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“A man has dreams of walking with giants, to carve his niche in the edifice of time…” -George Banks from Mary Poppins

Shortly after my most recent article, Failure Habits Turned Into Successful Ones, a friend, Dave asked me what determines the quality of my success. This question cut deeply into my psyche. I knew I had been working on myself and attempting to improve. I knew success was a goal, but I could answer his question with anything better than it is the illusion on the horizon that I needed to consistently move and reach towards. I also knew that I saw it as an oasis mirage that as I got closer it would continue to push further back to the horizon.

This could not be entirely true. Perfection is the illusion; the nine trying to become the ten. Success, although certainly vague, is a definable result of actions and possibly luck. If it was not how could we look at any of those we look up to as an example as successful.

How do I define success? I could not define it.

I had ideas of examples of success. A few weeks ago I made a list of people I saw as successful that I hoped to one day correspond with and perhaps meet. I certainly see Shaun White, RZA, and Stephen Colbert as some of my examples of successful people I put down on the list. What made them successful? Was it Shaun White’s three Olympic gold medals? Was it his transition from an amateur snowboarder at the age of six to renowned professional at the early age of thirteen; something completely unheard of at the time.

Sometime between six and when he became the only athlete ever to win gold at both the winter and summer X-games the then “Flying Tomato” became successful. Now his website shaunwhite.com has him listed as Icon, Athlete, and Entrepreneur. This is similar to my headline on LinkedIn where I describe myself as “Adventurer, Writer, Salesman, Entrepreneur.”

Wikipedia has his net worth listed at forty million dollars. I bet that’s light once you include future earning potential and endorsement deals. I also do not think his monetary earnings or worth is what the “Animal” would say makes him so successful.

Money is a tool. What one does with it builds toward success. Anyone can hit the lottery or have a rich family member pass away and leave them a bundle of money. This does not make them successful.

So what does? What is success?

Dictionary.com defines success as:

  1. the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals
  2. the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like
  3. a performance or acheivement that is marked by success, as by the attainment of honors

The wealth is a small piece of this definition. As I tried to define it myself I knew wealth would not be my definition. However I did keep coming back to happiness. Happiness is not listed in any of the definitions I found.

Why would happiness not be a defining characteristic of success? Is it possible for someone achieve success and not be happy? Happiness seems like it would be a natural bi-product of success.

Much like success, happiness is also a vague concept. After my conversation with Dave I kept coming back to happiness. As I detoured to define happiness I just got further from my goal of defining success.

When I sit down to family dinner after grilling chicken and vegetables I would find myself happy. When I watch the waves come in and roll out from the beach and I take in the ocean sounds and the peace I would know I was happy. The feeling after an intense workout when I really pushed through being tired or uninspired also will make me happy. None of these alone would make me successful.

I climbed back out of that rabbit hole and refocused on success specifically. I was still lost.

What was the next obvious thing to do when one is lost? I commenced a Bing search of the word success. The first link was for TED Talks. The have a playlist called “What is success?”.  I watched a video of a talk legendary UCLA Bruins basketball coach John Wooden. I took notes on what the coach who had won ten NCAA championships and the most consecutive wins in college basketball history at eighty eight had to say{1}. His teams had four perfect seasons! Surely if anyone could help me define success it would be Coach Wooden.

John Wooden described the difference between winning and success over his seventeen minute talk. Coach defined success as: “Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction and knowing you made the effort of which you’re capable.” He said this in 2001. He was ninety years old at the time.

“…knowing you made the effort of which you’re capable of.” Seriously? If I try my hardest and I am still a loser would that make me successful. John Wooden either had it wrong or he was withholding.

A problem I’ve recently encountered with defining success based on the past merits of successful people is that their successes are in their rear-view mirror. I respect what Coach says and take it to heart, but he is interpreting his building blocks of success through what he thinks worked and didn’t work. This means he is accounting for things that he feels made him successful that may have had no bearing other than his having memory of it. He is also forgetting important deeds, conversations, and ideas that occurred during his rise.

John Wooden also said “You can lose when you outscore someone. You can win when you’re outscored.” This I got. This statement I whole-heartedly agreed with.

Defining success has become quite the conundrum.

So far we have established that success is a vague and subjective concept. We also know that happiness and monetary accumulation are two measures of success. I know I already judge my happiness by experiences and relationships. Perhaps I can investigate success through a similar lens.

