Do a quick Google search for “success”, and you can easily see what the American ideal of success looks like. SUCCESS magazine tops the list, featuring articles for entrepreneurs and business people who are striving to be productive, build their net worth, or otherwise move up the corporate ladder. Success is a popular topic for TEDtalks, a buzzword in recent news, a keyword for photos of smiling, affluent people or a silhouette on the top of a mountain.
Do you see a trend?
Show Me The Money
Popular perspective suggests that a successful person is someone with a lot of money in the bank. Listen to any rap song, and the rapper will tell you about his humble beginnings broke as a joke, and wave a fistful of cash and gold chains while crowing about his current success in life. As a culture, we see business owners, entrepreneurs, wealthy entertainers, and industry magnates as the pinnacle of achievement and success. What these people all have in common is access to a lot of cash, which in turn gives them power. But is that really the most important thing we can achieve in our lives?
The Straight And Narrow
As young students, we all hear the narrative: get good grades in school, go to a stellar college, and you’ll land a great job and be successful. Money is king, and the more of it you have, the happier you will be… right? Just put your nose to the grindstone, and eventually you can retire and do something more interesting.
If you repeat a message to someone enough times, it eventually becomes truth. Many students in college are fretting over whether their grades will land them a prestigious internship, because without an internship they’ll never get a good job, and without a good job, how can they buy a car, a home, and get married? There’s a series of milestones everyone seems intent on reaching along the same straight and increasingly competitive path. Students argue every question on their exams, because the difference between a B+ and an A- could decide if they’re accepted to the Harvard MBA program.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, a lot more people are stopping to question the “life plan” their parents were so sure would lead to success. The stock market crash knocked the wind out of a lot of retirement accounts, and suddenly the years of suffering at an unsatisfying job were worthless. More people are realizing there is a big difference between making a lot of money, and making enough money.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Instead of letting the rest of the world decide what success looks like, think for a moment: what makes YOU feel successful?
Maybe it’s spending time with your family, or traveling the world to experience different cultures. What do you want to do that your job takes away from? Do you enjoy the work that you do, or do you head into the office each morning wishing you could be anywhere else?
Obviously, we all live in a world where money is a necessity. This author is not suggesting that you sell the family farm and catch the next plane to Brazil. But it is paramount that we examine our lives, and question who we are living for. Do you want a promotion because the rest of the world tells you it’s a good thing, even though the extra time at work would take away from family time with your 3-year-old? Society suggests that promotions are always a good thing, but we must look at the reality. Choices are usually just that, a choice. But by choosing one thing, we are not choosing another.
The exploding interest in lifestyle design tells us that a lot of people haven’t been choosing their careers as much as they’ve allowed their careers to choose them. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris lays out a plan for mini-retirements sprinkled throughout life, instead of working yourself to the bone until 65 and hoping your retirement account lasts until you’re dead. Ferris suggests that a heavily automated and outsourced online business can be the solution for many people who don’t want to endure the 9-5. Others choose the freelance lifestyle, or negotiate a remote-working agreement with their current manager. Mobility and autonomy are the new office, and many people are finding freedom and defining their own success in this manner.
Some people are happy with their jobs, but feel a social pressure to keep moving up the ladder. “Oh, so you’re a project supervisor? When do you think you’ll be promoted to senior project manager?” or “Honey, when do you think you’ll get that raise? It would be great to send Mark to a specialized summer camp.” We tend to consume, consume, consume, without considering that by cutting back in one area we can divert resources to another. Instead of taking the promotion and adding to her stressful workload, maybe Mark’s family could streamline daily expenses and divert those savings into a camp fund.
Discover Your Success
Not everyone wants to be a business owner, and the freelance lifestyle isn’t right for everyone. Some people love throwing their all into a job and getting it done well, and some people want to use the smallest amount of time possible devoted to their income. There is no one-size-fits-all formula that guarantees happiness for everyone, and that goes for success, too. By making conscious choices that reflect our true priorities in life, we might find that success is much closer than we thought.