The Illusion of Success
Between the mirage and reality
The desire to be the next big thing, next best thing, next bestselling author, next CEO, next trending celebrity can be like a virus that chokes life out of the joy that you can have now.
It is so easy to obsess about getting to the top. Families, culture, media, and influencers constantly send that message. You are made for more. Yes, I believe it. But what is often missing is a definition of what the top actually means. What does it look like up there? If you say you want more, the question is, what is more? Or more importantly, how much more would be enough?
Where is the top?
Is it when you have a post graduate degree, or two, or maybe multiple doctorates?
If you are starting out in the job market, how would you know you have made it?
Is it when you get that dream job with an industry-leading firm? Or perhaps when you start leading a team, or when you become a partner or CEO?
If you are a writer, do you say you are at the top because the algorithm says you are a top writer? Or are you at the top when you sign a book deal? Should we say you are at the top when Amazon bestsellers lists say so, or perhaps when you sell a million copies?
These questions may be triggering, but also raise existential challenge to the values that drive ambitions, or signpost the values we often trade in for success.
What exactly informs your conviction of which point on the success ladder will satisfy your ambitions? Who defines what success looks like?
At some point, family would have told you that the ultimate mark is to get a college degree. You went ahead and nailed it. After that, societal pressures made you feel like a degree is not enough, and you grabbed some more academic laurels, probably with a hefty price tag that will nibble at your peace of mind for some time.
Then you get on the corporate ladder or the the hustle ladder, but the goal post seems to be shifting each time you hit the target. It seems the bottom falls off each time you get to the top and you have to start the uphill journey all over.
In search of the unknown
At some point, you will burn out chasing an endless list of goals dictated by external forces.
The happy place is unknown but you keep chasing anyway. If you don't know what it is and when you will get there, how long can you afford to remain in the race to this unknown place?
Do I have a solution for this problem? Maybe not. But here is a fact that is true for everyone who may have been on such quest.
You've come a long way and conquered quite a few territories. You are where you never dreamed of. This is your top for the moment. Relish it but keep showing up.
There's so much power in just being present where you are right now, and being committed to showing up. You will not get to the unknown place in one piece if you are not at peace with where you are.
Sipping wine and playing guitar with the amigos
In the proverbial story of the local fisherman and the banker, the local fisherman was already in his happy place in an off-grid fishing village. Then the holidaying banker showed up with his business school ideas on how the fisherman could get to the top of the global fishing business from his one-man fishing trade.
The fisherman said to the banker, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a nice afternoon nap with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos...".
This is a man who is living life to the full on his own terms.
The plan proposed by the banker would have taken about two decades for the fisherman to arrive at where he was already. This is assuming everything goes to plan. Anything can happen in the course of taking an idea from a remote village to the New York Stock Exchange. By then, the fisherman may lose his current level of freedom and relationships, only to end up with the exact same quality of life he was already getting before the quest for more success.
If you take more money, a bigger home, cars and other material things out of it, the plan would have been nothing but a hamster wheel for the fisherman.
This is not to say we should lack ambition. It simply means we should know our values and measure our success by those values instead of what other people think is the ideal target state or the route to get there.
To survive the onslaught of wild ambitions, we must embrace introspective questions. These are questions nobody may ask you and many will never be brave enough to ask themselves.
We should use "why" as a tool to diagnose our true motivations. Beyond that, we must use "so what then" to test the significance and meaningfulness of where the lofty dream would take us.
There's nothing as painful and empty as working long and hard to achieve a soul-crushing dream that means nothing after all.
It is possible you have hit the target you set for yourself ten or twenty years ago. Back then, you thought this was all you needed.
You should be happy by now. You made it, man!
But if I read your mind correctly, you don't agree, and I know why. You want more, and you think you deserve more. It could be that you are miserable because you are not getting more. It feels like the world is closing in on you, and there's just no way to get to the next whatever it is.
After a long time of constantly searching for an unknown place in your life and career, I hope you finally get this and be settled in your mind.
Do not wait any longer to be more successful to be happy. Be a bit like the fisherman:
...fish a little everyday, and hang your nets; spend quality time with loved ones, and from time to time, stroll into the village and hang out with your amigos.