Success is one of those topics that can spark a countless number of debates, conversations and discussions — with others, but more importantly, within ourselves. Trying to define this amorphous concept is the root of both ambition and manipulation, the reason why some of us are able to be content without external reinforcement and why others who are superficially successful will never have peace of mind.
The truth about success, in my view, is that it is more about personal goals and drive than it is about finding a place in the human rat race. We’re taught at an early age that there is such a thing as winners and losers — labels that are ultimately arbitrary, since the process is more valuable than the end result. This black-and-white rationale can act as blinders for how we view personal achievement, and it takes some unlearning to even begin to define success.
Take something as simple as a marathon, for instance. I recently ran a 10K race through Central Park as part of my preparation for the full New York City marathon. Without a doubt there was a runner who finished the race first, and by definition, he or she was the “winner” of the run. Likewise, there had to be a person who finished last, and by definition, was the “loser” of the race. But you would be hard-pressed to find somebody who wouldn’t agree that each person who crossed that finish line was still successful in his or her own right. The mental endurance and emotional poignancy that is associated with training for a marathon is blatant proof that success is an individual experience.
How is it that this very literal example, however, often fails to translate into other areas of life? If the workforce really is the rat race we believe it to be, then why worry about finishing ahead of other people, about making more money than, owning more things than, having more power than others? It should matter more the lessons we learn, the skills we acquire, the positive changes we see in ourselves in our quest toward a finish line. Having a goal and working toward it and actually embracing all the experiences along the way — that is success.
Blindly reaching for institutions and social levels that we’re told are benchmarks of success is the surest way to ensure personal frustration and failure. It is only when we learn to let go of external expectations and begin to enjoy the process of life itself that we can truly grasp what we personally define as success, be it raising a family, giving back to the community, or even just learning a foreign language.
It’s not so much what we do that makes us successful. It’s how we go about striving toward our goals and why we choose to do them. Everything else is just details.