It’s high time for our global, heavily Americanized culture to redefine success.
Throughout our lifetime, success has often been defined through numbers of zeroes or luxury goods. Six-figure, seven-figure, eight-figure incomes; private jets, yachts, and mansions.
These ways of defining success feel shallow and disconnected to me.
Apparently, many Americans (and presumably people in many other countries) share that sentiment.
In a 2014 survey conducted by IPSOS on behalf of Strayer University, 90 percent of the American participants believed that success is more about happiness than money, power and fame.
In this survey, success was mostly defined as “attaining personal goals” (67 percent), “good relationships” (66 percent) and “loving what you do for a living” (60 percent). The results of this study led the university to advocate for a change in Merriam-Webster’s definition of success.
(As a side note, the Executive Chairman and former CEO of Strayer Education Inc., Robert Silberman, may not share the proposed new definition of success.)
Why are efforts to redefine success a good thing?
Current indicators of success are not only shallow, they are detached from the well-being of all and an expression of toxic individualism. As someone originally from Germany, the country with the world’s oldest social health insurance system, this doesn’t feel right to me.
The truth is that the earth cannot sustain many people with, for instance, private jets (unless they are all electrified). At the moment, private jets have a horrendous carbon footprint. For instance, the Guardian reported that Bill Gates
“took 59 flights in 2017 travelling more than 200,000 miles, according to the study by academics at Lund University. The report estimated that Gates’ private jet travel, which he has described as his “guilty pleasure”, emitted about 1,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide. That compares to a global average of less than five tonnes per person. Like the Honeywell report, the study suggested that private jet travel emits up to 40 times as much carbon dioxide per passenger as scheduled commercial flights. However, other experts suggest this figure is nearer 10 times.”
To be fair, Bill Gates is far from being the only celebrity with an excessive carbon footprint (and he’s probably doing more good than many of the other ones). Still, this is… not great.
In its abstract, a study by a Swedish university that got referenced in the aforementioned Guardian article mentioned how personal accountability for greenhouse gas emissions is “in stark contrast to views associating aeromobility with status. Celebrities in particular maintain personal brands based on frequent flying.”
It’s this link between aeromobility and status that has to be broken and it’s up to all of us to destroy it. Here’s why that should be easy:
With the need to keep climate change to a minimum or face the consequences (which will be most strongly experienced by poor countries), how on earth can private jet usage be seen as a measure of success? How can anyone claim to be successful if their actions contribute that strongly to leaving the world worse off for future generations?
Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most infamous drug lords who once made the Forbes list of international billionaires for seven years in a row, allegedly said: “I’m not a rich man; I’m a poor man with a lot of money.”
While Escobar was likely just referring to his humble beginnings in this quote, I think it can also be read in another way: there’s a difference between someone who is truly rich, abundant, and successful… and someone whose wealth is based on zeros. Someone who follows a shallow definition of success isn’t rich, they’re a poor person with lots of money, connections, and stuff.
By redefining success, we might make things that are terrible for the whole less attractive. What if we started calling anyone who buys fur coats, increases their own pay while decreasing their worker’s pay, or takes unnecessary private jet trips a “loser” or “failure” or “embarrassment”? What if we cheered on people pursuing authentic success, such as former quarterback Andrew Luck who was willing to forego millions of dollars for the sake of his own health and happiness?
Public and cultural sentiment is a strong tool and most people want to be seen as successful. By making it clear that the vast majority define success in more wholesome, balanced, and equitable ways, our culture could encourage positive behavior.
What is a better way of measuring success?
Personally, I think it's better to define success as a state or a feeling. Here's my proposed definition:
Success is the good feeling that you are on the right path in your life and moving forward at what is the right pace for you at this time.
Why do I think this is a better definition? Well, because it goes to the heart of why we want to be successful. We want to be successful to feel good. If you're not feeling happy about your achievements, what's the point? Or, as Tony Robbins so accurately put it:
I think one reason people often focus on numbers or things is because these are easily measured (like vanity metrics in marketing). You know if you own a yacht. It's a little harder to know if you feel like you're on the right path.
These things require introspection. Self-knowledge. Being honest with ourselves. In other words, the definition of success that I propose requires us to grow... and that's not always easy.
However, if you use the feeling of success as your yardstick, you're that much more likely to stay on track (as opposed to waking up one day and realizing that you hate your life).
Redefining what abundance means: five-star vs. five-heart hotels
Something that is closely related to success is abundance. Just as we need to redefine our definition of success to be happier in our lives, we also have to redefine our idea of abundance and luxury.
A few years ago, I had an experience that got me thinking about this deeply. While on vacation, I was sitting in the most amazing hammock I have ever seen. It felt heavenly.
This hammock was situated in a Brazilian B&B. This place wasn't a five-star hotel. It probably could never become one—it didn't even have a pool. However, the beach was a three-minute walk away. And did I mention the hammock that gently rocked me into a little midday slumber?
On my last day, the owner of this place invited me to join her for lunch in her kitchen. She remarked that I had eaten so little for breakfast she wanted to make sure I wasn’t hungry. We talked a bit about our lives and had a really nice connection.
While it wasn’t a five-star hotel, it certainly was a five-heart accommodation.
Compare this with my experience of more commonly accepted luxury, such as the five-star hotel I was checked into by a prestigious company I was interviewing with.
On my way to the hotel, I passed three women living on the street. I had a brief chat with them and gave them my food and, I believe, money. After this encounter, I couldn’t enjoy the luxury of the hotel.
Maybe there should be a way to categorize hotels according to soulfulness. Because, while it’s possible to buy luxury, soulful luxury is a whole other animal. For instance, I once had a tea in the “hotel of hotels” in Dubai, an five-star hotel with seven-star service. While the entire experience was amazing, there was one thing that the hotel did not have in abundance—soul. Because soul experiences can’t be bought.
The trend towards true success and abundance
What we are currently seeing in the world is a trend towards more authentic definitions of success and abundance.
True success comes from identifying what makes us happy... and then pursuing it with dogged persistence.
True abundance comes from realizing that we don't need to own everything to have what we want. Owning things we really care about or need is great. Everything else can become a burden, because we either have to take care of it ourselves or pay someone to take care of it.
The recent trends toward decluttering, tiny houses and minimalism is a testimony to that. Similarly, there are many exciting movements toward conscious business, a gift economy and shared resources.
If we have a definition of success and abundance that does not entail freedom and relationships, we will lose out on happiness.
Most of us who live in rich countries don’t need more stuff. We need more sustainable abundance.
Most of us who live in rich countries don’t need more luxury. We need more soulful luxury—a fair trade hammock, a stroll on the beach, our loved ones and wholesome food.
We need more win-win-win situations: Win for us, win for those around us and win for the planet.
That, my friend, is what I believe success and abundance really looks like.
A version of this article was first published at Elephant Journal.
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