to meet our basic needs and to enjoy the comforts of life and I certainly appreciate what we can do with money. I just think pursuing money for the sake of acquiring it is not my purpose and does not necessarily lead to a fulfilling life in and of itself. But it seems that most of society measures success in terms of wealth and fame, so I feel somewhat out of sync with the world at large. And that is what sometimes causes me to question whether I’m successful or not.


I had a fear of public speaking and an even stronger fear of speaking into a microphone most of my life. I felt like my entire body was violently shaking and my voice quivered and I perspired profusely anytime I had to do so for school or work. I have no idea where it came from, but it’s a pretty common fear in general, so I never actively tried to quell it, until of course I had the opportunity to conduct workshops, give conference presentations and ultimately become the host of a podcast. I think I can safely say that I successfully overcame that fear. And that taps into part of my definition of success. Overcoming fear or self-limiting beliefs in order to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. I asked Paola how we get past our fears and she had a very simple but profound answer. By having faith in yourself.


I went back to my original questions about success and tried to exclude other people’s opinions from the mix. What would make me feel like my book is a success? Two factors emerged. First, that I finished writing the darned thing. It has been challenging! So when I finish it, that will be a huge success. Second, if my book influences anyone to change their life, to be more mindful or to take steps to be healthier and happier, I will feel like it is a success. I know I just made every book publisher listening groan, but it can’t be about sales or profits for me to feel like it is a success. That is their version of success. I would be thrilled if I actually make money from it, but that’s not the measure of success for me. That’s more like a side benefit. Consider that I could write a trash-talk book about someone famous and make a lot of money, but that would not make me feel like I’m living my values or accomplishing my aims and purpose in life.


It's the same for this podcast and for my workshops. The podcast is not a money-maker but that was never the purpose. The purpose was to inspire others to practice mindfulness, to help people reduce their stress and to encourage others to be kinder and more considerate of other people. If anyone has benefited from listening, then it is a success. I have always felt that if even one person changes their life after one of my workshops, that workshop was a success.


The point here is that if we pursue what is important to us and we achieve it, then we are successful. If we acquire wealth, prosperity and fame in the process, then great if you want those things, but those are empty achievements if the way we acquire them is through spending our lives doing something without purpose or meaning. That’s a fairly mindless way to live. That was how my company’s name was created. Everyone I knew, including me for a long time, was living to work. Trying to make money. Trying to get the bigger, fancier car, house, trip or retirement account, while being miserable every day. At some point I realized that I didn’t want to live to work anymore, but instead, wanted to work to live. And while there was a lot of fear, I did have faith in my values and followed that as my guiding principle.


I think that’s part of what’s fueling the great resignation. After having two years to think about the precariousness of life, a lot of people took a good look at how they are spending the majority of it. I’ve talked to quite a few people who realized that they thought they were working so hard to make themselves rich but in fact were putting in all of that effort to make someone else rich, whether a boss or a stockholder. Some spent the time recognizing that they have the big fancy house but that they don’t have time to really enjoy it because they have to work so hard to meet the mortgage payments. And one of the most common themes is the number of people who didn’t realize how much time they spent sitting in traffic instead of being with their families until they were homebound and decided no more.


It seems we’re having a mid-life crisis around the definition of success. I’m excited by it, even though I know a lot of the people who have quit their jobs will be tempted to return to the status quo in a new job because the pressure is intense to conform to other people’s expectations. But there are signs of hope abounding. About half of the over 350,000 people who left California last year were from Los Angeles. The Quality of Life Index for Los Angeles dropped to its lowest level since the survey began 6 years ago falling to 53 on a scale from 10 to 100. Being a mecca of fame and fortune, I take that as a hopeful sign. While the pandemic drove many people to return home, wherever that originally was, they don’t seem to be coming back to pursue wealth, prosperity and fame.


It is estimated that 22% of the workforce in the United States will work remotely in 2022. In a recent survey by Owl Labs, remote workers reported having less stress, more focus and a better work-life balance, and in a survey by Slack, 72% of workers now prefer a hybrid remote-office model. In a Price Waterhouse Cooper survey, 73% of executives found that remote work has been a success. Add that shift in mindset to the nearly 5.4 million applications filed to form new businesses in 2021, the most of any year on record. Between remote work and people breaking out to create their own businesses, that’s a lot of people shifting from living to work to working to live. It seems we might have learned something during those shutdowns that changed lives. We might even be becoming more mindful in our approach to life.


Have you considered your measurements for success? If up until now it’s been fortune and/or fame, you might want to take some time to reflect on how you feel at this point. Again, there’s nothing wrong with fame and fortune if that’s what you really want. But I think for most of us, we’ve been influenced to believe that fame and fortune are what defines success and that simply isn’t true. Success is personal. From a mindful perspective, it is based on individual values and requires self-awareness. It incorporates our sense of joy, purpose, beliefs and desires. It takes into consideration the impact our pursuit of success has on others. And it reminds us that as with mindfulness, it is the journey that is important.


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