March 10, 2012

Success Is Not What You Think It Is

"Successful people seem to have a long history of building bigger successes on top of smaller successes. In other words, successful people are successful." - Daniel Tenner
The above quote has a lot more truth in it than I really want to admit. I strive to be a successful person, but I simply cannot escape the fact that I have to build all my successes on top of smaller successes, and why, while I continue to strive for what some would consider absurdly ambitious goals, I end up inserting more and more steps between each one. Sometimes I'm productive, and sometimes I'm not. Sometimes I feel like I could take on the world, and sometimes I curl into a fetal position. Some people wonder why I try so hard, and I wonder how those people couldn't try so hard - but there is always a catch.

It seems that "success" has a devilishly slippery definition. It means something different to everyone, but people tend to assume that their view of success is shared by the majority. We argue about how much work you need to do versus how much is healthy, we talk about having fun at your job, we talk about making sacrifices, we talk about a lot of things. What we never seem to talk about is what success actually means for you.

In our endless quest for success, we've forgotten that everyone has a different finish line.

Do you know what success means to me? Some people are surprised when they discover it has nothing to do with money, or fame, or even having kids. These things don't matter to me. There are only 3 things that are precious to me, and they are what my entire life is dedicated to creating. If I weren't working towards making those things happen, I'd go insane. To me, the most important thing I will ever do in my life is to take a dream, an idea, a world that exists only inside my imagination, and to make it come alive for people to explore. If only a few thousand people see it, that's fine. If I end up working at a terrible job just to support myself because I can't make any money off it, fine. If it gets ridiculed and laughed at, fine. My success hinges only on my ability to create what I want to create.

Some people have similar dreams (they tend to be artists, who often understand my goals better than programmers), but some do not. Some people measure success by how much money they make. Some people measure success by how popular they are. Some people measure success by solving a problem or crafting an elegant mathematical proof. We can't simply ignore success that we don't understand. This is why the entire concept of a self-help book has to be taken with a grain of salt - it will only be useful to you if it matches up to what success really means to you, and people are entirely too good at convincing themselves that they want something they don't actually need.

Advice on how to be successful is more useful when it is made more general. I always say that you should stop at nothing to achieve your dreams, no matter what they are. Perhaps I should also suggest for you to make sure that your dreams are truly your own. Are you trying to climb your own mountain, or have you been scaling someone else's cliffs? Maybe trying to figure out how to be successful isn't as important as figuring out what success means to you in the first place.


  1. I think it's also important to realise that our own definitions of success can change over time, just as your goals can change, and sometimes the change in goals and definition of success can be add odds with each other or out of sync.

    Even if your goals don't change, you may find yourself adjusting your view of success; perhaps because you've achieved your previous view of success or perhaps because you now believe that it's too ambitious, or because all of a sudden something else is important in your life.

    1. I agree with this, although from my experience, one's view of success usually changes because of an unforeseen development.