There is a disturbing and growing gap between how our society measures success and what makes individuals feel successful. In this age of social-media dominance, people are constantly reminded of even the most minute achievements of others—and that’s enough to make anyone wonder if their achievements are “enough.”
For a long time, I’ve struggled to answer that question myself. Am I enough? Am I successful? And so, over the past year, I’ve set out to study the concept of “success” and how we can remove the constant layer of anxiety that seems to exist alongside it.
The success disconnect often originates early in life, as children are told they must do well in school so they can get into a good university, get a good job and make a ton of money. Of course, everything ultimately comes down to a measurement of money. For some reason, financial wealth and capital have become synonymous with personal success, despite it being such an enormously incomplete metric. However, there are other types of capital, like social capital and intellectual capital, that we use to measure our impact on the world. When we reach the end of our lives, we aren’t going to think about the financial or work-related capital we missed out on; we’ll think about the time we missed with our children or that we didn’t challenge ourselves enough intellectually. And that is the problem with how society’s success systems are currently constituted. Of course, making a livable wage and providing a comfortable life is one very real measurement of success, but to say it is the most important measurement is misleading at best.
Fortunately, we’ve seen a movement toward more acceptance of alternative success paths in recent years—and now it’s just a matter of architecting systems to allow for those paths to thrive.
Still, while we wait for society to catch up, the onus is on each of us to define and chart our own course. In speaking with hundreds of individuals about success for my book, there are a few recurring themes and behaviors I’ve found that should not only help you come up with your own definition of success, but perhaps more importantly, help you feel successful in your life:
1. Create often
Many of the people I’ve encountered who feel successful and content in their lives prioritize being creative as part of their routine. Recent research conducted at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro backs up this claim, concluding that “Engaging in creative pursuits allows people to explore their identities, form new relationships, cultivate competence and reflect critically on the world.” As it turns out, the level of creation isn’t as important. Whether that creation is a piece of art, a company or even a small backyard garden, putting effort into developing something new in the world makes a dramatic impact on your self-worth and personal evaluation.
2. Seek challenges
Another tenet of people who find and feel success is that they are never satisfied with the status quo. They seek challenges actively in order to grow and to experience failure that in turn makes them more resilient. As evidenced by the work of Teresa Amabile, author of Progress Principle, what makes people feel successful is a sense of moving forward and growth. Again, this growth doesn’t need to be massive; rather, iterative growth is a more sustainable approach. So signing up for your first 5K road race if you’re not a runner or taking a painting class when you don’t consider yourself artistic are both simple ways you can realize the benefits of seeking challenging experiences.
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3. Suspend judgment
Judging yourself and others takes up an enormous amount of energy that could be used on more purposeful activities. In my interviews, one of the greatest obstacles to feeling success was when people were exceptionally hard on themselves for past failures and wrong decisions. Life is really, really hard. Learn from mistakes, but don’t let them define you. I personally struggle with this last characteristic the most. Those who are really able to achieve a suspension of judgment have a combination of two behaviors:
So how do we fix the success disconnect? We need to recognize that success is an individual process and stop forcing everyone—especially ourselves—to conform to standards that are no longer effective.
Bill Connolly is a marketer, speaker and comedian and the author of two books, including The Success Disconnect: Why The Smartest People Choose Meaning Over Money. A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
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