Flick through your newsfeed and you’ll find no shortage of articles and expert on advice on how to be more successful.
How to position yourself to get the next rung up the ladder.
How to build a better investment or property portfolio.
How to find the partner, or purchase the home, of your dreams.
How to get abs to die for or build a seven-figure online business. All in 30 days.
How to become a world-class writer, presenter, podcaster, designer… the list goes on.
But what does it really mean to be ‘successful’?
There is no shortage of answers. But deciding how you will define and measure success is one of the most important exercises you can ever do.
Why? Because unless you take the time to decide what it truly means for you to live a successful life you can wind up spending your entire life working desperately hard to never measure up to the definitions that others have created for you. Most of which are entirely dependent on accruing more and ‘looking good’ in the eyes of those around you. Nearly all of which will also leave you forever striving, never feeling like you’ve ever truly arrived, never successful enough.
It explains why there are many people who, from the outside, appear to have ‘made it’ but who find themselves desperately lonely, unhappy and wrestling with a deep void in their lives. You may have met a few. They’re often the ones with a burning need to let you know how successful they are. It also explains why, despite being wealthier than at any point in human history, more people today rely on anti-depressants to get by and more take their own lives because they see no future meaningful enough to live for.
Which brings us to the heart of what it means to live a truly successful life.
That is, to live a deeply meaningful one.
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Of course, what is ‘meaningful’ is a personally created construct. Yet while we can each draw meaning from different things, we all know it when we feel it and it is always connected to something which in some way, shape or form, serves and elevates those around us.
Leading an organization whose products/services fulfill a core need or desire.
Empowering people to live their potential and become ‘change agents’ for good.
Resolving conflicts that divide people and create untold suffering.
Expressing our creativity in a way that adds beauty to the world.
Designing systems and technology that help people connect better.
Educating people with information that helps them make better choices.
Finding cures for diseases that will alleviate suffering and enhance life.
The list goes on.
Which begs the question, how might your current measures of success actually be keeping you from experiencing greater fulfillment and a more intimate connection with the people in your life, today and in the future?
Certainly, any measure that is limited to money inevitably leaves a void. Research has found that once our basic needs and desires are met (recently estimated to require a salary of $83,000), greater wealth has diminishing incremental returns on our happiness.
Likewise, if you think that having a million Twitter followers or a New York Times Bestseller or Olympic Gold will finally do the trick, you’re also on a one-way path to disillusionment.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the world-renowned spiritual leader who was instrumental in brokering the historic peace deal between the Columbian militia and FARC guerillas, believes that service to others is the only true pathway to a genuinely successful life:
“Every moment you spend on this planet, remember that you are here for a unique purpose and cause. Work for good things for others and good things will come back to you ,” he shared during our podcast interview. “This is the law of nature. So if it appears as though you are failing, that failure is only to help you move you towards higher success, toward greater service.”
Sri Sri’s teachings, shared through his Art of Living Centers have helped millions to find greater meaning and peace in their lives. His advice aligns with that of the physician and theologian Albert Schweitzer who once said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” It also aligns with what Marianne Williamson, another spiritual leader, shared with me during our recent interview, “We’ve brought into a culture of self-absorption,” she said. “ You cannot separate a life of meaning and a life of purpose from a life lived in service to those who suffer.”
As you are reading this now you may feel little in common with a spiritual guru or theologian. Yet we human beings have far more in common than what sets us apart; at the core of our being we all long to live a life that matters. So as you think about where you are right now in your life, and the future that you have yet to create, consider how reframing how you measure success through the lens of service may spare you an enormous amount of ‘striving’ and fuel your courage to take the leap of faith required to be a greater force for good in the lives of others.
As I wrote in a previous column Do You Know Your Why?, by committing to a purpose greater than propping up our social identity or stroking our ego (which is, after all, an insatiable beast) you will discover within yourself more courage, creativity, resilience, and resourcefulness than you ever knew yourself to have. But don’t get hung up trying to nail your purpose which we often think must be some grand and noble enterprise. Rather simply ask yourself, “How may I best serve?” and then take a brave step in whatever direction your answer beckons. You may never reach the top of the ladder, you may never see your name in lights, and you may never own a villa in the south of France (though if you do, enjoy and share it!) But you will almost certainly enjoy greater contentment in your days and arrive at the twilight of your life with people you love by your side and an infinitely fuller heart.
Surely that is a far greater measure of success than a five-car garage.
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