It is generally accepted that there is no consensus on what makes a person successful in this day and age. For some, success is embodied by the pursuit of knowledge while 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 which 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 are the concepts of “grades” which are ubiquitous in education systems throughout the world. Shortly after we begin formal schooling, we’re led to believe that our mastery of a subject is accurately represented by a number from 0–100 or something similar. If we receive above a certain number multiple times, then we’re generally honoured for it by receiving shiny certificates or fancy plaques that make us feel happy in a materialistic way. But, does this really 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 really focused on studying and understanding the material 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 such as 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 that many young people face today. Society tends to give us sparkling accolades for certain accomplishments while completely ignoring others. As a result, we find ourselves biased towards certain jobs, college programs or even hobbies merely for the sake of maintaining this positive-feedback loop. Consequently, we tend to turn a blind eye to any other interests we might have because we have 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 had always achieved high grades in school, received many awards for it, and eventually found myself caring more about a number on a transcript than what I actually 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 see clearly and understand that society forces us to care more about the act of succeeding than what we are actually succeeding at.
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 another perfect score on a test. The interesting part was that very few people even cared about this story. No one really gave me any praise and I certainly didn’t receive any awards for it. However, the reason it was so meaningful was simply because this goal was born not out of society’s expectations but my own vision of success. What truly made me feel successful was the simple fact that I had set out on this important goal of writing a novel and had seen it through from beginning to end. This is just one example of how success can seem more real when it is untainted by external influences and instead shaped by your own 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 is argue 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 that 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 of success. Trust in yourself and never underestimate the sound of your inner voice in a world filled with noise.
Above all, do not chose to simply allow society to dictate when you are succeeding or what is worthy of being meaningful. Success should not be restricted to conventional ideas such as receiving awards in school, getting job promotions or buying expensive new cars. It is the responsibility of every individual to formulate their own definition of success — for this is one of the first steps towards leading a fulfilling life.