When you lie on your deathbed thinking about your life, will you consider yourself successful? What would your definition of being successful be? I would argue that it is hard to form that definition in advance. I have never been on my deathbed, so to speak, but I have had a time when my life was at risk, and the end might have been moments away. (I was lucky, it wasn’t). But that time gave me some clarity on what mattered to me, and I have also realized that what mattered in those moments may be very different when I look death in the eyes, hopefully, many decades from now.
Success is easy to define, it is achieving some pre-established goal. But there is a great difference between having success and being successful. It is a question of what Gregory Bateson calls logical types. Being successful is a categorization of a life, where having success is the result of specific events. “Successful” is a class, and “success” is a member. As Bateson explains, “The class cannot be a member of itself nor can one of the members be the class, since the term used for the class is of a different level of abstraction-a different Logical Type-from terms used for members.”
When people talk about success and how they define success for themselves, they usually talk about a few different things. There is a lot of overlap, and many people’s definitions of success could contain all these.
- Badges: Badges are what I call external signals of success. This could be anything from driving a luxury car to earning a target salary, having a specific job title, to being honored with an award. An individual may define success based on these badges. Although, once a particular badge is achieved, it will likely lose meaning as the next badge is sought. Badges are often more external signs of success. These signs are relative, and the purpose will always be within the context of the individual. There are some for whom a 6 figure salary is a sign of success. For others, the bar could be $500K
- Milestones: Milestones are stages on a journey, larger than badges and more internal. An example of a Milestone could be having the savings to put your child through college and retire. It could be running a business or having enough passive income to stop working. Milestones contain their relative value. They define something that was accomplished in light of what it enables. Similarly, when these are hit
- Journey: Journey definitions of success are less about what is accomplished and more about how and who you want to be. It may be about your relationships with peers, children, or partners, and it may be about how you feel about yourself.
You will likely notice that the definition of success grows vaguer with each of the three types. Looking forward, you can define what success will mean in a particular context. But whether you have been successful is something that can only be seen in retrospect.
How do successes add up to being successful? Is it about the ratio of success to failure? Is it the size of the success vs. the failures? Is it what happens last? I would argue it is none of the above, successfulness emerges out of life and does not proceed linearly from successes. It is a different logical type and requires a different level of abstraction.
Being successful is an emergent phenomenon. It isn’t in the individual parts of salary, family, job, or impact. Being successful emerges out of the assemblage that is life as something new. And all of the pieces are redefined in light of that emergence.
I didn’t feel successful when I was near death, and my image of what success meant was tied to my context. At that moment, I didn’t yearn to have a love of a child, but now, years later, and with a son, I can’t imagine a definition of success that doesn’t include him.
This isn’t to say that having a clear idea of what you want can lead to short-term success. It certainly can. But when you look back at your life, will those short-term successes be part of the arithmetic of what makes you successful? They may, but in life, things change. The things that seem important at one time may become more or less important at another. Are the successful those that hang on to an idea no matter what and see it through?
Perhaps the focus on success gets in the way. So what are the other options? Viktor Frankl proposed the following.
Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.