“When I grow up, I want to become the biggest failure in the history of mankind!”
“I want to aim for the title of the worst tennis player on the planet!”
You never hear these sentiments from anybody. Nobody shoots for failure. All of us want to aim for the heavens, to become the biggest stars in the firmament.
We want to succeed.
Lack of failure?
However, we have difficulty defining success. We do not want to fail. But avoiding failure is not the same as succeeding.
Be the best?
Well-meaning slogans surround us. “Be all you can be!” But what exactly is that? How does anybody know that they have become all that they could become? Unless, of course, they are the best at what they do. And who would decide that?
Judging the best
In some fields of endeavor, this is easy. Tennis has its championships. So does golf. Even team sports have so-called “world championships.” A baseball team is on top of the world today. But next year, they might be down in the dumps. Has the best suddenly become the worst? And how much is the difference between the best and the worst?
Say you are a golfer. You are ranked number one in the world. Then you go on to lose the next few major tournaments. You lose your crown. Are you no good now?
Well, you might still be among the top ten players. Is that a good enough definition of success?
What if you drop to number thirty in the world? Are you still successful?
And these rankings keep changing every few months, if not more often. Is it reasonable to define success on a quarterly basis? Is that a reasonable way for people to judge their lives, their efforts, their careers?
That elusive success
In the field of sports, you can get a report card, or a ranking, or a score card. But what about other spheres of life?
Are you a successful parent, or spouse? Are you a brilliant lawyer, doctor, electrician?
Try defining it!
The achievement of a goal, aim, or purpose, is how success is often defined.
Others call it the attainment of popularity or profit.
“The correct or desired end of an attempt” is the opinion of the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Judging by results?
Let us look carefully at those definitions.
Attempts are supposed to be successful if they have the correct or desired ending.
What is the correct ending? The desired result of human endeavor? Some pursuits have no ending. Doctors are always “in practice.” There is no perfection.
We like to see results, especially good results, or desired results. But results are not always going to be favorable to us, and the world does not revolve around our desires.
There are other people on this planet, too, and they have their own desires. Two teams compete, and one has to lose. Is that team a failure, no good?
Let us take other examples. Say you have children, and you obviously do your best to raise them well. But do you always get the desired results? You might want your kid to go to Harvard. If, however, he ends up in the local community college, are you a failure as a parent? And is your child doomed to fail in this world? Not necessarily. Many people who went on to achieve greatness studied in average colleges, and some did not attend college at all.
Some of the people who have had the most profound influence on me have been my teachers, especially middle school and high school teachers. None of them were rich, and none were famous. Many of them are no longer alive. But they live on in my mind. Were they successful?
Actions and results
If we keep judging success by results, we will invariably end up feeling miserable, or at least dissatisfied, in the long run.
The reason is two-fold
Results are transient. A star manager can, and often does, get fired. Successful shows on TV do not run forever. Mansions on the beach frequently end up as fodder for divorce lawyers. Even Tiger Woods could not maintain his dream sequence of golf championships. And then what?
Results are not under our control
This is one of the most bitter pills to swallow, especially in the modern world. We are taught to work hard, play hard, climb the ladder, and rule the roost.
Except that there may not always be a roost to rule.
Common sense dictates that actions are, for the most part, under our control. Especially our own actions. After that, our sphere of influence narrows considerably, and often stops.
But we continue to want to control everything: other people, events, results. And we continue to feel that that will make us happy and successful. We might be proved wrong, but we do not learn; perhaps because we do not want to learn.
We keep doing what we are programmed to do by society, because we are afraid that the alternative will mean failure, unhappiness, and loss of face.
We cling to an antiquated belief system, because “everybody does it.” Everybody chases money, and fame. And becomes disillusioned, but does not want to admit it publicly.
Where does that leave us?
We need a new approach, based on age-old wisdom.
Success, happiness, and satisfaction are not found in external circumstances. The key to these lies within us, and can be found with introspection, clarity of thought, and a sense of perspective.
People living in miserable conditions have shown remarkable courage and achieved a state of peace that most of us cannot even imagine.
Concentration camp survivors have described methods they used to rise above their circumstances.
Nelson Mandela did not let years of imprisonment make him bitter, and radiated an inner joy which enabled him to forgive his tormentors.
- External circumstances are transient. Using money, fame, and material possessions to determine our worth is likely to lead to frustration.
- Living in the present, and making the most of the present moment, brings peace.
- The past is gone. We should learn from it, and then move on. Constantly reliving the past will not bring joy or satisfaction.
- The future is uncertain. It is not guaranteed, and is not under our direct control.
- Human beings share this planet, and are more alike than different. A sense of empathy and kindness, and a focus on others, rather than always on us, will bring inner peace.
- A strong feeling of gratitude, rather than of entitlement, will lead to humility, and lasting joy.
- Focusing on appropriate actions, which are always under our control, rather than on results, which are unpredictable, will lead to satisfaction.
- A successful life is a life of enjoying the moment, acting compassionately, responsibly, and without undue concern about outcomes.
What do you think?
I would love to know!
Please share your thoughts in the comments section.