What does it mean to be successful?

What does it mean to be successful?

Recently, as I rambled around the internet, I stumbled across a news article about a former classmate of mine. I say classmate, but I didn't really know the guy and probably never even had what might be classed as an actual conversation with him. This former classmate, the article told me, had gone on to become a successful Michelin star chef in London. In fact at the time he was the youngest ever to receive such an honor. He then went on to open his own high end restaurant back in Dublin.

Upon reading this article I immediately felt a weird twinge of jealousy and resentment. Now I have zero desire to be a Michelin star chef in a fancy restaurant, or being a chef any restaurant for that matter. So why was I feeling this way? That question stayed with me for the rest of the day, though really I knew exactly why my initial reaction to that news story was a negative sinking feeling, I just didn't want to face it.

What I had resented in him was the feeling of success that I assumed he had. The negativity I had felt towards him were internal feelings that I was projecting outward. I am genuinely happy for him and I don't in anyway begrudge his success. But what seeing his success did do was put some uncomfortable thoughts into my head about my own life. About the fact that I have never thought of myself as being successful.

But what does it even mean to be successful? Such a cliche question, but something that I reckon most of think about at some point in our lives. Maybe we don’t all ponder the meaning of success, but we almost certainly want to be successful in some way. The mainstream idea of success is generally perceived as having either money or notoriety, or both. Though the actual definition of the word is rather more subjective:

The accomplishment of an aim or purpose

So going by that definition there is no such thing as objective success. Being successful in the eyes of someone else simply means your achievements fit their notion of what success is. However it seems then that society imposes a view of success on many of us, given that many people likely have similar notions of what success is (fame and money).

I think we often conflate success with the outcome of success in what happens to be a lucrative field at a particular point in time. For example if my goal was to become a pop star or actor and I succeeded in that regard then I would likely be rich and famous. On the other hand if my goal was to own a house and raise a small, happy and healthy family, then fame and fortune wouldn't necessarily await my success. But, and this is important, according to our definition of success I would be equally successful in either scenario because I have accomplished exactly what it is that I set out to do.

At the time of writing this I am a senior engineer and director of product in a game development studios. Interestingly if you went back in time and asked my ten year old self whether or not he thought I was successful he would have undoubtedly said yes. Now, however, I harbor no such feelings.

As I have grown I have changed. My diet and lifestyle, interest in physical fitness and health. I do things now, like Yoga and mediation, that my 18 year old self would be horrified by. While my 18 year old self did things that I wouldn't dream of doing now. As my values and beliefs have evolved over the years, without any real forethought, I have never stopped to think about what my goals are. To set criteria for success. No wonder I don't feel successful - I don't have any goals! When I was younger I think I had a pretty standard set of goals:

  • Get a degree

  • Get a job

  • Buy a house

  • ???

I have now achieved all of those things but it doesn't feel like success. As I was busy mindlessly achieving those things they became less important to me. I wasn't reevaluating my goals as I was progressing towards them. They were also a bit lofty and vague, and more importantly not my own. It's like I had been swept away in the river of adulthood and all of a sudden hit a log that was protruding from the shore. The words 'Existential Crisis' come to mind.

I do think that the path I am on in life is a positive one and that it doesn't make too much sense to dwell on where it will end up. However I now realize that I need a few milestones. That I need to take my values and explore them with some sort of tangible outcome in mind. I've also realized the importance of constantly reevaluating my goals and values and making adjustments, both minor and major, if needed.

I'm not sure what exactly I will be aiming for, but it is something I will be thinking about a lot over the coming weeks and months. As a personal trainer one of the most important aspects of working with any client, regardless of their goals, is how their goals are presented. In order to get the most out of their time we use a principle known as SMART goal setting:

  • Specific

    • Don't create ambiguous goals that are open to interpretation, you should know exactly what it is you are trying to achieve. This could be 'lose 1 stone', 'run 5km' or 'write a blog post every week for 2 months'.

  • Measurable

    • If you can't measure your goal how will you know if you have successfully achieved it? There should be some metric by which you can gauge your progress and adjust your course if necessary.

  • Attainable

    • Don't set yourself up for failure. It is good to dream big, but setting yourself smaller goals that contribute to a larger vision makes for sense. Instead of one ten year goal set yourself 20 consecutive 6 month goals. It is much easier to estimate what you can achieve over the next six months as opposed to several years.

  • Relevant

    • Your goals should reflect your values. Your goal shouldn't be to 'write a science fiction book' if you have no interest in writing or science fiction. For me a lot of my goals will undoubtedly be health a fitness related.

  • Timely

    • Give yourself a deadline. A bit of pressure can be a good thing, a driving force behind action. Once you know what you are doing and how to measure it give yourself a timeline. You would be amazed at what you can achieve in a short amount of time. For example many writers take part in a yearly event called NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write and entire novel in a month. Sure, not many best sellers are written in a month - but writing a novel in a month is guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing and is a perfect example of what can be achieved with a goal and a deadline.

This approach to goal setting is useful regardless of the type of goal. Once the goal is set you can objectively judge whether or not you have been successful in achieving it. I know I'll be using this system myself and I'm sure there will be several posts touching on my goals and progress right here over the coming months.

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