But is that really all there is to it?
I distinctly remember a conversation I had with one of my teachers when I was back in high school, deliberating whether or not I should "aim for the top" and apply for top US universities. He reflected that he'd had the opportunity to take more "successful" pathways, but he'd seen the sacrifices that had been made by people who had gone to the top and achieved amazing things, and wanted a more balanced life.
At the time, I was one stressed out student, and that conversation left me with a firm belief in a tradeoff between success and balance - having time and energy to invest into other things you value, like family, wellbeing, helping others, and activities that enrich your life.
Being a hopeful optimist, however, a part of me still wondered, isn't there a way to be successful and have balance? After all, doesn't positive psychology tell us that happiness leads to success, not (only) the other way around (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005)? As long as we're enjoying the process while striving for goals, and not stuck in a rat race, living only for the future (Ben-Shahar, 2007), shouldn't it work out? And if you follow the advice of all the productivity and lifestyle bloggers (e.g., Cal Newport, Ramit Sethi, Tim Ferriss) and are smart about how you go about it, surely it's possible to have your cake and eat it too?
As with many of these difficult questions, I think the answer is yes - and no. It depends on how you define success. If you take a "traditional" accomplishment-based or "narrow" definition of success, then the answer may be no; at least for a substantial part of the journey. It's probably a reality that performance at the highest level requires disproportionate and sometimes "superhuman" levels of sacrifice and self-discipline that in no way resemble a "normal" life.
I am not at all condemning "traditional success", or saying that it's necessarily bad to pursue it. Given various combinations of values and personal circumstances, some people thrive under these conditions, and indeed, accomplishment is a component of the PERMA model of flourishing (Seligman, 2011). However, for the most part, I would suggest that it's misleading to believe that success will necessarily make you happy. Why not? I think this quote from a recent blog post criticising "the myth of the Ivy League" is illustrative:
"Even talking to my peers who were the most “successful” by all external standards — snagging scholarships, winning awards, landing coveted jobs — I heard undertones of emptiness and sadness that suggested they weren’t truly fulfilled."
It's this sense of enduring fulfilment that seems to be missing from the pursuit of "traditional success". The pesky thing about being human is that we adapt to our successes. As we reach new levels of success, get a raise, buy a new car, win an award, publish in a top journal, and reach our various milestones, our expectations rise so that we're starting at baseline once again and always hungry for more, more, more. It's called the hedonic treadmill because we have to constantly work to maintain a certain level of happiness.
So where does fulfilment come from, and what's the alternative? As I said, it's about how you define success. I would argue that it is legitimate and adaptive to broaden our definitions of what success means, so that we're measuring success with the right metrics.
Here's the really cool part: being a thinking, self-aware human being, you get to decide on what success means to you and what metrics to use. And if you choose to incorporate the idea of balance into these metrics, then yes, you can have success and balance because balance is, after all, an integral part of what you consider to be success.
Try it now. What's your personal definition of success?
Write as much or as little as you'd like; whether it's a few keywords, a sentence or two, a few guiding principles, or a full-blown personal manifesto. I would love to read these in the comments! If you need some guidance, here are a few questions that might help you decide what to include:
- From the perspective of your ideal future self at age 90, what would you like to say about your life - for example, what you've contributed to the world, and what you would like to be remembered for?
- What qualities do you admire in others?
- What makes life meaningful for you?
- What are your top values?
It's not a problem at all if your personal definition of success changes over time, and it's expected that it will evolve as you grow and encounter new experiences. It's just useful to have a roadmap at this stage to help reconnect you with what matters to you in life. Also, it's totally ok to have elements of "traditional success" in there too - this is not intended to replace existing aspirations, but to broaden them. It can be helpful to keep this in a handy, easily accessible place (e.g. your phone, desk, or wall) where you can be regularly reminded of what matters.
To conclude on a personal note, what does success mean to me (in 2014)? I do have career aspirations - I'd like to be an academic, but I want to go about it in a certain way and for certain reasons, in a picture that is grounded in a commitment to collective wellbeing. So here are a few of my personal metrics, in no particular order:
- Conduct research that actually makes a difference in promoting human and societal flourishing.
- Be an academic who genuinely cares about students - in particular, be approachable and generous with my time in mentoring students and opening up opportunities for them.
- Be a mindful, loving and authoritative parent who prioritises family.
- Be kind to all beings.
- Live with less and give more every year to effective causes.
- Walk the talk: maintain my personal wellbeing and health, because this forms the basis for all of the above. Mindfulness helps a lot, so practice is important to me.
Of course, it won't be easy; realistically, with the vicissitudes of life and ambition, I fully accept that there will be days and even weeks when I lose sight of what matters. But if I can live in line with these principles as best I can, most of the time, then I would feel that I had truly succeeded in my career and in life.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. New York: McGraw Hill Professional.
Grant, A. M. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York: Penguin Group.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Simon & Schuster.