In the past few years I have read countless articles that talk about success and how to achieve it. Some of them have been incredibly insightful while others amount to nothing but pseudo-inspirational garbage. The one thing that all of these articles usually have in common is that they either define success according to the writer’s own point of view -which often doesn’t apply to everyone- or they don’t define success at all.
How do we define success?
Defining success is tricky because it is subjective and can differ greatly between people with different backgrounds, experiences, opinions and expectations. So far I have only managed to come up with one definition that seems to apply to most people, though it might seem a tad ambiguous.
“Become Who You Are.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
To me, success basically means becoming the person you want to be. I always say that if you become the person you want to be, everything else will fall into place. I’ve always been a fan of Nietzsche‘s philosophy and was excited to find that he has on a number of occasions said something quite similar.
When we are the kind of person we want to be and live the sort of life we want to live, that is when we feel true fulfilment and a real sense of accomplishment. That is also when we feel happiest in the deepest sense. Dissatisfaction generally comes from not having, being or doing something that we wish we were. When we veer too much from the path we feel we should be on, we tend to become anxious, stressed and unhappy. That is probably also why people on their deathbeds tend to regret the chances they never took far more than the mistakes they made.
The crucial thing about this definition is that it defines success in a way that is universally applicable. Modern society tends to define success according to wealth, status, popularity and power. If someone wants to be a person of wealth and power, then that is the lens through which they will consider and define success, and that is fine. However, there are many who do not consider success in material or social terms. Wanting to live peacefully on a commune or living a life of seclusion and meditation can also be a form of success if that is really what somebody wants. More radically, success could also be defined as spending your life sitting on a sofa, eating junk food and playing video games, if that is truly who you want be (though I personally don’t know anyone who truly wants to be that).
If you become the person you want to be, however you view or define that, then you will be successful. Many people’s dissatisfaction is due to them pursuing a certain ‘definition’ of success that is at odds with what they want deep down; whether that means pursuing a career they don’t enjoy or holding back on chasing some dream because it is outside of the ‘norm’.
So the real question here is, how do we know what kind of person we want to become? Once again, Nietzsche has the answer.
“The higher you ascend, the smaller you appear to the eye of envy. But most of all they hate those who fly.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
There is no single way to figure out what you really want in life. Some people know it from when they are children whilst others don’t find their calling until late in life. Generally, our opinions, experiences and ethics will give us some sense of who we want to be and what we want to do. One of the reasons I love to travel so much is because it forces me out of my comfort zone and makes me experience new perspectives.
But there is another basic way to figure out what we want. Nietzsche believes that jealousy and envy are a strong indicator of what we want in life. We are jealous and envious when we are not fully satisfied with ourselves and when we desire something that someone else has, does or is.
According to Nietzsche, the problem with Western culture -in particular Judeo-Christian culture- is that we are brought up thinking negatively about jealousy. We are taught that jealousy is sinful and something to be ashamed about. So much so, that we are often in denial of our jealousy, not only to others but also to ourselves.
But is jealousy really such a bad thing?
Nietzsche believes that jealousy needs to be recognised and embraced. It should be viewed as a talisman that points us in the right direction. After all, if I am truly and completely satisfied with my life, I will have no reason to be jealous of anyone else (“the higher you ascend, the smaller you appear to the eye of envy”). If I am envious of somebody, then clearly that person has something that I want. Rather than burying the feeling, I should recognise it and use it as a guide to what kind of person I want to be.
At the end of the day, jealousy only tells that there are still things that we want to improve in our lives. it is not the feeling of jealousy that is bad. It is when we allow those feelings to get to us and cloud our judgement that it becomes bad. It is not without reason that hatred is often considered a reflection of jealousy or personal dissatisfaction (“But most of all they hate those who fly”).
All this isn’t to say that success is easy. Becoming the person we want to be can be difficult. It may require introspection, experience, growth, hard work, education, dedication and commitment. That being said, the only sure way to get onto the right path is by understanding which path we actually want to be on.
Once you are on the right path, everything else falls into place.