Rethinking Success 5

Every language breeds its own silly parlance and overused clichés. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—depending who you ask—it’s more like a natural part of a language’s linguistic growth over time. Certain words have become so watered-down and commonplace that they’ve lost any semblance of their original meaning. Words like ‘epic’ (before: grand in scale/size now: a memorable night out) and ‘hacking’ (before: skillful cracking of a technological barrier  now: sabotaging your friend’s facebook while she’s in the washroom) for example, have become altered beyond recognition, thanks to the internet.

As much as I want to write a OLP article about ‘how to hack your brain in the most epic way’, today I want to focus on different word. A word that also has fought in the trenches of language bastardization, whose meaning radically changes every century. Perhaps even every decade.

Largely unquestioned, people spend a lifetime fruitlessly trying to achieve it—whatever it even is—and yet, paradoxically, are not happy once they get there—wherever exactly there is.

Success. Success is society’s favourite catch-all buzzword that loves to be tossed around, mercilessly and thoughtlessly, by anyone and everyone from every socioeconomic background and walk of life. It has become the golden standard English word, 2 vowels and 2 consonants that people spend careers and lifetimes yearning to achieve. Everyone wants to be as seen as ‘successful’ as possible. Every deviation from ‘success,’ through radical behaviour, lifestyle choices, outwardly presentation or career advancement is seen as poisonous.

But wait. What exactly is success?

I have no idea. Really, I don’t. Try and take 10 seconds and define this word.

You’ve probably come up with some material-career-status-possession word soup blend. Which is fair, a certain chunk of the aforementioned elements probably deserve some mention under the umbrella of what success means for some people. But certainly not exclusively. Why the narrow focus?

The word has been hijacked by corporations and the media, adorning it with a lustful allure. The message usually boils down to this: once you become successful, you become happy. Once you get the Lamborghini, cliff Jacuzzi, Prada wardrobe–you don’t even have to be Italian–you’re there. You’re set. You’re successful.

Here’s the problem. Capitalistic and media-driven definitions of words are just that: capitalistic and media driven. These definitions appeal to a very narrow subset of people, fuelled by hefty advertisement budgets and gluttonous consumerism. It’s largely to the benefit of faceless corporations and media conglomerates to get you to continue spending blindly and drooling sloppily for the ever-elusive golden cash dragon at the end of the yellow silver road. Your yearning for ‘success’ plays directly in their interests of you being a docile chaser of marked paper bills.


How well is this definition serving you?

I’d put my money on ‘not too well’. Putting a heavily materialistic emphasis on what ‘success’ entails strips the word of its enormous potential to lead you in a better direction. Living a life with the goal of becoming successful isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it’s living a life in accordance with what is traditionally considered successful a likely pitfall.

Why bother reinventing the wheel?

The word carries incredible clout in how people lead their lives. It starts early: success-obsessed adults poison susceptible children with dubious expectations, killing their creativity at home and school; ‘success’ fills hopeful teenagers with delusions of wealth and grandeur, surreptitiously deluding them in their most formative years; ‘success’ puts tremendous pressure on college graduates, already overwhelmed with their personal affairs, to make it in this world.  Lifestyle choices, financial decisions, hell, even choosing a mate, are currently all tremendously influenced by how conducive said choices would be to maximizing ‘success’ in life. Traditional success, that is.

There is a better way. I propose that, on average, everyone would be much better off subscribing to a different definition of success than the one traditionally offered within popular culture. I’m going to attempt to disembowel ‘success’ and sew it up, offering a more digestible definition for the average human being. Let’s have a go.


Repackaging success

Mastery over the mind. We are complex machines capable of miraculous things. Our internal pilot commanding our spaceship, however, is prone to a multitude of reasoning, emotional and habitual biases and weakness. The brain will always naturally lean towards laziness, procrastination, craving and temptation. Developing the self-control, discipline, focus or any other attribute that goes against our proclivity towards instant-gratification deserves great merit and certainly owns a prestigious place in what I consider successful.

Well-roundedness A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

Enough said. I don’t expect the average person to become a polyglot, polymath polyester-wearing super genius, but people should aim to be competent in many different distinct masteries over their lifetimes.


Responsibility and sacrifice: Many people are born into disadvantaged situations, like not having a parent around, inheriting a genetic illness, or growing up in a rough neghbourhood. I see success in those that power through bad luck and overcome shitty impediments presented by uncontrollable circumstances.

On the same spectrum, I enormously respect people that make selfless sacrifices for others. These are the unsung heroes that navigate through life’s labyrinth of frequent, unpleasant surprises and refuse to submit to the temptation to surrender. Parents who risk everything to move to a new country to better their children’s lives. On-call paramedics, who dedicate their entire life to the service of others. Adolescents that blossom into loving, generous human brings after surviving childhood trauma. These are the kinds of behavioural profiles that exemplify my alternative definition of a successful human being.

Autonomy and control over the direction of your life. Success means maintaining high levels of ownership over your daily schedule and having a strong internal locus of control. This means being in a relationship that you cherish and grow as a person from—not one you fell into through a fear of being alone. Not working to just make ends meet, but thriving in and mastering what you do for a living. Spending quality time with people you care for. A work-life balance combination that you’re satisfied with. Taken together, this signifies a unified lifestyle of doing things that matter to you, at a pace you’re comfortable doing them. If that isn’t successful, then what is?

