Every society has its own vision of what it means to be a success. In the West, this tends to revolve around a capitalist vision of material prosperity: a big house, a fancy car, nice clothes, and lots of money.
In traditional societies, it often focused on family: lots of kids and grandkids to support a person in old age. But while there are certain stereotypes about what it means to be a success, all of these are moving targets that we never quite seem to hit. Someone else always has more money, a better car, a bigger house. As a result, too many of us feel that we are not successful enough, even if we have more that we could ever need or use.
Our society creates these feelings because, at heart, inadequacy drives capitalism. Businesses need us to feel like we haven’t achieved enough so that we will strive to buy more. When we don’t feel successful, we feel compelled to take actions that will help us to feel more successful, and many businesses use that feeling to convince us that buying things is the way to achieve feelings of success. The problem, of course, is that the cycle never ends. There is always something else to want and strive for.
This is a dark mirror of an essential fact of life: “success” really is a journey and not a destination. Success if about what it means to be someone who tries hard, dedicates time and talent to reaching a goal, and achieves a dream. However, the journey of success is not a yellow brick road paved with gold but rather an effort to find satisfaction and fulfillment in life.
One does not become successful by meeting an arbitrary standard. Consider, for example, a man who believes that earning $10,000,000 will make him a financial success. Does that mean that at $9,999,999 he is unsuccessful? If he then finds $1 in between his couch cushions, what has really changed that made him a success once he has that final dollar than when it was lost in the couch and he simply thought he didn’t have it? In other words, the elements that made the man a success were the hard work, the dedication, and the skills he put into earning his money, not the amount of cash on hand.
Similarly, we must think of success as the process by which we achieve our goals, not the specific goals themselves. One can be a success in any endeavor, but one becomes a success through developing the habits of success. Imagine a woman who wants to be a great artist. She paints day and night, developing her skills and undertaking and amazing amount of work. She fills galleries with her paintings, but one day an art critic praises one of them and suddenly their value skyrockets. Did the critic’s validation transform the artist into a success, or was her success in the journey that she undertook in creating the work that others would eventually value?
Ultimately, the only person who can define success for us is ourselves. We must decide what it means to be a success. For most of us, success is not a specific goal but rather the striving, the dedication, and the drive to reach that goal. Picking a goal is an arbitrary end point, and sticking too rigidly to it risks cutting off our success too soon. Rather than saying “I am a success because I earned a million dollars,” try saying “I am a success because I work hard, strive to be better every day, and receive rewards commensurate with my efforts.” By defining success as what we do rather than a specific level of achievement, we can more clearly see that success is a journey rather than a destination. After all, if you reach a destination, you stop traveling, and success is about never stopping.