I know I’m being successful when I consistently follow through on the commitments I have made. I’m also successful when I make positive connection with someone else. This could be with a newly found network connection, an old friend, or even with a stranger out in a random public setting. I recognize success when I have made an investment in my future or when I have reached out philanthropically. It would also be when I saw returns on hard work and dedication.

Inversely I know my paycheck and tenure at my job do not define my achievement of success. Nor does my job title. How much others like me does not even do that. Like happiness these are only metrics. They are variables in the equation.

I was starting to put the puzzle together. I sat down to my next writing session and decided I would compile a list of other variables that would make me successful.

A large sale or paycheck I’ve earned the right way would work. Adding value to someone or something else as well. Success would be having a balance between work time, family and friends time, and my own self time. It would be having mostly up emotional days and very very few down ones. It would be consistently learning and improving.

I would become more successful if I made a new friend or if I reinforced or strengthened an already existing relationship. Additionally if my family and friends felt fulfilled with the time I spent with them. It would be having a strong network that I could consistently give value to without needing to take much back.

Work-wise it would being able to not worry, stress, or fret minimally. It would mean producing work that continues to work for me even while I sleep or have a day off. It would definitely be spending less time working than enjoying the fruits of my labors.

Having little to no debt and adventuring often would work. Being able to give back to my community and to others in need would as well. Success would be receiving more positive feedback than negative.

It all comes down to quality and quantity. I would require most of the list to feel a sense of success in myself. I would need to be doing the right things the right way consistently.

Looking back at how I have defined success in a lot of ways I feel I am already there. I still feel like I have to continue to reach out towards that horizon, but by many of the above-stated metrics I am already in a position to start accepting an introspective feeling of success. Otherwise what is all this self-improvement work for?

I’d like to conclude this article by sharing an example of success I saw this week in the biographical documentary called The Carter Effect. It is a documentary about future hall of fame basketball player, Vince Carter. The movie was produced by Lebron James, Maverick Carter, and Drake. The film recounts the story of the Toronto Raptors game seven loss to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001.

The day of the game Vince Carter attended his own college graduation from the University of North Carolina. He would arrive five hours before the game. It was much later than the rest of his team. He had encountered much criticism about the choice he had made. Upon the superstar being interviewed before the game he was asked if he had any regrets about attending the graduation in stead of being with the team.

His response exemplified the success I am personally seeking. He said, “I accomplished two things. I accomplished being in the biggest game of my life and I accomplished the biggest thing in my life and that’s to graduate.

Vinsanity missed the final shot of the game; a shot he had made countless times before.

V.C. made two an a half million dollars in just his salary that year with the Raptors. This did not include endorsement deals. Graduation in Durham was more important than a career game that would have made for a championship bid in victory. Carter chose his own personal goal over his job’s expectations of him.

In the off-season of 2001 he signed a ninety million dollar multi-year contract with Toronto to continue to be their star. Today in 2018 he is planning to play next season at forty-one years old.

In the same documentary Drake was interviewed on his minority ownership and involvement with the Toronto Raptors today. This is the same Drake with five number one hits and twenty-six top ten hits on Billboard.com.

Drake held up a copy of SLAM magazine that he was on the cover of. It featured then Raptors’ point guard, Kyle Lowry, and slam dunk master DeMar DeRozan in uniform standing on the outside and Drake in business suit in the middle. The hundred million dollar net-worth rapper said the magazine cover made him feel like the owner of the team. Drake stated that this one small thing made him feel successful.

In conclusion I still do not know a quantifiable measure of my success, or for others. I do know the bricks I now lay in the foundation of the skyscraper I hope to one day have built. I hope to have a figurative Empire State Building through my actions, interactions, and the use of my time.

{1} Seven of John Wooden’s championships came in consecutive years between 1967 and 1973. His teams also had the most trips to the final four, sixteen, the most consecutive, nine, and the most Final Four victories, twenty-one. John Wooden held a forty season winning percentage of .813. That means his teams won more than eight of every ten games. That is surely success.

Acknowledgement to Dave “Big Red” Roberts for pressing in and asking me to elaborate on what my idea of success was. I have been writing about it a lot lately. We do not always agree on things and share very different perspectives on the world and society, but I appreciate that he is reading and keeping me honest and on my toes.


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