It is generally accepted that there is no consensus on what makes a person successful. For some, success is embodied by the pursuit of knowledge; for others, it is intricately tied to financial gain and so on.
But, determining what success means to you, as an individual, is usually a question that requires significant life experience to answer.
Unfortunately, from a young age, we are constantly plagued by conventional ideas about success, which, ultimately, distorts our whole perspective on life.
The one example I'm sure everyone can relate to is the concept of “grades,” which are ubiquitous in education systems throughout the world. Shortly after we begin formal schooling, we’re led to believe that a number between 0 and 100 accurately represents our mastery of a subject.
If we receive above a certain number multiple times, we’re generally honored for it by receiving shiny certificates or fancy plaques that make us feel happy in materialistic ways.
But, does this mean we’re successful? Or, merely that we knew the correct topics to study, the right answers to give and the proper way to play the game?
The point here, of course, is that whether or not you consider yourself to be successful is entirely subjective. Perhaps you focused on studying and understanding the material in order to achieve a high grade, in which case, you should feel a genuine sense of accomplishment.
Conversely, maybe all the questions were unchanged from last year’s exam, so you were able to ace it, just by memorizing and without an iota of deeper understanding.
However, regardless of how you achieved this feat, you still receive the same positive result: that lovely “A+” grade on your transcript.
The problem I'm trying to illustrate is that receiving external praise tends to shift our attention away from our own ideas of success. Instead, we begin to focus on how best to maintain the psychological “high” that comes from being told we’re doing well, even if it’s not based on our own standards.
This dilemma is at the heart of an issue many young people face today. Society tends to give us sparkling accolades for certain accomplishments, while it completely ignores others.
As a result, we find ourselves biased toward certain jobs, college programs or even hobbies, merely for the sake of maintaining this positive feedback loop.
Consequently, we tend to turn blind eyes to many other interests we might have because we become reliant on external praise to motivate us.
The bottom line is that when you are too obsessed with hearing about how well you've done, it seems ridiculous to attempt anything new for fear of failure.
I used to be one of these people. I always achieved high grades in school, received many awards for them and, eventually, found myself caring more about the number on my transcript than what I learned.
I felt as if my happiness was contingent on continuing to achieve this type of “success,” and it placed an enormous amount of pressure on me.
It’s only now, once I've removed my so-called “success goggles,” that I am able to clearly see and understand that society forces us to care more about the act of succeeding than that at which we are succeeding.
In fact, when I finished writing my first novel, I remember feeling a distinct sense of pride that usually wasn't present when I received perfect scores on tests. The interesting part of this was that very few people even cared about this story.
No one necessarily gave me any praise and I certainly didn’t receive any awards for it. However, the reason it was so meaningful was simply because the goal was born not out of society’s expectations, but of my own vision of success.
What truly made me feel successful was the simple fact that I set out on this important goal to write a novel and saw it through, from beginning to end.
This was just one example of how success seems more real when it is untainted by external influences and, instead, shaped by personal passions.
To be clear, the point of this piece is not to convince you to completely disregard what society, your peers or even your family says. Instead, it argues that a life built around an idea of success, perpetuated by others is simply not sustainable in the long term.
Just because you are told you are “good” at something does not mean it is what you have to study in school, do for a career or even practice in your spare time.
Eventually, you’ll realize that you cannot achieve happiness by following someone else’s vision for success. Trust in yourself and never underestimate the sound of your inner voice in a world filled with noise.
Above all, do not allow society to dictate when you are succeeding or what is worthy of being meaningful. Success should not be restricted to conventional ideas, like receiving awards in school, getting job promotions or buying expensive cars.
It is the responsibility of every individual to formulate his or her own definition of success; it is one of the first steps toward leading a fulfilling life.