Friday, June 8, 2018

How do we define Success?

The other day, I was shown the resume of quite the accomplished woman.  Numerous publications in scientific journals.  An extensive career in engineering.  Her own consulting company.  Plus, armed with a PhD.  I dont think many would argue her being impressive and successful on paper.  However, what this got me thinking about are some of the following concepts and questions:

--How do we define success?  Both as a culture, and then as a result of our culture, personally?

--How the narrowness of this definition often excludes a lot of truly impressive, awesome people who are absolutely successful in ways that might not be so obvious on first glance.

--And how our narrow definition of success can lead many people to feeling perpetually never good enough, as though they have never achieved or done "enough," even when that isnt even close to accurate or true.

Much like how we consider beauty in our culture (for women: quite thin/slender, large breasts, narrow waist, curvy hips, tight round butt, ever perfectly made up face and hair) (for men: muscled, trim waisted, tall, toned, brooding, stoic seeming), and by which I mean in a narrow, one track way, it seems that success in our society is defined much the same.  The yardstick used for measuring such, a short and linear one.  Basically the more lengthily your resume and the more you've "accomplished," the more impressive and worthwhile you apparently are.

(Quick side note on the narrowness of how beauty is defined.  Why do we automatically assume that thin equals beautiful and is sexiest for women?  Plenty of women are thin and unattractive, both physically or in personality/heart.  Conversely, why so often do we say bigger is automatically ugly?  Many larger people are beautiful, physically as well as in personality/heart.

Plus, everyone is familiar with the experience of meeting someone and thinking off the bat, whoa, hottie.  Then later on after having gotten to know this person, seeing them as uglier and not so attractive because of who they are after getting a closer look.  Or, the opposite occurring...meeting someone and initially thinking, meh, but then later on down the road after getting to know them, instead thinking that actually this person is quite attractive.  So yes, we notice how someone looks and it does attract us- or not, to a degree.  This is normal and all good.  But my point is that our narrow views of what is beautiful or not are often shallow and misguided).

This is basically our cultures main idea of beauty in women.  Very uniform, very cookie cutter, like 4 templates of the same interchangeable woman.  Even if her hair were brown, still, they all look the same.  No variant in race, hair length or texture, body type.  Even all the faces look scarily similar...

And, the newly narrowing view of what makes a guy "manly."  Majorly muscled, serious/stoic, slim waist with huge upper body, "tough" and big.

Back to the concept of success in our culture though.  Don't get me wrong, while I agree that having significant accomplishments under your belt can be an awesome thing, and something to be proud of and feel great about, its also an unfairly black and white, narrow, as well as inaccurate way of defining success.  As well as in defining not just success but even more important, personal meaning in ones life.

As a culture, not only do we need to widen our perception of beauty, but also of what makes a person impressive and ultimately, successful.

In especially our Westernized culture, often times the more money you make and the longer hours you toil, people automatically think, "wow, he/she is a hard working and successful person."  Or, to take another tact, the more "famous" a person is online, with the highest number of views and whomever is the most well known via either social media, blogging, or other, is automatically touted as "the best" or "most impressive" just by means of being well known.

Yet, rarely do we stop to look closer and analyze...for what is this person known?  How did they garner such fame?  Do they have good character?  Are they a seeming good person?  And same for the person who works a boatload of hours and makes a ton of money.  Is this person truly happy?  Do they have healthy, loving, close connections in their life?  Are they kind and good?  Do they add meaning to the lives of others?

Instead, we tend to just look at the surface facts.  Do they make money?  Are they well known?  Check yes for both?  
Then they are "impressive," "enviable," and thus, "successful."

The person who is the most "ripped" at the gym must be the most motivated and hardest working at their fitness and thus, is the most successful and impressive, many people would believe or assume.  However, what about the people who go to the gym just as often, are strong, fit, and into health, though are not as outwardly "ripped" or toned?  Why are they "less than" or not as successful or inspiring?

Often, we equate those who are coupled up romantically as being "successful" in the relationship realm.  Enviable.  They've reached the "end goal."  Have it "all figured out."  They are "all set."  However, what about the fact that roughly half of all relationships will end?  (As in, not be lifelong).  And that a decent percentage of those who dont end but still stay together over the long haul aren't actually all that happy or well fitted to each other?

The inaccurate perception many single people have of those who are in relationships.

Therefore, success in terms of a romantic coupling isnt whether you have a partner or not, since many people with partners dont have especially great relationships.  What makes for romantic success is:

--Being in the right relationship.  Meaning, with someone you care for deeply and garner joy being with, and which is a healthy, happy, inspiring, and growth inducing relationship.
--And/or, joyously doing your own thing as a single person and filling your life with affirming, energizing passions and goals, as well as some other close, satisfying social connections.

The man or woman who works 60, 70, 80 hours per week, practically living at work.  And even when home, constantly checking their phone, still tethered to work, half their mind never fully present and instead perpetually trained on work.  This person pulling in 100k or more annually.  Sadly, most of our culture would automatically chirp about this person, "wow, they're successful!"

Really?  On what grounds?

Are they, say, an attentive, present mother or father?  Are they a focused, attentive, generous, and romantic spouse who spends significant time both attending to and connecting with their partner?  Do they contribute meaningfully to the lives of others?  Inspiring or moving them?

While its certainly possible, I doubt they're checking off all these boxes truly.  You cannot have it all unfortunately.  Your heart, focus, and time can only be offered, as well as divided, so much.  One cannot possible do it all to the fullest and highest quality degree.  You have to pick and choose what is the most important for your one precious, wild, and fleeting life on this earth.

