The “Success” Trap What does the word “success” mean to you? When you hear “She is very successful” or “He’s made a success of himself” what does that conjure up for you? Our society generally defines success in terms of achieving goals: fame, wealth, status, respect; a big house, a luxury car, a prestigious job, a huge salary. When people achieve these things, our society tends to label them as “successful”. But if we buy into this popular notion of success, we set ourselves up for a lot of unnecessary suffering.
How so? Well, this view of success inevitably pulls us into the goal-focused life - always striving to achieve the next goal: more money, larger house, better neighborhood, smarter clothes, slimmer body, bigger muscles, whiter teeth etc. And the illusion is, “When I achieve this, then I will finally be successful”. And of course, the corollary of that is “When I am successful, I will be happy.” The problem is: a) we may never achieve those goals, or they may be a long way off – which leads to chronic frustration and disappointment; and b) even if we do achieve them, they will not give us lasting happiness; usually they give us a brief moment of pleasure, satisfaction, joy – and then, we are focusing on the next goal.
Furthermore, if you buy into this notion of success, it will put you under tremendous pressure - because you have to keep on achieving and achieving to maintain it. As long as you keep achieving those goals, then you are successful - ‘a winner’, ‘a high-achiever’. But if you stop achieving, then you are no longer successful; you are a ‘has-been’, or ‘a failure’ or ‘a loser’. It is this popular notion of success that leads to the widespread issue of “fragile self-esteem”. Fragile self-esteem is very common in high-performing professionals. These high-achievers often develop a strong positive self-image based on their performance. So as long as they perform well, they have high self-esteem. But as soon as their performance drops, their self-esteem comes tumbling down: from ‘winner’ to ‘loser’, from ‘high-achiever’ to ‘failure’.
In The Happiness Trap, I suggested an alternative definition of success: success means living by your values. If we redefine success in this way, it makes life so much easier – because in any moment, we can act on our values – even though our goals may be a long way off. Suppose you want to change career and become a cardiac surgeon – well, you are looking at a minimum of ten years of your life before you can achieve this goal. That’s a long time. But suppose the core value underlying that goal is to help others. Well, you can act on that value over and over and over, all day, every day for the rest of your life – even if you never become a cardiac surgeon.
By the conventional notion of success, Martin Luther King was not successful: he did not achieve his goal of equal rights for people of all skin colors. And yet – we remember, admire and respect him. Why? Because he stood for something: he lived by his values! And when living by our values becomes the definition of success, it means we can be instantly successful right now. All we need to do is act on our values. From this perspective, the mother who gives up her career to act on her values around nurturing and supporting her children is far more successful than the CEO who earns millions but completely neglects his values around being there for his kids.
Albert Einstein put it this way: ‘Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.’
And Helen Keller put it like this: ‘I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.’
So next time your mind is beating you up for not being successful enough, try saying ‘Thanks mind!’ And then ask yourself ‘What’s a tiny little thing I can do right now, that’s consistent with my values?’ Then go ahead, and do it. And therein lies the secret of ‘instant success’.
In 1968 when I was a freshman in college I discovered Ayn Rand’s writings, first reading The Fountainhead then Atlas Shrugged. This lead to an intensive period of study through the 1990s. In the 1980s and 90s I wrote for publications like On Principle, The Thomas Jefferson Review and The Objective American.
In the meantime I also read other philosophers such as John Kekes, David Norton (Personal Destinies), and Ken Wilber. Norton and Kekes fall into the Aristotelian tradition that has seen a recent rebirth in the form of the virtue ethics movement. Wilber, on the other hand, belongs more to in the Buddhist, Eastern tradition but this doesn’t nearly capture the depth and uniqueness of his thinking. Reading these philosophers sharpened my thinking while exposing me to different viewpoints. While I accept the basic principles of Objectivism, I constantly apply her advice of “check your premises” to Objectivism itself. This blog offers my thoughts on where this approach has taken me.
Henry Scuoteguazza worked as an account engineer with one of the world’s largest industrial property insurers where he provides loss prevention advice to CFO’s and Risk Managers for Fortune 500 customers. His other interests include philosophy (of course), coaching high school tennis, playing tennis and skiing. He lives in eastern Massachusetts with his wife and twin daughters.