Capable of creating new good habits and dropping old bad ones. Routinized habits and mental feedback loops are what constitute the majority of our behaviour. Habits allow productive people to stay productive and cigarette smokers to continue smoking cigarettes. Those that are able, through conscious effort and will, to pick up good habits and drop bad ones, regularly, have earned a secured spot in what I consider successful.

Low levels of cognitive dissonance. I look up to people who are living in unison, as closely as possible, to the person they’ve always wanted to be. This might manifest itself as spending each Saturday afternoon planning turnips in one’s garden, or equally, running 7.5km naked in the local forest—the important thing is being true to one’s innermost wishes and desires. It takes tremendous resilience, courage and commitment to materialize your true inner voice in life. As long as you’re living authentically, you are living successfully.

Being happy. Isn’t this is the ultimate end-game? These are the people who’ve figured out a way to live their days contently and exist with perfect mental harmony. If you’ve managed to cultivate a life you’re proud of, waking up most mornings with a smile on your face, finding pockets of happiness in the little creases of life, you’re successful in my eyes.


That’s all good and great, but how do you get there? I’m no stellar human being, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve committed myself to the lifelong journey towards achieving success. I’m getting there by working on developing myself and growing, day by day, relentlessly and consistently.

As my life experience grows with each passing year, here’s some advice I’d give to someone looking to live a more (alternatively) successful life.

How to pursue your version of success:

  • Define success clearly. Is success largely material for you? Good. No judgement. Is success mostly character-based for you? Good. Figure out what your deeply value in life and bundle that into your definition.


  • Change your lifestyle. Remember, the decisions you make every day, the challenges you face, the people you interact with, the way you spend your leisure time, the things you’re addicted to, and just about everything else that constitutes your life is all thanks to lifestyle choices. Make slow lifestyle changes that bring you closer towards fulfilling your definition of success, and check up on yourself regularly.


  • Visualize. Visualize your ‘successful’ self in 5 years. 10. 50. Visualize yourself on your deathbed Are the choices you’re making today conducive to your visualized ‘successful’ self in the future? They are? Great! They aren’t? Remember that the onus will always be on you to initiate change.


  • Choose better role models. Family members and close friends are great, since they’re within tangible reach, but role models don’t necessarily have to be people in your day to day life. Choose a couple of well-known figures to look up who align within your definition of success. This can be anyone from the local town mayor, to the Chinese restaurant owner to your Saturday evening Krav Maga instructor. Or electronically, it could be a Podcaster, a blogger or YouTube channel host. Use their success to fuel yours.


  • Pay close attention to the kinds of people you spend most of your time with. This is cliché advice, but my life experience has so far proven it to be true. Remember that ‘You are the average of the five cats people you spend the most time with.’



Final Words

My alternative definitions of success are heavily personal. You might find yourself disagreeing with some–or all–of my definitions of success. Good. The subjectivity of success is exactly the point I hope I was able to get across. These components make sense for me and naturally, may not for you. This is normal, since we are probably in a different life stage, have completely different goals, were born to different circumstances, etc.

Let’s also keep in mind that the above constituents of success are heavily culturally biased. Eastern cultures generally consider upholding tradition, keeping a strong family unit, marriage and providing as the golden standard of success. Western society frequently pushes individuality, self-actualization and self-esteem as praiseworthy pursuits. Being from the Western world, is it any coincidence that most of my ‘alternative’ definitions of success are heavily biased towards the self, rather than group? Probably not. This means the word is subjective and malleable enough that half the world disagrees about what it means.


Food for Thought:

  • Which definitions/components of the my redefined version of success do you agree/disagree with?
  • Is success entirely idiosyncratic (specific to each person), or are there general principles we can agree on that apply to everyone?
  • How heavily of a role does culture play in our definition of someone considered successful? History?
  • Are there any celebrities, famous people or historical figures that are traditionally considered successful which you disagree with?
  • Are successful people happier?


  • Georg B.

    Great article! Some parts hit me right in the soft spot…

    And it reminds me of a quote of my favourite astronaut – I don’t remember the exact words, but it’s something along the lines of “Don’t measure your success or self-worth on a distant goal, but instead celebrate all the small victories along the way.”
    Also this one:
    “Every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with you time tonight, turns you into who you are tomorrow, and the day after that.”

    • ” Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become”

      Excellent comic, I loved the final panel. thanks for sharing 🙂 I was around when he was AMAing on reddit live from the spacetation, seems like a great guy. –>

  • Dan

    The article in my humble opinion so far best in the series. In my belief system the ‘happiness’ totally replaced ‘success’. I consider success as minor achievement like learning new move in Tai Chi or finishing project at work. My pursuit is for happiness which incidentally coincides with many of your ‘success’ criteria.
    Looking forward for new articles. Keep it up!

    • Your favourite so far? Big accolades, thanks!

      As I’m sure you’re WELL aware, my new lifestyle here in Spain–and my renewed interest to sustain it–is the direct result of a ‘revamped’ definition of success. I am living by my virtues day by day

    • Netta

      Sire I have a very similar view, in terms of setting happiness as the ultimate goal, rather than success. And you are a huge role model for this 😉 -Netta