Is being "successful" really being holed up in an office 60, 70, 80 hours a week, leaving little quality time or energy for anything else?  I suppose to some, it is.  And while thats ok (as everyone has varying goals and ambitions), its far from the only indicator of success.  And to many wise philosophers, they would likely say that actually, a life like this is a misguided priority/way of living.

Now, more on to the topic of looking a little more closely at how we as a culture define success....  Often, as long as someone is, 1. making a lot of money and 2. widely recognized, we slap the label of "success" on them without much deeper thought.  This is a mistake.  Plenty of people who are well-known and rich offer nothing of value through their means of fame.  Allow me to explain...

To compare two contrasting, thought provoking examples...

Lets take the author of "50 Shades of Gray."  A woman who wrote a series of books about a possessive, jealous, domineering man (even still on removing the BDSM aspects, that aside).  The books glamourizing and making such into a "sexy" and even romantic concept.  About a man who essentially "owns" and keeps a woman down, as his way of feeling powerful and good about himself.  This author?  She has made millions upon millions of dollars.  Loads of people have read, and continue to read her books.

By societal definition of success = money and recognition?  She is majorly successful.

Yet...what do her books offer?  How do they enrich the lives of men and women?  How do they better our lives or just as important, our values?  How do they increase mens respect for and healthy approach to their relations with women?  What do these books teach about respect, real romance, or real love?  (Hint: absolutely nada).  How do these books offer clarity to women with regards to what a healthy relationship looks like?  What do they teach, other than the concept that owning, possessing, and treating a woman bad is apparently "sexy."

Now, to contrast the above, take someone who has written and published a plethora of self help articles online.  Maybe this very person has even published a book too (either via self publishing or the traditional publishing route).  Their writings offering up potentially life changing inspiration and knowledge, or an awe inspiring story, or real life relevant concepts and ideas (say, about having healthier, more successful relationships or about mindfulness and intent in ones connections).  This person isnt nearly as widely read as their "50 Shades" writing counterpart.

But, lets say this persons writing/insights/stories somehow, in big ways or in small, affect a few hundred peoples lives.  Changing them for the better.  Offering their readers feelings of support, guidance, or understanding, where they hadn't felt it prior.  As well as giving new insights or ideas the readers hadn't considered prior, which they now apply to their life's and thus, changing it.

Why isnt this person considered just as successful, or dare I say it, more so, than Ms. 50 Shades?

Next.  Take a look at this cookbook:

The concept of this book?  The author makes all of said recipes drunk, and then shares them with her readers.  The catch?  This $20 book is, in its entirety, recipes that a five year old can make.  One of said recipes involving spreading a plate with tortilla chips, then topping them with prepackaged shredded cheese, then microwaving them and, viola, nachos.  Wow.  Another recipe is called "Layzagna," which, I kid you not, the ingredients listed are: "frozen lasagna" and "potato chips."  How to make it?  Cook the frozen lasagna in the microwave and, while waiting, you can eat the chips as a snack.  This book, my friends, is a BESTSELLER.
Further, this girl heavily encourages and makes humorous in her book, laziness, narcissism, unhealthy drinking, and rudeness.

Now, consider some self published cookbooks.  Less widely read, yet chock full of eye catching photos, many of which encouraging a healthy diet, with delicious recipes, and that are fun to read to boot.  

Why, because these sell less and/or aren't as "known" are they considered lesser successes?  As opposed to say, Miss Drunk Kitchen, which is the epitome of ridiculous.

What about the person who has a low paying, "unimpressive" job by societal standards, and yet has a rich, extensive group of friends with whom they are quite close.  Making a powerful difference in each of these persons lives.  As an emotionally supportive presence, taking time and focus for their friends, and often.  Is someone who is thoughtful and generous.  Who puts in the effort to be a truly attentive listener most of the time.  Who is great fun to be with.  And whose friends love them deeply.

Why isnt this person considered just as successful in life as the one who works 80+ hours a week yet has nowhere near the wealth of love and close connections the former person has?

What about the person who trains for months to run a race of some kind, shaving several minutes off their mile time.  They might not be among the first finishers, but why isnt this still considered quite successful and impressive?

We need to look outside the box that society has so tightly wedged and taped together with regards to what our culture says makes someone successful.  We need to look with new eyes, and closer consideration/analysis as to what makes for a truly successful person.  

Recognition + not come even close to automatically =success.

Plenty of people are widely recognized, make a lot of money, and yet contribute nothing to society.  Or worse, some of these very people even causing damage and adding poor value to our culture at large.  Plenty of people achieve fame for absolutely nothing that is impressive, good, nor meaningful.  Plenty of people are rich/work a ton and yet, lead empty, meaningless lives.  

Instead, we need to pause and lean closer.  What is this person famous for, really?  What do they add of value to their society and to our culture?  What do they add in terms of meaning to other peoples lives?  Does this person seek learning and growth actively and regularly?  What do they do which adds joy, positivity, support, or meaning to their community?  Are they brave, honest, kind hearted, and true?  Do they go out of their way in positive ways for others?  Do they chase their dreams in a way thats inspiring?

These are just some of the questions to ask when, on looking closer, considering what makes for a life of success.  Both in your own life, and in the lives of those around you.


  1. Hey Brooke, well said, couldn't agree more! What an inspiring article!

    1. Dali, thank you so much for reading, and for the comment. I really appreciate it :-). Glad to have offered something you enjoyed.