Here is my definition of success:
“Achieving what matters to me in a balanced and sustainable way.”
NOTE: For more on the balanced and sustainable stuff, please check out my articles on stress in this IDEAS section. For now, I’ll just say if you’re working yourself to death in pursuit of what matters to you, it’s not going to work out well for you in the end.
Let’s focus on the first part of that definition.
What matters to you?
You can absolutely achieve fame, status, and beauty in pursuit of your goals. But, when you are focusing on values-based aims and a meaningful purpose, these become by-products of a much richer pursuit.
They are nice bonus features—not the end game.
Contentment is more profound and more precious when it’s not just about the money, looks, notoriety, and status.
I’m not just pulling this stuff out of the air. A study of military academy grads reveals some fascinating data about goals and success. The study participants who set extrinsic goals (the rank they wanted to achieve, the salary they wanted to earn) ended up being both less happy and less successful than those who set intrinsic goals (like “I want to be a good leader,” or “I want to figure out something important for the world.”) Setting their sights on values-based aims actually delivered higher salaries, rank and overall contentment.
In my experience, more meaningful goals and intentions have deeper roots and stronger legs.
Another way to think about it? If you’re in school and you only focus on getting good grades (extrinsic goals) you may walk away from an entire educational career with good marks but not much knowledge. If your goal is learning and integrating your knowledge for good, your grades may still be good (by-product), but the real value is the knowledge you now possess.
Albert (not his real name) a surgeon at one of the country’s top hospitals and a professor at a leading medical school, wanted some coaching to help him get motivated to apply for academic promotion. When I asked why this promotion mattered to hIM, he said, “I want to see the title by my name.”
There wasn’t much heart or conviction in his voice when he gave that answer. So I asked if the title really mattered. He reluctantly admitted, “No.”
I asked, “What does matter to you?”
He thought about it for a little while, “I am a really experienced surgeon and I am a really great at teaching residents. They make great progress when I’m leading them. I’ve been doing this and doing it very well for a long time.” In other words, his title didn’t align with the work he was doing.
Values-based goals let you leverage your character strengths —the place where you are at your best. In Albert’s case, that was in-depth knowledge and experience in his surgical field and the ability to teach surgical residents in an effective and meaningful way.
Parenting coaches will tell you values-based parenting, focusing on a few key things you want your kids to learn while they’re under your roof (kindness, dedication, stress management, physical movement and care for health, emotional regulation, honesty, to name a few) will help raise more mentally healthy adults than focusing purely on performance (grades, sports achievement, physical appearance).
Even high achieving kids whose parents have over-emphasized the external accomplishments can end up being unable to cope when the going gets tough.
Another client of mine, Kelly, an attorney on a quest for understanding what success meant for her, agreed to set some aims for herself from the inside out.
I asked her to answer these questions:
What matters to you in your spiritual growth/faith?
What matters to you in your family life?
What matters to you in your physical health?
What matters to you in your work?
What else matters to you?
After she quietly and conscientiously pondered these questions, Kelly told me she wanted to be a mentor and leader for young lawyers. She wanted to be thorough and innovative in her approach to her cases— present and patient with her kids and husband. She wanted to be open to learning new things and to focus more time and energy on her physical health and emotional well-being. She wanted to spend more time outside. Her desire to be an effective and loving leader at work and at home became the foundation for each of her aims. We brainstormed ways she could take actions or put practices into play to achieve these intentions. After a few months, Kelly said her life felt more vibrant and more meaningful than it had in a while.
To me, that’s the most significant success any of us can seek.