What defines success? Merriam-Webster describes it as a “favorable or desired outcome; the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence.” Just as every word that conjures emotion, a dictionary definition doesn’t do it justice. So what does it mean to you? Is success having 2 cars, 2 kids, and a suburban home, or what about breaking the six-figure mark?
When you think about success, what comes to mind first – being rich or being happy? Now here’s the question that many people seem to struggle with: can you be both? The optimistic say yes; the cynics, no. In a country with far too many dreading their next day at work, and counting the years until retirement – well, it has to make us just a bit cynical. Some stay years at a job they despise because employers put them in a rut they can’t get out of. Others leave, even with no other possibilities in sight. Is this because at the end of the day, money comes first? Usually, yes – because people have to make ends meet, and more so, because they become accustomed to a lifestyle. I have to wonder though, if it’s worth it to let years go by in search of the almighty dollar.
Perhaps I’m one of the optimistic ones, because I certainly believe you can both enjoy what you do, make the money you need (and want), and consider yourself successful all at the same time. By no means is it an easy task, but it starts by finding both what you love to do and what you’re good at. You may have to make compromises along the way, but it shouldn’t mean sacrificing yourself for something you don’t believe in. This is why many teachers enjoy their work so much – granted they have their bad days like the rest of us; or police officers, despite the people they deal with and the things they see. While neither job is typically on the list of top salaries, success does not have to be measured by how much you make, but is ultimately how you feel about what you do. Bill Gates is rich – everyone knows that. The minimum wage high school student is not. These examples are very clear cut, but say you make $100K per year and manage to save half of it, and your closest friend brings in $500K but spends every penny. Who is the rich one?
Media portrays social class and lifestyle interchangeably. New cars and extravagant vacations mean you’ve made it by some standards, but what about the piece they’re failing to capture? Think Mike Tyson, once worth $300 million and now bankrupt and in debt. The hedonic treadmill, a term first used in Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society, “refers to the fact that even though external forces are constantly changing our lives and our life goals, happiness is a relatively constant state.” Basically, this means that we get used to the changes that take place, monetary or otherwise, and they have little to no effect on our happiness levels long-term. Many studies have been done among lottery winners, low and mid-income citizens, and accident victims, only to determine that their levels of happiness vary only slightly. Who would have thought an extra $5 million wouldn’t make us happier, or worse: that being paralyzed wouldn’t make us despair? The people who say that the grass is always greener may not have been to the other side of the fence.
So maybe you’re wondering what this means for you, or maybe you’re thinking it’s easier written than put into action. Either way, it’s up to you, and only you can make the decisions that will lead to your success. It starts by doing what you love, and ends by realizing money isn’t everything. So what is success to you?
As written for YoungEntrepreneur, October 4, 2010