So what is the most common question when you meet someone new? What is it that you do? What is really being asked is what are you worth, and do I want to get to know you. Society is judgmental and cruel. Unless you can come up with a satisfactory answer, you will be cast into the dark and bitter world of indifference. Society is snobbish – it takes a very small part of your existence and then uses that to extrapolate the total (and fixed) judgment of your worth.
The world is becoming increasingly individual. In the past, when we were members of tribes, villages, and towns, some of our identity was attached to these collective units. This meant that some of our value was linked to factors in which we did not have a direct hand. Possibly your village was well known for making exceptional whiskey, and your sense of self-worth would have been bolstered by this recognition. Given the wholesale deconstruction of these collective units in the modern urban world, our ability to lean on these supports has weakened. This means that our worth is now punitively close to what we have personally done – or not done.
We live in a world where the possibility for individual performance has never been greater. Anyone can do anything – amass the wealth of nations (Elon Musk is now worth more than the majority of small and even medium-sized nations), become the leader of the world’s most powerful country (Donald Trump), or self-publish a book that sells 150 million copies (Fifty Shades of Grey). The flip side is also true – if you do not succeed, you feel all the more pathetic. You have failed in the face of unlimited and overwhelming possibilities. This is particularly true when you are born into a land of opportunity like the US, where success, opportunity, and entitlement are inculcated at a very early age. For these people, failure must be a bitter pill to swallow.
Musk, Trump, and the Fifty Shades lady are extreme examples. Society would not unfairly judge us if we did not publish a best-selling book. It does give us some leeway. How does society define a “successful life”? We typically break down life into two areas -work and life. A successful life would look like the following:
1) You are fulfilled in your work. You make smart decisions, perfect work/life balance, you are well-remunerated and recognized in line with your efforts. You find work fun and the work is completely in line with your talents.
2) Your love life follows a similar path. After several passionate and fulfilling relationships, you meet one special, kind, beautiful, and devoted person. The sex is sensational, you have beautiful kids and day-to-day domesticity never grinds you down.
If you take a look at the statistics, the probability of your life turning out like this is in line with winning the lottery, which is about 1 in 14 million. Given that the are 7 billion inhabitants on earth, approximately 500 people will see their lives follow this course!
Let's go back to the lottery – you have a better chance of being struck by lightning three times in the same place than winning the lottery. People, however, continue buying lottery tickets. Ambrose Bierce said that the lottery was a tax on people bad at maths.
The human brain does not understand this probability and imagines that a life of bliss, as explained above, is within your reach. Let's look at the cold hard facts – half of the marriages end in divorce (100% of my 2 marriages ended in divorce). Sixty percent of people are stressed by money. Seventy percent of people feel that no one really loves them.
The media does a great job of making us believe that success is the rule and not the exception. It spotlights the achievements of billionaires, athletes, philanthropists, and great leaders. The world is not full of beautiful, happy, fulfilled, and kind people. If we could be a fly on the wall and see into the lives and minds of everyone, we will quickly notice the following: how much-unfulfilled ambition is circulating, how much bitter disappointment there is, and how much uncertainty and anxiety is being played out in private. Then you will see just how cruel the goals are that you have set for yourself.
So where am I heading with this? Maybe we should redefine success. Consider Luigi. He drives an Italian sports car, lives in a mansion, and has a large collection of Swiss watches. He is deemed to be successful. He has numerous beautiful homes and his Instagram account is filled with photos of glamorous parties with beautiful people. Let’s also say that he is in constant physical pain brought on by years and years of tireless work and sleep deprivation on account of his relentless work ethic. He hates the business he does and feels completely unfulfilled? Is Luigi successful?
Should success not be based on a more holistic definition? Defining success in terms of wealth, respect or fame is far too narrow. To get to a better definition of this subjective term, you need to scratch below the surface of a person and not limit yourself to what is only visible to the outside world. Maybe happiness should be given more weight in the equation of modern success.
A Harvard study set out to understand the secret of happiness. It analyzed a large group of people over the decades. It was not a snap survey on a random sample. It selected two groups and then followed the evolution of their lives over a long period. The findings from the study were fascinating. For over 75 years, the study tracked the physical and emotional well-being of two populations.
The first, known as the Grant study, analyzed 456 poor men growing up in Boston from 1939 to 2014. The Glueck study followed 268 male graduates from Harvard's classes of 1939-1944. The multiple generations of researchers analyzed blood samples, conducted brain scans (once they became available), and dissected self-reported surveys, as well as actual interactions with these men.
The researchers found that professional success was not a source of fulfillment. The more people progressed up the corporate ladder, the more money they had, the more assets they acquired, and the more complicated their lives became. With this increased complexity came increased anxiety and with this increased anxiety higher stress levels. Also, they found themselves less fulfilled. They were, however, able to overcome this sense of emptiness by immersing themselves in their jobs. They filled their days with professional activities and their weekends with social engagements that left no time for reflection.
Consider two jobs. Job one pays $100,000 per year working in a toll booth in a dark tunnel. Job two pays $50,000 working as an English teacher in a rural school in the Italian Alps. You will select the second job, even if you hate teaching and suffer from vertigo.
Chasing money, fame and recognition will not make you happy and fulfilled. It may even do the opposite. Everyone of us needs to sit down and reevaluate their priorities if they want to have meaning in their lives.
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