What does it mean to live a successful life? Highly subjective question, so many possible answers: wealth, fame, respect, power, or any of dozens of other alternatives. But as you consider it, the choices are fairly simple – as the person answering this question, are you materially based or spiritually based as a person? This is where the trails parts: high roar, low road so to speak.
Many people are rooted in the material world and rank or rate success with things like the size of their house, the value of their car, their annual salary, their bank account, their “thing” collection (whatsoever that “thing” may be), their position in work, any number of possible assorted awards, their power or their authority, how well known they are e.g., their fame, their athletic prowess, or similar things.
And frankly, that is the mode of thought for a majority of people, especially in the younger years. As they embark on their own journey of adulthood, at some point quite early on, they are certain to look around at their peers to see how they compare. Sadly, that can set them up for a difficult life of playing catch-up coupled with bouts of depression or self-disappointment over their perceived shortcomings when compared to someone else’s “trophies”.
I say this because you never, ever know what is going on inside the other person with whom you just compared yourself and felt lacking. Maybe they do have a bigger house, a fancier phone, a sportier car; maybe they are making a greater salary than you. But maybe they go home an abuse their wife or their kids. Or worse, maybe they abuse themselves with drugs or alcohol. Maybe they go home and cry themselves to sleep because they feel so alone and unloved.
Seeing a snapshot of someone’s life is never enough to truly judge if they are indeed leading a successful life or not. But beyond that, possessions and wealth are extremely poor indicators of being a truly successful person. I know, I know… the younger people out there are all rolling on the floor laughing or are just shaking their heads saying, “OK boomer”.
But stop; stop and consider the scope of the question: what determines if you have a successful life? To answer it, you need to define the scope and the goal. When you die and they plant you in the ground, is your hole in the dirt any better for your bank account? Any nicer because of the car you drove? Any finer because you were the big boss? Does your fame or power grant you better dirt than the person next to you?
Accumulating wealth and nice things is all well and good, but they do not define the success of your life. What defines that is how people remember you, for your words and your actions, and for how you conducted yourself. Were you honest? Did you have integrity? A man of your word? Were you caring, compassionate, and considerate? Were you fair and just? Were you dependable and responsible? Did you treat your fellow man with kindness and humility?
Those are traits most fondly remembered by those whose lives you have touched. Deceit, dishonestly, irresponsibility, selfishness, and a lack of compassion may well be remembered – but not kindly. And once dead and buried, all the material gains garnered through malevolent or unkind behavior become leftovers for the next generation to gather up and enjoy and do nothing to define your success. Yet if you end up with little material holdings of worth, but have gently and positively touched dozens of lives during your time, you’ve left a legacy worthy of being defined as successful.
Don’t get me wrong; you can lead a genuinely high road life – never cheat a person, never lie, never lay claim to something not fairly yours – and still amass great material wealth and there is no fault to be had in such a life. Certainly successful. But successful because of who you were rather than what you had. And therein lies the seed of this post.
It is easy to at first, judge your own success (or someone else’s) by purely material means. Youth brings eagerness, ambition, aggression, and a desire to be competitive in most everything. You grow up winning accolades and awards for spelling or running or hitting a baseball or for high test scores. They are all competition-based means to judge just how you’re doing in life. And once you enter the workforce you a constantly faced with competition and performance-based rankings; evaluations, promotions, and raises all provide immediate and glaring feedback in how you are faring against the others.
But for most all of us there comes a time when we are faced with a real-life decision on the very question raised in this musing. Whether in work, at home, or wherever it may happen, the time will come when we have to make a choice. It may be that you have the chance to sabotage the competition or that you have inside information giving you an unfair edge; or maybe you have the chance to steal an idea and take credit. You are faced with a choice as to whether we want the next promotion, the next raise, or the next award to be based upon your doing the right thing or not.
And in our youth, we may buckle and take the low road for that advantage – the lowness of that road a matter of how much we can stand to live with ourselves. Most likely it was a little thing that we accepted of ourselves in order to gain the win. And equally most likely, we weren’t very happy without ourselves afterwards and ended up finding a way to rationalize the decision.
But over time our conscience and our recognition that the next award or raise or whatever is not worth the damage it inflicts upon our soul. The “win at costs” attitude because “to the victor goes the spoils” begins to reveal the true inherent ugliness of those credos. It begins to matter more that we conducted ourselves with honor and integrity than does actually winning.
There comes a time during a hugely important moment at work when you present an idea or solution to your bosses and it is received a clutch game winning solution. And as praise rains down upon you for such a brilliant solution, you then give credit to the team for the idea. Regardless if it was your idea or not, you give the team the credit; taking the high road. To me, a great leader places his people up on his shoulders – elevates them – lifts then up. And that is a sign of someone trying to lead a successful life.
Likewise, that same moment in that hugely important moment where your idea results in catastrophic failure. And the desire to blame someone else may try to overwhelm you. But the successful person will raise their hand and take full responsibility for it; this time standing over and above your team in order to shelter them.
And as we age, as we grow, and as we go through these moments in our lives, we increasingly realize that being truly successful has nothing to do with our stuff, but has everything to do with how we lead our life. And even as we recognize this, the adrenaline of competition and lure of conquest will still tug at us. And we may drift back and forth as time moves on, alternating between the high and low roads, but with the high road beginning to become the dominant one. Because it is a never-ending task; being successful means to never stop trying to be better, to improve.
When I was still working, the older I became and the longer I was there, the more important it was me to make a difference – to make things better for my people and the company and to leave it better than I found it. I wanted to help. I worked extremely hard but I also recognized that all the hard work in the world was meaningless if I did not conduct myself with honor and integrity. If you boil it all down, we are nothing more than our word, our name. So I drove myself to learn, to expand my thinking, and to always follow the high road. And I was eventually promoted to manager. And it became enormously important to me to find people with intelligence, creativity, integrity, honesty, and a desire to success and to then enable their success. No one is perfect and I certainly was not; but I did all within my power to help my team grow and achieve success.
And every night, driving home, I would roll the day’s events around in my head over and over to analyze them; to consider what I said or what I did and to figure out if I could have done it better. Self-examination and self-critique are valuable tools to help better yourself. Don’t be afraid to give it a try; it can feel awkward at first because our ego always likes to whisper in our ear how great we did. But persevere and you will find that a changed word here, one additional question there, or a few extra minutes with someone who appears to be struggling could have made the day – made you – a bit more successful. Self-examination is a conscious effort and it takes work – as does self-improvement.
We have an obligation – to ourselves, but especially to others – to examine and refine ourselves, our souls. It is what we are here to do – to become: better and higher functioning humans. The lesson of life is that life is the lesson. We are expected to learn every day, in every way. Not learn how to tie a bowline knot or to partition a hard drive – rather, how to not let pride or hubris taint your integrity, how to take personal responsibility for your actions, and how to think of others above yourself. We are in a lifelong relentless pursuit of attaining a higher plane, a higher existence.
But do not think of this as a pursuit driven by religious creed or doctrine. It may well be that it turns out that way, but equally as possible not. Spirituality does not inherently equate to religious dogma; it can, but doesn’t necessarily. It is about being a better person, about existing on a higher plane, and about being successful in life. All that glitters is not gold, oft times the list of things most valued are non-material. As Plato said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Be the best you that you can and don’t worry about how big your cousins house is or how fancy your brother’s phone is or how much the gal in the next cubicle is making. Tend to your own garden and grow yourself…. Stay well dear reader!