The True Meaning of Success
Thursday, June 12, 2008
The True Meaning of Success
By Alexander Green
Over the past several months, the headlines have been full of economic misery.
Foreclosure filings hit a record in April. Repo lots overflow with reclaimed cars. And, according to The Washington Post, personal bankruptcies are up 40%.
Some of those hardest hit are enduring a perfect storm in the economy:
Higher food and energy prices, a weak job market, rising mortgage payments, falling home values, and tougher lending standards.
Others, however, are suffering for a different reason. They chased a blinkered image of success: The idea that status and self-worth are derived from flashy cars, expensive jewelry, or a five-bedroom McMansion in a gated community.
If you can afford these things, fine. Enjoy them. But if they are a stretch, a struggle... could they really be worth long hours, strained relationships, or your kids continually asking "Where's Dad?"
After all, life is short. Time expended earning a living is, in effect, trading life for cash.
We all have an overhead, of course. But what else are you trading your life for?
I once heard a customer in a jewelry shop asking the store manager how accurate the Rolex was he was considering.
"Sir," he answered, "I'm more than happy to tell you about the amazing Swiss craftsmanship that goes into each of these timepieces. But, in truth, nothing under this counter keeps time as well as the cell phone in your pocket."
This man knew his business. He wasn't selling watches. He was selling luxury, a certain image of success.
There's nothing wrong with that. The world is full of desirable things. But some of us have forgotten that the important things in life aren't things at all. And genuine success cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
As Bob Dylan once said, "What's money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do."
"What is success?" asked Ralph Waldo Emerson, "To laugh often and much.
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children.
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends. To appreciate beauty. To find the best in others. To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition. To know even one life breathed easier because you have lived; this is to have succeeded."
Yet, in many ways, society equates success with money and possessions. Some imagine this is a distinctively modern phenomenon. It's not. There has always been fierce competition for resources. Citizens of ancient Greece and Rome hungered for wealth and power, too.
What has changed dramatically is today's level of material prosperity, fueled in part by access to easy credit. Unfortunately, the quest for more can quickly overtake your priorities.
Nearly 150 years ago, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in "The
Wisdom of Life": "It is manifestly a wiser course to aim at the maintenance
of our health and the cultivation of our faculties, than at the amassing
Beyond the satisfaction of some real and natural necessities, all that
the possession of wealth can achieve has a very small influence upon our
Happiness, in the proper sense of the word; indeed, wealth rather disturbs it, because the preservation of property entails a great many unavoidable anxieties.
"And still men are a thousand times more intent on becoming rich than on acquiring culture, though it is quite certain that what a man is, contributes much more to his happiness than what he has. So you may see many a man, as industrious as an ant, ceaselessly occupied from morning to night in the endeavor to increase his heap of gold...
"And if he is lucky, his struggles result in his having a really great pile of gold, which he leaves to his heir, either to make it still larger, or to squander it in extravagance. A life like this, though pursued with a sense of earnestness and an air of importance, is just as
silly as many another which has a fool's cap for its symbol. What a man has in himself is, then, the chief element in his happiness."
The desire to have, to acquire, and to possess, is in principle insatiable. Yet rarely does it generate the fulfillment we imagine. By contrast, doing, creating, contributing, or giving does generate the sense of satisfaction we crave.
In setting our priorities, therefore, shouldn't doing precede having?
After all, how can you do what you really want if you're too busy working for what you already have?
So check your priorities. Make sure your actions are in sync with them.
As essayist Christopher Morley observed a century ago, "There is only
one success - to be able to spend your life in your own way."
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