If you want to look back on a life that fills you with joy, conventional rules for success are not the place to start
- Don’t chase money, power, or status.
If they come to you, that’s fine. But most conventional ideas about success go wrong because they focus on outcomes instead of on the processes of living. Outcomes come around from time to time, but life itself—the process of living, acting, thinking, and being—happens all the time. No outcome is going to make a lousy, miserable process feel worthwhile.
If you hate what you do, no amount of power or money will make up for that. If your life is constantly stressful, boring, unhappy, or frustrating, how can achieving some high status once in a while make up for all the miserable days and weeks you spent getting there? It’s tempting to feel that the end will more than make up for the means; that you’ll forget the misery in the blaze of achievement. And you will—for a few moments. Then you’ll be back on the treadmill, with only the distant hope of some fresh achievement or monetary gain to console you. That’s like being a laboratory rat conditioned to unnatural behavior by occasional pellets of food.
- Take whatever time you need to discover what matters to you most
Success isn’t simply a matter of money, power, or prestige. You could gain all of those and still feel that you have fallen short of what you wanted; or you could gain none of them and be blissfully happy and fulfilled. What constitutes personal success is mostly in your mind. It has much less to do with finding the best career in other peoples’ eyes, creating a killer business, or holding down a fancy job with a big salary than with achieving what really matters to you. Many people find this out too late. They struggle for years to get where other people said they should go, only to find it does little or nothing for them. Sad;y, it’s often too late by then to do anything else.
- Don’t base your choices on others’ approval. We all want to please those we care about, so it’s natural to try to do what they approve. Natural, but rarely a good idea as the basis for life’s choices. I don’t say that you should deliberately ignore sound advice, or reject a career path simply because other people suggest it. But even the most loving parent or friend can’t always see what is going to make your heart sing. Listen to others. Value their input and their support. But go your own way. It’s better to be committed to doing what you truly love than accept something lesser for the sake of being approved by someone else.
- Stay authentic. That means always doing what truly matters to you and is part of who you are. The simplest definition of a hypocrite is someone who says one thing and does another: like a person who says that he or she wants to work at something that benefits society, then forgets that at the first sight of a fistful of dollar bills. Somewhere inside of you is a part that recalls what truly matters and will never quite let you forget it. Over the years, that inner voice is only going to get louder.
- Go for meaning over money every time. It’s perfectly possible to do something meaningless to you and earn a great deal of cash while doing so. Some people do, especially in parts of the media world. It just requires a stronger stomach and more cynicism that most people possess, plus a huge tolerance for boredom.
Is it worth it? If money is truly all that matters to you—and you can make lots of it quickly and get out—it might be. Few areas of work will allow you to do that, aside from criminal ones. Meaningless days corrode most peoples’ minds and destroy their happiness. Doing something that means a great deal to you almost always makes you feel energized and alive. It’s your choice.
- Be endlessly greedy—for learning. You can never learn too much or overfill your mind with new ideas. Nothing is more useful in life than a well-developed, well-stocked mind, especially one that has been broadened and enlarged in the process. It’s hard to name a single famously successful person who was narrow-minded, bigoted, or stupid. The list of notable successes who are recognized for the power of their minds is long. And you don’t have to have had an expensive education to be able to develop a great mind. There have been plenty of near geniuses whose education was almost entirely self-produced.
- Make a friend of failure. You are certain to fail sometimes, and the higher your aspirations, the more frequent and significant that failure will be. People who don’t strive for anything glorious rarely fail; they take no risks and never aim beyond what is easily attainable. But if you treat failure as an enemy, it’s going to lead only to discouragement and even the abandoning of your hopes and dreams. Failure can be a friend, pointing out what isn’t right yet and showing you the way to do better. The more proficient you become at accepting the lessons of failure, the quicker you will succeed.
- Make sure that every time you make a mistake, it’s a new one. Making the same mistake several times shows that you haven’t learned what it can teach you. Making new mistakes proves that you’re trying something different. The best definition of a loser is someone who makes the same mistakes over and over again, never managing to learn anything in the process. Such a person is doomed.
- Choose to spend your time with the right people. I don’t mean that in the sense of the rich and the powerful, the movers and shakers of society. Whether they’re powerful or not, the best people to spend time with are those from whom you can learn most: the ones whose own lives have brought them joy and endless fulfillment. That means people who do what they love and love what they do. People who have become experts in life, thinking people, people with wide-open minds and wide-open hearts.
Seek them out wherever you can. Listen to them. Never mind if they are no longer living. Read their books and emulate their largeness of spirit. Learn from them all, but don’t simply copy what they did in this world. What they did was right for them, but may not be right for you. What you need to use as models are their ways of thinking and responding to the challenges of the world; the process of their lives, not what it happened to contain.
- Drop whatever is inconsistent with these principles. That means all activities that don’t move you forward towards what you value most; things that get in the way of learning; pursuits that waste time and dull your senses; and people who hold you back. You may sometimes have to be ruthless. Each of us has only one life. If you waste it, you don’t get another chance. Besides, if you have chosen your dreams and aspirations wisely, what you must leave behind by dropping what’s inconsistent with those dreams will not be worth worrying about anyway. Those who make bad choices find, too late, that they have abandoned things and people that meant more to them than whatever they gained in exchange. If that happens, you have truly reached one of life’s lowest points.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. Recent posts there on similar topics include How to work less and accomplish more and What are you busy doing?. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.