“We’ve reached such an incredible level of freedom that for the first time in history we have to manage our own mutation. It’s up to us to decide what it means to be a successful human being. That’s the philosophical task of the age.” – Peter Koestenbaum
I’ve ruminated on that quote for well over a year now. It comes back periodically to tempt me with its invitation. This morning it came back again.
What does it mean to be a successful human being?
I care about success. Genuinely care. I’ve been ambitious for a long time, I have things to do, changes to bring.
And yet success is something I’ve never felt on gentle terms with. It’s often felt like a black figure hanging over me, berating me for not achieving the level I’m supposed to. The hare of success disappearing over the hill, while I plod along, not measuring up.
I’ve wrestled with my ambition, baulked at the images of success I was fed. Rebelled, dropped out, found inspiration, dived in.
So I want to talk about success with you. Because I think Koestenbaum is right. There are few more pressing issues. And in a world where we don’t have to follow the old rules of success, I think it imperative to deconstruct the inherited definitions, and build a new an image that draws forth our ambition as a creative expression, rather than pressurizes it, as a milestone to attain.
The prescribed rules of success
My first ‘proper’ job was at a small marketing agency in Liverpool. I’d recently graduated and got the job as a temp, and they’d liked me so offered the position to me permanently.
I was the receptionist. A job that is not supposed to be filled by a heterosexual male. I’d answer the phones, welcome clients to the office, make coffee, open mail, complete little admin tasks. Mostly I watched video clips, played on internet forums and worked on ideas for my first business.
They saw I was over qualified and twice offered me a position as a junior account manager. It’s rather a sought after path in the marketing and PR field. I said no. I said I wasn’t interested. They were confused.
The thought of diving deeper into the world of clever adverts, schmoozing clients and pouring over spreadsheets made my heart go dark. But they couldn’t understand it.
I’d turned down advancement, to stay on the lowest rung of the ladder.
According to their world, I’d broken one of their rules of success.
Rule #1. You must climb higher
You work your way up the ladder. Your pay cheque gets bigger and bigger. You have more impressive sounding job titles. The really successful people run entire companies.
But I never wanted that kind of success. I always felt like an outsider in that game, though it took me a long time to come to peace with that feeling.
Many years later, I dropped out of the corporate game all together. I started playing the online entrepreneur game instead. It was a big relief. I had a lot more room to express myself.
Success here is building a brand for yourself, generating a big mailing list, doing 6-figure launches, being called a ‘world expert’ on someone’s tele-summit. The milestones look a different, but I realized the rule was the same. Climb higher, at any cost. And it was in this game that I really came face to face with the second rule.
Rule #2. More money = more success
How much revenue did you do on your product launch, how many thousands? 50? Good job. 100? Wonderful! You’re on the way toward real success now son.
Money is great. I like money. I like having it, I like creating it. I like being able to invest it in things I want, things that enrich me. Training courses. A month in Bali. A new leather jacket. A box of Lego for my partner’s son.
I remember early on in the entrepreneur game we did an affiliate deal with a big website. They were the trend setter in our field, the mother ship. We crafted a really clever marketing campaign, and it worked. We brought in over $50k in revenue. It was the most revenue I’d ever done. I got my own biggest pay day. $6k, which felt like an extraordinary amount of money.
According to the rule, we’d succeeded. But I couldn’t feel the accomplishment. I didn’t hear people telling us how much the program had helped them, how appreciative and inspired they were. Mostly I heard silence, or grumbling about big marketing promises that weren’t delivered on. I felt ashamed. Uncomfortable.
I’ve done countless product launches since then, some brought in more money, some less. The one’s that felt like a success were those that helped a lot of people. Which sometimes correlated with big revenue, and sometimes didn’t.
Rule #3. Success is appearing successful
This is an insidious little bugger of a rule. One I’ve only been starting to catch myself playing by recently.
I’ve worked very hard to present myself as being successful. I’ll drop in little lines in my writing that demonstrate how successful I am. How much I charge (because money = success remember). How far I’ve come (because successful people always climb higher).
“Do not doubt it dear reader. Despite my obvious vulnerability, I am very successful. And you are not. Never forget that. And if you want to be successful like me, then pay me a bunch of money for coaching and maybe you’ll win too.”
That’s not success. That’s insecurity. I’ve done that more than I like. I’m sorry, I was doing what I thought was right.
As the air fast escapes from the balloon, I realize it’s just another rule that I never consciously agreed to play by.
The original nature of success
The root of the word comes from Latin. To succeed means literally to “come after”. It’s a sequential thing. There’s one thing, and then it’s succeeded by another thing.
There was an open field there once. Now there’s woodland.
The original meaning is value neutral. It doesn’t mean the succession is good. It doesn’t mean the woodland is better. It just came after the field.
The definition of the word changed in the late 1500s. It came to mean the accomplishment of a desired end. The neutral mechanic of succession had desire and preference added in. Success came to be defined by whether the outcome matches the desire.
You start with one kingdom, do some invading and end up with two…success!
You start with no money, and after it you still have no money…failure!
You start with no qualifications, and end with a PhD…success!
You start with people being in connection with mother earth, then technology distracts us from nature and we despoil the environment…failure!
Certain ends are successful. Others are not.
It is not the addition of desire and preference that I take issue with. Not at all. The problem is that so often we do not question the preference that gives the defined end.
We mistake the end for the success itself without questioning whether the movement of succession is what we actually want.
Success is becoming a celebrity, therefore if I too become a celebrity, I will be successful.
But the end is not the point. The celebrity is not the point. The point is this…
From whence does the desire come? And is it yours?
Toward a new definition of success
To my great grandparents, success was working the farm effectively, so they and their family had enough food to eat. It was a noble goal for the world they lived in. But that is not my world, or yours.
In its most pure sense, success is succession. It is one step after another. It is the movement down the path of life. If you’re moving, you’re succeeding.
The deeper cut however, is to truly choose the substance of the path. To truly tune into the deepest desire you are conscious of, and walk that path, wherever it ends.
Because if we do not stop to consider that substance, that desire, we end up succeeding at someone else’s quest.
We climb the rungs of the professional ladder, because our culture tells us that is what successful people do. We look at the artists or entrepreneurs we consider successful, and we try to emulate them. We carefully construct a mask of success, because that’s what we think will fill the hunger of our ambition.
And then maybe we realize that it is all without substance – an idea of success that floats like a balloon filled with hot air. The tether, so easily cut, revealing the true desire that is not based on an idea, but on the very yearning of the soul.
The successful path
As I walk, one step succeeding the last, I become more intimate with the dirt under my feet, and the stars over my head. They whisper to me…
Be true. So true it scares the life out of you.
Show yourself, the good and the ill.
Let the lessons of the universe be taught through the folly of the personal.
Never forget your heart.
Go first. Ignore the rules, except the one’s you find in yourself that are true because they feel true in the deepest part of you.
Let others follow if they want to. Don’t persuade them, their following must be freely chosen.
Light the way. Hold the torch of your truth as high as you dare.