Success: What is it and Who Owns it, Anyway?

Welcome to June, the month made famous for two things: graduations and marriages. (Along with these events come lost weekends mingling with people you don’t know; pretending that mingling is your life.) With all the interest in graduation and marriage it only seems right to write my two bits of thought about them. However, even I am smart enough not to write about marriage, so graduations it is.

Curiously, maybe because I have never graduated from anywhere, I have never been invited to address the graduates of anything. However, if I were to be invited to do so here is what the graduates would hear. They would hear me talk about success. That is, success in their careers, not success in marriage. That I will leave up to Dr. Phil and Oprah.

“Greetings graduates . . .”

It may seem incongruous, but the single greatest impediment to achieving success is the inability of the person seeking it to define just what success means to them. Really. We talk a lot about success, but rarely do we ask ourselves that simple question:  “Am I successful?” Obviously, if we don’t personally define it for ourselvews, we’ll never know how to achieve it, or even if we achieved it. 

It seems that everyone has their own ideas about success and we are barraged with briefcases full of definitions, some no better than mere notions. If that isn’t bad enough, most people want to impose their definition of success on your life. It starts with our parents who lovingly, yet persistently apply their image of success on us. Be it sports, grades, competition with peers or the schools we should attend, we are constantly bombarded with the success expectations of others. The intentions are good, but the results can be disastrous.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of parents who push their children to achieve “success” as a proxy for their own perceived failures. Be it the mother who literally thrusts her little girl into beauty contests, the dominant father who takes his kid out of high school to be a pro golfer or a star quarterback driven by the expectations of others.

Remember the sad story of a few years ago of a kid who had been groomed from childhood to be quarterback for the University of Southern California and then on to the NFL? All went according to plan until he entered the NFL as the number two pick in the draft. Then in a clear sign of rebellion and payback for all the years of being pushed by others to be, by their definition, successful, he threw it all away in a world of drugs and self-destructive actions. What he had achieved is what others wanted, not what he wanted.

Many go through life leading the famous lives of quiet desperation and unhappiness because they are led to think of themselves as “failures.” In most cases the perceived failure is in reality only a failure to live up to someone else’s expectations of success. (Or maybe they finally recognize what a wasted life it is to be a lawyer!).

This football player was not alone in dealing with the travails of inflicted success. There are legions of “successful” people who demonstrate dissatisfaction with their success by committing seemingly strange acts of personal self-destruction. This comes from either not having a strong enough personal ego to be comfortable with success and thus feel “guilty” because it is undeserved or by becoming trapped in a quest for success that fits the definition of others and not theirs. (Richard Nixon comes to mind here.)

I would not attempt to define or quantify success for you, but I do encourage anyone to do so on your own terms. I have discovered that no matter how you define success or what level of success you may seek, the philosophies, techniques and actions are the same whether you define success as being the very best bus driver in the world or the very best fighter pilot.

The first step in achieving real success is to understand that allowing others to define and structure our success is the shortest road to failure. The first thing to do is forget every thing every one has ever told you about success. Clean your mind of the expectations of others. Ignore my ideas of success along with all the other ego-saturated books of other business leaders. Certainly all the ideas you’ve heard about success are good background, but they only serve that purpose.

Getting Started. Right Now.

What you need to do is call a meeting of your most trusted advisors; those who you know for certain care about you and your success above all others. So, call me, myself and I and get them together for a meeting. Ask them to help you define what success really means to you. Don’t let them get away with any BS here. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be completely and totally honest, so don’t let them miss the opportunity.

Defining your own brand of success seems a simple process, but it is not. First of all you have to eliminate everyone else’s definition of success; create your own definition. I’m afraid the Internet will be of little use in helping to arrive at your definition. Plug “success” into Google and you’ll get 339 million page of mostly useful stuff.

That why I suggest that you be careful. Defining success is difficult because so many confuse the rewards of success with success itself and they are not the same. Ask anyone to define success and most often they will mention fame, fortune and power as the preeminent criteria for success. It is important to recognize that these are the rewards for a successful career, not success itself. Ask yourself: Does the achievement of fame and fortune make me successful? Or do I achieve fame and fortune because I am successful?

It is incorrect to define success by identifying the rewards of success. For example, I have always felt it to be a poor definition of success to say my goal is to achieve fame as an actor. My viewpoint is that success is more fulfilling when defined by deciding to become a great actor. The point is you have a much better chance to become famous if you first become a great actor than you do if your goal is only to be famous.

It’s a mistake to start a business to get rich. Start a business to take advantage of an opportunity others do not see; take on a job to be the best at doing it, don’t target that promotion, target those things that will earn you the promotion.

And the moral of the story is …

When you take it upon yourself to define your own brand of success you have your one and only opportunity to take control of your future. Success is the happiness you achieve by knowing that you have done what you wanted to do, not what others defined for you to do. When you have defined your own brand of success you free yourself to be yourself. Unlike others who have allowed others to define them, you become free of peer pressure and expectations of others. You have the freedom to own your future. This freedom will give you the opportunity to be what you want to be and that is the best definition of success. And the moment you define it, is the moment you’ll get closer to it.

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