Introduction

It’s different for everybody and we are all, in one way or another, chasing it. Success. We want to be successful. But how do you define success? Will you be happy when you have “made it”? We live in a society that glorifies success. The moments that are Instagrammable. It glorifies the golden medals, the headlines, the promotions, the highs, IPO’s and the multi-million dollar exits. But what happens when we reach a certain level of success? Is external success linked to internal contentment?

External success and internal contentment are not the same.

In this article, I’ll analyse the definition of “success” and how we can keep feeling content once we achieved any type of success. What happens when you achieve the thing you’re chasing after your entire life? How does success impact our lives and what to do “post” success? Why do so many successful people depressed?

Happiness

What would you do if you have just sold your company for 2.5 billion USD? You have more money in the bank than you can ever spend in the coming 1000 years. So much money that it will be almost impossible to spend all of it. For many this sounds like the ultimate achievement of success and happiness is a given fact once you reach this level. The reality is different and it’s exactly what happened to Markus Persson, founder of Minecraft. His game developing company Mojang that created Minecraft, was sold to Microsoft for 2.5 billion USD and instantly made Markus a billionaire. After achieving that much external success and instant wealth, his internal contentment was far from a place of happiness and peace.

All the money in the world doesn’t actually buy anything other than things and more things. ~ Markus Persson

How would you feel if you’re the fastest swimmer in the world for several years in a row? Have a collection of Olympic medals so large that you can use your medals as wallpaper and several have multi-million dollar sponsorship deals with top brands? Sounds like a dream for many and was the reality for top swimmer Ian Thorpe. But after dominating the swimming world for years he also fell into a deep hole where he was far from a place of feeling content about his achievements and happiness.

We are all guilty, at one point or another, of associating visions of success with assumptions of happiness. ~ Ian Thorpe

Gaining world-class recognition, golden medals, wealth or material possessions often times look like they are the key to happiness and a sense that you have made it. But both research and these examples of iconic performers show again and again that external success is not the same as internal contentment. Both examples might be extreme because not everyone will swim at an Olympic level or will sell multi-billion dollar companies. But if we look at it on a micro level, the question of how we define success does apply to all of us. What are we chasing in life? How do we feel while chasing it and what do you do when you have achieved it?

Success

suc·cess
səkˈses/
noun
  1. the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.

Generally speaking, we measure success by 3 metrics: money, fame or recognition and power. The above-mentioned examples clearly show that does metrics don’t cut it. Arianna Huffington, who sold her company for 300 million USD to AOL in 2011, says to fully understand the meaning of success we need to add the following 4 metrics: well-being, giving, wonder and wisdom. These metrics also cover the emotional and psychological state of mind which should be the foundation of your definition of success.

Motion

Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, also referred to as the law of inertia, states that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. What does Newton have to do with success, achievement and happiness?

The challenge with success and high achievement is that it can feel like you’re swinging on the Olympic rings and then suddenly someone stops your swing in the middle. Suddenly you stop, the energy is gone and there is no more momentum being built. You’re stuck in one spot. Once you stop swinging and moving forward you start to sink into the abyss and have a feeling of being “stuck”.

Olympic rings
Losing momentum or building momentum

 

The trouble with billionaires and highly successful athletes is when they arrive at the top, their momentum often stops. They turn into the kid on the Olympic rings who just hangs from the rings. But this feeling is not just for the exclusive group of people that walk on the moon or build billion dollar businesses. It’s the same reason why 66% of the labour force is not happy in their job. They feel like they are in a dead-end-job and don’t feel content with your work. When there is no forward momentum, we get to lose a sense of purpose and start drifting in an abyss.

Success in Progress

So how can you work towards success and have a feeling of purpose, passion and contentment?

Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile took on the question in the mid-2000s in a research study of white-collar employees. She tasked 238 pencil pushers in various industries to keep daily work diaries. The workers answered open-ended questions about how they felt, what events in their days stood out. Amabile and her fellow researchers then dissected the 12,000 resulting entries, searching for patterns in what affects people’s “inner” work lives the most dramatically. The answer was astonishing simple:

Progress. A sense of forward motion. Regardless of how big or small.

You don’t have to be doing something bigger or better to be happy, but you need to keep moving.

Psychologist Karl Weick of the University of Michigan defines small wins as a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance. In a seminal paper for American Psychologist in 1984 he wrote that “once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favour another small win.” This means that when you feel like you’re lacking momentum and you’re starting to lose speed on the rings focus on small wins so your feelings can turn and a sense of contentment come back.

Conclusion

Harvard researchers found that minor victories at work were nearly as psychologically powerful as major breakthroughs. To motivate stuck employees, companies need to help their workers experience lots of tiny wins. This is helpful to know when motivating employees. But it also hints at what billionaires, Olympic athletes and normal people like you and me can do to keep momentum and feel successful about what you are doing. Focus on small wins and keep moving forward.

 

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