Rethinking Success: Why Society's Definition Is Failing Us

Rethinking Success: Why Society's Definition Is Failing Us
Photo by Razvan Chisu / Unsplash

Here is a definition of success by the Collins Dictionary.

success (noun) (səkses)                                   

1. Success is the achievement of something that you have been trying to do

2. Success is the achievement of a high position in a particular field,  for example in business or politics.               

3. Someone or something that is a success achieves a high position,   makes a lot of money, or is admired a great deal.                               

Why this definition sucks

“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days,” he said, “days when I didn’t go outside. This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.” At this point, the interviewer notes that Musk stopped talking because he became overwhelmed with emotion.                                                                                                              - Partaker, Eric. The 3 Alarms pp. 26-27

In your honest opinion, is this person successful?

This person is Elon Musk.

I don't need to tell you who he is. That alone should make his super successful, no? He achieved a high position, makes a lot of money and is admired a great deal. Before someone throws a rotten tomato at me, let me clarify : it doesn't mean he isn't successful, but that if he is it's not because of his money or fame.

We could argue that he is successful because he's building a future for humanity on Mars or because he leads an energy revolution. But what about an investment banker who clearly isn't making the world a better place? Money : check. Prestige : check. And what if this investment banker sacrificed his health or relationships to get to the top of his field? Is that success?

Here's some reasons our societal definition of success is dysfunctional.

1.  It doesn't serve YOU. It serves the ECONOMY.

What is true for society at large isn’t always true for the individual. By chasing success, you increase your productivity, which serves the economy. But you aren’t the economy. (Btw, if you name is Economy, I’d like to talk to your parents.)

2.  It encourages you to compare and despair.

There's always someone more successful than you. If success is the standard, what is enough success? When to stop?

3.  "Success" isn't entirely in your control.

It depends on luck, your upbringing and circumstances. Are you willing to judge yourself and others on outcomes you didn't control?

4. Material success and prestige are a bad proxy for happiness

Most people actually care about happiness / life satisfaction, not material success or prestige.  Enough money can eliminate sources of unhappiness, it can solve material problems, but it won't make you happy.

If this definition doesn't make sense, what could happen to someone who accepts it as is?

The Danger

Not defining what success is to you is dangerous. This lack of intentionality means you risk floating through life until you realize - maybe too late - what really did matter. We call it "the drift".

The number one most important thing is knowing why you are doing what you are doing. I have found that most people don’t know. They tend to just go with the flow, and social norms are a really, really powerful thing.                                            
Deathbed regret : You pursued something that someone said you should want, instead of what you really want.                                                                                           - Derek Sivers

On your deathbed, would a fat bank account or the admiration of people you don't care about matter? If you don't know what YOU believe in, you'll turn to the default option : success =  money + prestige.  

Eric Partaker thought of himself a successful man, until he experienced a heart attack on a plane he boarded against the advice of his doctor.

I certainly wasn’t thinking of everything I’d accomplished or all the successes I’d experienced. Instead, I immediately thought of my five-year-old son, waiting for me at home. Maybe I’d joined the 2% Club when it came to my work, but that didn’t matter when I thought I was about to die. What mattered was that I’d failed to prioritize my health and my son as much as my work. I didn’t want to die having never been the best father I could have been for my boy.                - Eric Partaker

Why would someone live their whole life chasing status? Because "I didn't want to get left behind". By choosing you own definition of success, you become responsible of yourself. You have to think. And thinking is lonely. It sets you apart from the group, you become "different" and you can't export your required thinking to big community computer anymore.

This danger is even more important if you pursue a prestigious career. Paul Graham said that it is  “a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy”. C.S . Lewis warns that , ” unless you take measures to prevent it , this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care . ” He believed “ any other kind of life , if you lead it , will be the result of conscious and continuous effort" .

What can you do about it?

The metrics of success which we choose lead to long-term, real-life consequences, and they determine everything.                                                                 - Mark Manson

Choose to define your success however you want, but it should SERVE you. If success doesn’t bring what you want, life satisfaction/happiness or whatever you genuinely care about, what’s the point?

Would you rather be someone famous and influential for something that doesn’t matter (like, say, being on a reality TV show), or be anonymous and unknown despite working on something that is insanely important (like, for instance, researching cures for cancer)?”                                                                     -  Mark Manson

Define your metrics. Make them clear enough to be able to explain them to ANYBODY. Even your pet plant.
They might not be perfect, but at least :

  1. You control what makes your life successful and can change your mind anytime.
  2. You are playing you OWN game, so you don't have compare yourself to others to see if you are winning
  3. YOU care about those metrics. Not the news, not your coworkers, not even Jimmy, YOU.

And finally, it's hard to do worse than Big House = Big Smile.

The traditional definition of success is for people who are lost. When you don’t know what to think, you accept the default option. The default option will fail you. But you can choose.

Dont know where to start? Here are some ressources that helped me.

  1. The Almanack of Naval Ravikant is a treasure trove. It's even free! You can find the Naval Ravikant podcast here.
  2. The Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson, especially chapter 4, 76-89

3. Uncommon Sense, Derek Sivers

4. How To Figure Out What You Want To Do With Your Life, Ali Abdaal

5. The Pathless Path, Paul Millerd

P.S : Merci Jacob, j'apprécie ton aide!