Most of us learn that success equals some form of achievement in the world. For many it's not the achievement but the recognition and the applause that they crave. For others it's not the arrival but the journey that generates the satisfaction of success. They value the process more than the prize. For some the pursuit of success will be avoided at all costs, sometimes for fear of failure, and sometimes for the fear of ...success! And, for a few, just living simply and sincerely each day will be deemed to be successful enough!(Reproduced from Clear Thinking article by Brahma Kumaris Learning Center for Peace. )
At some stage in all our lives there's a good chance we will each stop and consider the question, "What does success mean to me?", even if it's only for a few fleeting minutes! However, if we don't contemplate this question deeply then it's likely we will blindly follow others ideas and measures of success, usually learned in childhood, craved in youth and pursued into our adult years. We may not notice the connection between our dissatisfactions, however superficial or deep, with the absence of a consciously defined and chosen idea of a what 'successful life' looks like and feels like. It is the clarity of this inner vision/wisdom that gives focus to our energies, adding significantly to the sense that we are creating a meaningful life.
So what price success? That's the note that many of the modern day 'success gurus' begin and end on. It means how much are you prepared to sacrifice to achieve the success you want. How hard are you prepared to work? What are you willing to do to get there? What sacrifices are you prepared to make? Interesting questions, but they do make it all sound like hard work!
How do YOU define success? Is it simply the completion of the next task, another job well done, a promise kept, an exam passed, a medal won, a mountain climbed, a target hit, a happy family raised or the leaving of a legacy that ensures you will be remembered long after you have gone? Whatever you 'believe' success to be will have a profound influence on your life. If you were to follow the predominant mindset in the world today then success would likely be measured by acquisition. The more you have the more successful you are.
When we inherit and absorb the prevalent beliefs that the world is a place of scarcity, that the purpose of life is survival, that we must accumulate stuff to prosper, and that the more you get the happier you will feel, then success equals 'more'. More can be almost any quantity - objects, money, properties, trophies, celebrity, fame, fans. And in terms of position, it simply means higher.
When we are taught to believe there is not enough to go around the media delights in keeping us abreast of upcoming shortages. And if there aren't any obvious ones they will likely invent them for us! So we learn to speak the common language of `not enoughness' or 'scarcity'. We then struggle and strive for what we consider is our rightful share of the 'great pie', before someone else gets it, and 'more' is not only good, but applauded when attained.
So what does it mean to be successful? At what level, in what context and by whose standards?
If you were to give yourself some time to live in this question you would likely arrive at the fairly obvious insight that, at the deepest level, success in life is not a material thing, it is not something that can be possessed, or won, or even attracted! It is a state of being. Some call it contentment, or happiness, or even peace. These are, for some, the deepest and most meaningful 'symptoms of success', but only when they are internally stable and consistent and therefore not dependent on anything outside ourselves.
In the meantime success for most of us, tends to be context specific. As we consider 'context' we start to see why the kind of success that we have been encouraged to pursue has many levels and more than a few flaws.
SPORTING Success - in this context it's obviously about competition and winning, being number one and being recognized and glorified by others as the one who took the prize. How often are we reminded that no one remembers the runner up? But few seem to ask why would I want to be remembered? Should the desire to be 'not forgotten' have a 'danger sign' hung around it that says 'ego at work'? And notice how much suffering is required to reach the sporting peaks. Seldom do we see relaxed and contented sports people as they take their struggling and striving very seriously. They will say it's worth the pain. Others would say life was not meant to be a painful, tense and injurious affair, inflicted upon our self by ourselves! Was sport not originally a game in which the 'joy of play' was given free reign? A time when faces smiled consistently and frustration, tension and anger were impossible.
BUSINESS Success - seems to range from building a large business to profitability to being recognized for excellence of service. Sometimes all three parameters are pursued, but unless they are prioritized there is the danger none will be achieved. And if profit is prioritized over service it's fairly obvious that the energy behind the enterprise will become fear based and therefore quite a stressful endeavor. Which explains why most business people know stress intimately. It's a serious business...business! And, when the 'purpose of service' is lost and the profit motive kicks in, that's usually when need turns into greed and the ripple effect touches many far and wide. Hence the global financial turmoil that we see today.
ACADEMIC Success - intellectual prowess tends to be the way this kind of success is achieved, coupled with rather a good memory, naturally! It is often dependent on acquiring peer approval and the desire to join a select club. It can easily result in an 'I know the most and the best' attitude; a closed and narrow mindset that tends to characterise the 'specialist' and the 'expert'. And is it not unnatural to be closed and narrow at any time and in any area of life, unless you are a water pipe!
