Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value. – Albert Einstein
Have you ever noticed that there are a startling number of TV shows and films that revolve around people going to their high school reunions?
It’s almost as though their social lives peaked when they were at their spottiest and most awkward, and they return a decade later to show off to everyone else how attractive and successful they’ve become.
There are the inevitable clichés about people who have stagnated in certain roles, or the underdogs who have suddenly become good looking and rich and famous.
But there’s always that sense of competition and one-upmanship: showing off how much has been attained or achieved.
Those who have attained wealth and fame are admired, like they’ve somehow redeemed themselves from the awkwardness of their youth.
…is that really success, though?
Is that the standard that we should be holding ourselves to when it comes to a well-lived life?
Are You Living A Life Of Purpose?
If you’re doing what you love, and making a difference (however you choose to define that), then you are living with purpose.
If you’re making a crap-ton of money, but are having anxiety attacks every morning before slogging your way to a job that you hate, ask yourself: is that success?
Consider how many hours a week you spend working, and consider that if you’re not pouring those hours into work that you love, how much of your life is being flushed away.
For the sake of what, exactly?
The car you’ll be paying off for a decade? The house that you’re never in because you’re working all the time?
If you found out that you only had five years to live, what would you want to do with the time you have left?
Whatever your answer is, it likely has something to do with the work that you SHOULD be doing… the success you should be aiming for.
What Legacy Are You Leaving?
When it’s time for you to exit stage left (hopefully not being pursued by bears), what kind of lasting effect would you like to leave behind?
What ripples would you like your life-pebble to cause?
For one person, living a successful life means leaving behind enough wealth and property that their children and grandchildren will be able to live a gentler, less stressful life than they led.
For another, it could be that they’ve donated as much money as possible to animal refuges and rehabilitation centers.
Yet another may consider their life well lived if they were able to help others cultivate non-attachment and immense inner peace in a spiritual setting.
Truly, the greatest legacy we can leave is the impact we have on the lives of others, human or non.
A person who has planted thousands of trees has personally contributed to the wellbeing of the planet, and someone who has knitted warm hats for premature babies may very well have saved countless little lives.
Each of our actions really does have the same effect as a pebble tossed into a pond, with ripples that move outward far beyond what we might originally consider.
A child you help to sponsor in a developing country so s/he can get an education may grow up to become a scientist or engineer, and make a profound difference in thousands, even millions of people’s lives.
The elderly people who come together to grow food in community gardens may help to nourish the homeless, or women and children in shelters, escaping abuse, or refugees new to the country, fleeing the horrors of war.
Are You On A Road That Leads To Peace And Happiness?
Many people feel that they have done something successfully if it has been completely harrowing, and they have attained it by means of ill health and self-sacrifice.
Consider a young woman who earned a law degree, but developed an eating disorder, crippling panic attacks, TMJ from grinding her teeth in her sleep because of constant stress and anxiety, and an ulcer.
Yes, she got a law degree, so she was successful in that endeavor… but the end result was that she couldn’t actually practice law because of her mental and emotional ill-health.
Instead, she went on vacation to Italy, took a few different cooking and baking courses to help her heal from her eating disorder, and started a new career as a bread baker.
Would you consider her to have been a success?
As a caterer, she’s making a fraction of the money she’d have made as a lawyer. This career wouldn’t be considered prestigious by many, and some might actually view her with a measure of contempt because she’s doing “menial” manual labor.
But she is happier than she’s ever been. She works with her hands, making food for other people to enjoy, and kneading the dough is like a physical meditation for her.
Bread that’s left over at the end of the day is donated to a local food bank, and when she brings home items that she’s baked to share with her family, they smile and thank her because what she shares with them is delicious, and prepared with love.
This is her peace, her happiness. This is her success.
How Not To Measure Success
The media reinforces the idea that success is measured by how much “stuff” you’ve managed to accumulate.
If you have a ton of money in the bank, wear designer clothes, own a huge house, and drive a fancy car.
Sure, some people may measure their level of success by their bank account or piles of accumulated items, but what happens if and when that suddenly goes away?
What happens if your house burns down or you suddenly face bankruptcy, leaving you all but penniless.
Are you no longer a successful person?
What do you have to show for your life if your “stuff” disappears?
Rather than measuring your life’s success by how many things you manage to hoard around yourself, consider gauging your success by how many other beings can live a happier, better life because of your actions.
Don’t Compare Yourself To Others, Or To Yourself X Amount Of Time Ago
You’re not the same person you were last week, let alone five or ten years ago.
You are unlikely to be able to do the same things today that you did then, and that person then didn’t have the wisdom and experience that you have now.
We cannot ever compare ourselves to anyone else, because we are all constantly changing and evolving.
Your definition of success needs to be as fluid and mutable as you are, as life circumstances can change on a dime, and it’s only by adapting and flowing with things that we can truly flourish.
Today, success to you might mean finishing a degree, or building a house by yourself.
Five years from now, success might be portrayed by successfully cultivating an orchard’s worth of fruit, or watching your kid learn how to walk.
Other people’s opinions about whether or not you’re successful are completely irrelevant.
When it comes to how you measure success, be absolutely honest with yourself, and try to follow your authentic Truth, however you can.
Be present, be mindful, and measure successes by how often you smile, and how often you help others smile in turn.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.