The concept of ‘success’ is much talked about in personal development, but defining the word, like achieving success itself, can prove both complex and elusive. Add ‘happiness’ to the equation and what started out as difficult problem can start to seem almost insoluble. As someone who coaches people in developing the ‘success mindset’, I believe the key to achieving success is to first define what it means to YOU personally.
Popular Definitions of Success A simple exercise in word association will usually reveal an individual’s personal ideas of what ‘success’ means. Words like achievement, wealth, lifestyle and happiness are all typical responses. Perhaps the most complex is ‘wealth’, since when defined exclusively in monetary terms it is an obvious, but not necessarily useful, measure of success.
Rich and Successful? And happy? If you were to define ‘success’ solely on how you perceive the word based on many Instagram posts, you would most likely conclude that success revolves around the acquisition of luxury items and experiences of high financial value. This is, of course, a definition of success as valid as any other but I would argue a very narrow one. The implied (sometimes explicit) logic is that if you ‘grind’ long, hard and smart enough you will create the wealth to acquire the stuff and lifestyle that equates to success. It is again implied that happiness will naturally follow from this – with all that stuff, wealth and success who wouldn’t be happy? Well, as someone who works as a coach and therapist with many ‘ultra high net worth’ individuals, the answer would be, ‘far more people than you think’!! I’m not for one second knocking aspiration or saying success can’t include acquiring luxury items and financial wealth. Instead I’m simply suggesting that viewing success solely or mostly through this prism is unhelpful and possibly unhealthy too. From my extensive experience of helping clients from the entire social and wealth spectrum, when it comes to linking wealth and success to happiness, I have found that people can be both happy and unhappy at either extreme. Happiness, as I’ll come on to, can be a natural ‘side effect’ of a positive, empowering approach to success.
Analysing Your Beliefs Around Success Since no one is born knowing what success means (or indeed any other word) then we must learn it’s definition from others. So, firstly understand that unless you have already done some work in analysing what success means to you personally then your current beliefs around it will be a composite of those you learned from influences such as parents, other family members, school, social groups and the media. The more powerfully and frequent certain beliefs were promoted to you, the deeper they would have embedded and taken shape in your mind.
The Language of Success Once established in this way your beliefs around success exist quietly in the subconscious mind, influencing your behaviours, including your answer when someone suddenly asks you the question “What’s the first word that you associate with success?” The words you immediately, instinctively associate with success are best likened to the tip of the iceberg of your beliefs around the concept.
(Re-)defining What Success Means to You I recommend re-evaluating the beliefs you have around success and asking yourself some questions, such as where did these beliefs come from, are they limiting or supportive beliefs, do the behaviours and results they produce make you happy? For example, a person might come from a family who put great value on academic achievement as a key aspect of success. From an early age this may have contributed to a belief in this person’s mind that success is defined by academic achievement. Now, once again, success can be defined this way, but what if this person struggles academically through no fault of their own, perhaps they are more practical or creative. This type of tension is a recipe for unhappiness – where a person holds a belief around success of a type that they are not well-equipped to attain. In this sense it becomes a form of limiting belief for them personally. This person would benefit from challenging and re-shaping this belief. If you think about it, a person with the kind of mind and attributes that are not suited to attaining academic achievement would never have been naturally drawn to making it a central part of their definition of success. Instead, left to form THEIR own beliefs around success, they would have been more likely to define success by activities they could achieve in. My quote in the title of this article works the other way around too – if happiness is working to your definition or success than a surefire way to be unhappy is to to work to someone else’s definition!
Happiness Is a Symptom of Real Success I am big fan of the famous Bob Dylan definition of success, paraphrased here as: ‘A person is a success if they get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and in between do what they want to do’ The fact that you can easily swap success for ‘happy’ in this quote and keep the same meaning reflects how closely related the concepts of success and happiness really are. If you are living to your definition of success, then happiness naturally follows because though you may not achieve what you want every day you are, on balance, happy with the choices you make and the price they come at. Happiness, being at peace, feeling emotionally centred, etc. all flow from this type of real success. I recommend turning conventional wisdom on its head, so instead of pursuing wealth, power and status to try and achieve success and happiness, you are advised to focus first on defining and working towards your definition of the latter. With this done, you might be surprised how much easier and enjoyable the other things are to achieve!