SCIENTIFIC Success - new theories, new dimensions of old theories, inventions of new technologies, the creation of new procedures, making fresh discoveries, all carry the 'success kitemark' in the scientific arena. Yet it's all very material and 'out there' which tends to deny the other dimension we call spirit and the 'in here'. Scientific success certainly dominates our world today, but at what price we now ask, as we live increasingly isolated and technologically dependent lives, while sucking dry the natural wealth of the planet! Mmm...!
POLITICAL Success - tends to be measured by the acquisition of position and power, though much 'lip service' is given to the notion of public service. And while the intentions towards the upliftment of society are authentic and worthy we now know success in this arena is fragile and crumbles easily, can often be easily corrupted, and darker motives can often be found behind the desire to serve others. And as more people rebel against the dictatorial political forces that have traditionally controlled our destiny, as more people demand a greater say in their fate, we now see the moral and ethical chaos that is generated as we/they realize and exercise new freedoms.
RELIGIOUS Success - once upon a time the pastoral care of a community provided the primary measure of a religions success. But religion has also become blurred and burdened by it's own structures and systems, internal politics and power games, not to mention the fanatical adherence to belief and behavior systems that were invented hundreds of years ago in another age and in a completely different context.
SPIRITUAL Success - is a state of being sometimes referred to as enlightenment. But is it achieved or restored, or both? Perhaps it's one fundamental difference from the other 'levels of success' is you wouldn't know someone has arrived at such an intangible and internal success unless you were in their presence for some time. Even then their simplicity and humility would probably deflect attention away from themselves. Can this form of incognito success still be classified as ...success?
That's not to say that success in any of the above arenas is not worth pursuing. But there is value in considering how success is both viewed, defined and achieved in each context.
When we do take some time out and reflect on what exactly is personal success we may notice a deepening of our awareness. We may realize that personal success comes in ways that we seldom recognize as signs of success! The signs are internal and usually momentary in the context of our relationships. And when we build and shape, design and create, these inner capacities and states, then all other levels of success become both easier to achieve, and yet, paradoxically, less relevant and/or much less meaningful.
Inner success looks and feels more like the capability:
- to act with total honesty and integrity thus generating a clear conscience without which the authentic happiness that we call contentment is impossible.
- to remain peaceful and stable when all around you are in crisis or chaos.
- to value what you are more than what you have.
- to accept full responsibility for all thoughts, feelings, words and actions.
- to be able to see past the weaknesses/mistakes of others and focus on their inherent goodness/strengths.
- to be able to let go of the past.
- to give without the desire for anything in return.
Notice how intangible these measures are. No one else can measure them except our self. Notice how we seldom ask ourselves why we cannot achieve and maintain these inner states of being and the kind of enlightened behaviors that we would probably all desire all the time. Unless we 'can do' all of these it is unlikely we will achieve the deepest measure of success which is to be content within our self and able 'to give' our best to others without condition. And as long as we desire to change the world around us it means we are still trying to 'police the universe'. The enlightened soul however, has realized that is not 'my job'. They know that the light and power that emanates from a stable state, a contented state, from a giving intention, is the greatest and most influential gift to others and to the world.
As you reflect and contemplate on what success is going to look like and feel like for you, perhaps it's useful to include three key considerations.
1. Any success that is dependent on public recognition and acclaim will inevitably lead to insecurity and eventual depression, as does all forms of dependency.
2. When success is defined by an end product, an outcome, or some final achievement, then life tends to be a continuous struggling and striving to 'get there'. Our happiness is continuously delayed. In other words, not such a joy filled journey!
3. If success is defined by the acquisition or accumulation of anything then fear will always be lurking in the background. Fear of failure which is the same as the fear of loss. Stress will be our companion.
No matter which way that you look at it success is a very personal issue. It tends to be shrouded in many illusions and delusions, depending on our upbringing. It's achievement is now championed by hundreds of success gurus and coaches, mentors and trainers, all waiting in the wings to advise and guide us. All promising a 'magic formula' which ranges from the secrets of attraction to the power of self-belief, from the work harder ethic to the development of your creative genius, from how to 'unleash' your potential to invoking the angels of success to take over your life!
But before we listen to anyone (including this article) it's probably worthwhile finding a tree, on a quiet and sunny hillside, by a peaceful meadow, next to meandering river, to sit and gently reflect on what only our own heart can tell us in response to the question, "What does success really mean to me"? It will of course generate many other questions. Like what is the purpose of my life? What do I value? But then 'they' do say that when it comes to this unique and special journey called life there is a time when the asking 'right questions' are much more important than having the right answers.
Question: What does success mean to you?
Reflection: Why do you think your definition of success might be challenging to achieve? (scribble some notes to yourself).
Action: Initiate a conversation sometime this week with friends, family or colleagues and ask them what success means to them.
© Mike George 2010
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