Defining Success: A Paucity of Perspective
The greatest suffering, I have found, results from a discord between the soundtrack of your life and the song of your soul. When your heart is crying out for X, but you're spending your time and energy chasing Q, a unique kind of stridence is fostered. There's a distinct sense of coercion, a sensation not unlike trying to smile and appear appreciative while gagging down food that you find repulsive. It's the ultimate addition of insult to injury; you not only have to swallow something foul, you must also appear to be enjoying the experience.
The most common place I see this disconnect is in the pursuit of success. Success, according to the Merriam-Webster English dictionary, is "the fact of getting or receiving wealth, respect, or fame." Of course there are more general definitions to be found: a measure of succeeding, a favorable or desired outcome. But it is that first definition that I see most clearly reflected in our current culture, and that I witness most often yoked to the soul-shrinking discordance that reverberates in so many of my fellow humans.
Wealth, respect, or fame...that's an exceedingly narrow definition of success. It's also appallingly devoid of emotion or internal reference points. Wealth, respect, and fame are all rewards that can only be garnered from another, from outside of oneself. Of course, self-respect is a thing, but I suspect that isn't the kind of respect being referenced here. "The fact of getting or receiving" suggests otherwise.
A Google search for "the most successful people in the US" brings up a list of people known for their immense material wealth: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey, Andrew Carnegie. Related questions? Who is the #1 entrepreneur in the world, who is the most successful businessman in America, who is the richest person in America. The top four search results offer lists of businesspeople and/or entertainment superstars. There it is, front and center: wealth, respect, fame.
Perhaps your definition of success resonates with this. If so, what a wonderful happenstance! You are culturally supported, openly encouraged, and widely regarded for being your truest self and pursuing your innermost desires. Your soul song and the melody of your life are likely to be harmonious, a glorious symphony that is a pleasure to produce and regard. This is worth celebrating; I see and honor your blessings.
But what of those who don't hold this definition? We who do not hear the dulcet pairing of life and soul, who are choking on this definition of success, attempting to pass gagging for giggling? If you have bought into this definition of success but find that it fits like a hair sweater--itchy, irritating, and subtly repulsive--take heart. Your purchase is easily returned, no receipt is required. The inherent suffering that results from living life out of tune can be remedied by simply releasing the cultural definition of success and seeking inward, to find your own.
Where is this magical space inside of you, the one that contains your very own, fully customized holy grail of success? It's in your heart's center, the most sacred of spaces in your inner world. There are many ways to seek this space, to create the map that leads you inside. It can be discovered in stillness, such as through meditation. When you learn to quiet your mind, you will naturally begin to hear your inner voice. This voice can tell you what success means to you. In the quietude you will hear your soul's song clearly, and can begin to understand how to make your outer world a better match for your inner.
For the more cerebral, you might perform a core values exercise (like this one) to discover what it is that you hold dear. If it isn't wealth, fame, and respect, our cultural definition of success probably isn't working for you. The suffering is present, if not pervasive. You can begin to reduce the cacophony by using what I call the Magic Wand Question: does this lead me towards my values? Each time you pass on an opportunity that does not align with your values, the strife will lessen. Each time you make a choice that is in keeping with them, the same will happen. Harmony can be found this way.
But the fastest way to find the melded melody, the shortest route to the definition of success that will ring true for you, is through joy. By following your joy, you skip the need to define success up front. Instead, you will naturally create what will feel like success to you. The more closely you follow your joy, the more you hang on to its tail like a determined puppy, the more closely you will align with your personal values and the more individual success you will create. Because joy is the song of your soul. Your mind and body vibrate with joy when you are hearing your soul song. When you allow this resonance to guide you in writing the score for your life, harmony is a simple guarantee.
To begin to follow joy, you must do that thing I am always talking about--think less and feel more. Stop asking your mind, Google, your friends, and popular culture what is right for you. Start considering your decisions from a place that is deeper, wiser, and more connected than your thinking mind--your heart. When you're choosing whether or not to accept the promotion, buy the car, make the move, take the risk...feel each of these options. Notice your emotional, not your logical, response to them. Allow this feeling to guide you towards the resonance that's missing.
The ones that you "should do" probably feel awful. Should tends to feel constraining, stressful, disingenuous, burdensome, defeating. Should means you're listening to someone else's melody. Should is the hair sweater. Joy and should are polar opposites. Feel free to discard any options that feel like should.
I'd also advise against doing what you think you want to do, as well, at least for now. Until you get this joy thing down, you don't know what you want. You know what you've been told you want. Which is how you got into this discordant mess to begin with. Instead, choose the thing that feels the best. Which choices makes you want to laugh out loud? To run down the street screaming like a happy lunatic? To dance in circles, buy yourself a cake, and why not some fresh flowers, while you're at it? Pick that one.
As you practice this skill, you may need to slow down and take a second look and anything that "feels" like a smart choice. Smart is a thought, a value judgement; it's not a feeling. If you find yourself saying "that feels like a smart/solid/right choice," ask the question again. How do those options feel? Heavy, stressful, overwhelming? Take a pass. Cake, circles, laughing out loud? Pick that one!
Then, do that over and over again. Pick the thing that feels like joy. Do it with little choices, like what to wear today or what to have for dinner tonight. Do it with middle of the road queries, such as whether or not you take on a new project at work, or where to go on vacation. And definitely do it with the big choices, like leaving your job, saying yes to a relationship, or selling everything you own to live in a tent on the beach.
Martha Beck, Harvard PhD, author, and coach, describes this alignment with joy as "feeling warm." When faced with a choice, Beck simply asks herself, what feels warm? Then she chooses that thing. In her latest book, The Way of Integrity, she outlines how to reach this state of alignment with your highest and truest self, noting that "integrity is the cure for psychological suffering. Period."
What she is calling integrity is what I am calling harmony--the meeting place where your lifestyle and your soul's style are one. Being out of harmony, out of integrity, causes suffering. Trying to build someone else's definition of success is perhaps the most pervasive version of this discord in our society today. When you create a soundtrack for your life that matches the song in your soul, when you choose what success means to you, you get to take off the hair sweater. You end the suffering. Period.
It is worth noting here that very few choices are permanent. Very. Few. You may have hesitated in the past to choose what makes you feel great, or you may have a hard time doing so now that you've read this, because you imagine all kinds of potential outcomes of your choice.
Let's practice your new skill: how does that feel?? How does it feel to worry about the future that way, to stifle your ability to choose with endless scenarios about what might happen when you do? Not joyous, I'd bet. And what do you do with things that don't feel like joy? You don't choose them.
So, don't do that. Don't play "what if." Don't project every possible endpoint of your choice for joy. Just pick joy and see what happens. If, for some reason, your choice doesn't take you towards the harmony you seek, just choose again. It really is that simple. Let's practice some more...feel this choice: projecting forward for weeks (or months, or years) and trying to anticipate every outcome, or making a choice knowing that you can choose again at any time if you don't like what you get. How do those choices feel? Pick that one that feels easy, light, joyful.
Or meditate on it. Or write your core values on a huge piece of neon pink poster board and hang it in your living room. Or Tap on it, draw it, write a song about it. Do whatever takes you inside, away from society's definitions and towards your own. To create harmony, you have to build your reality from the inside out, to write the soundtrack of your life based on the song of your soul. Anything less is a one-click order for the hair sweater. Period.