Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash

Why the common definition of “success” is all wrong

Nils von Heijne
Apr 10, 2018 · 5 min read

I’ve been chasing success my entire adult life, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. Over the last few years, however, I’ve been thinking a great deal about what “success” really is and why I’m spending my life chasing it.

My conclusion is that society’s standard definition of success — the one built around social status and money — is completely and utterly wrong, and that I’ve been (or perhaps still am) a fool to chase after it.

I finally decided to put this into writing, so here are my arguments for why defining “success” as social status, fame or money does not make sense:

  1. Quantifying people kill our natural desires
    The common definition of success is directly linked to what we might call the quantified society. In the quantified society (where we all live), we quantify and put numbers on people, using various metrics such as salary, grades, likes, followers, apartment size etc. The higher someone scores on those metrics, the more successful that person is said to be.
    When such ranking metrics are introduced to the human brain, research shows that our natural desire to play, explore, experiment and learn goes straight out the window. Instead of following the explorative mindset we are born with, we start chasing numbers and turn life into a competition. In short, we say bye-bye to our natural way of living to instead live out our days in a made-up system, competing for things that are equally made up (as you might know, money, grades and likes do not exist naturally in the universe — someone made them up). Thus, success by that definition is, by definition, made up and does not exist.
  2. Life is not a competition
    Using society’s common definition, success is relative. This means “I” can only be successful if “others” are less successful than me. In other words, I cannot win unless others lose. This means that by chasing after my own success, I’m at the same time chasing after the “failure” of others. It also means that other human beings should be looked upon as competitors rather than peers, colleagues, friends or family. Does that seem like something worth chasing after?
    Aren’t we supposed to love, help and cherish each other? That’s at least what most religions, nations and people in the history of mankind has been saying.
    And if life was a competition, when do you actually win? The logical finish line would be death, but that doesn’t seem very logical. If I knew I only had one minute left to live, I’m pretty sure I would not focus the last moments of my life celebrating how much money I have in my bank account or how big my apartment is. Other things matter more in death, and therefore also in life.
  3. Life as a competition = a life driven by fear
    Still, most of us look at life as if it were a competition. We want to be richer, cooler, smarter, healthier, more famous and better looking than everyone around us. Well folks, that desire is primarily based on fear.
    In any competition, people compete because they either love winning or fear losing. In the competition-based definition of life success, most of us just don’t want to lose. It is as if we all have an imaginary scoreboard in our heads, ranking and comparing ourselves, our friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, celebrities and even imaginary versions of ourselves (who we wish we were). We compete for money and social status simply because we’re scared shitless that our name will end up at the bottom of that scoreboard.
    If I don’t outperform my peers, maybe I’ll lose my job? If I lose my job, maybe I can’t afford my lifestyle? If I can’t afford my lifestyle, maybe I’ll have to move somewhere less expensive, far away from my friends. If that happens, maybe they won’t respect me and I’ll end up all alone. We compete because we’re scared of all those “maybes”. And when everyone is competing and everyone is scared, the never-ending fear-based competition ends up being all we care about. We’re too scared not to.
  4. My success should be my own
    In modern society, we don’t own our own success. My success actually lies completely in the opinions of others. If society deem me successful, I am. If not, I’m not. Success lies outside of me, which isn’t fair to anyone. I should get to define my own success, and I surely don’t want to meddle with anyone else’s view on theirs.
  5. Individual “success” is just luck and networks
    As a final point, science tells us that the main driver of monetary success is actually pure luck. A recent study looking into data on talent and success, clearly showed that the most talented individuals are rarely the most successful ones. Beyond sheer luck in timing and circumstances, including country of residence, name, month of birth etc., talent has very little to do with success. So what we’re all actually chasing is luck.
    Furthermore, success of the individual is a collective effort. Success of the individual is a result of network effects, i.e. the people directly, or even indirectly, connected to the individual. Just think about everyone who has supported you to become successful — your parents, friends, colleagues but also society’s political and financial systems. From that perspective, we should celebrate the success of our peers, because we are part of that success. It also means that we should focus on collaboration rather than competition, because in the made-up competition of quantified success, you actually win by not competing.

I hope I have now established that success measured in money and social status is not true success. Money and social status can be a side-effect of success, sure, but they are not success itself.

Now, let me humbly offer an alternative view on life success:
Success is to simply keep exploring, go further, and do your best to fully experience your ever-changing life. Success is not a destination. Destinations don’t exist, only change does.

Whenever we succeed by the metrics of the quantified society (i.e. get rich or famous), it is at best merely a side-effect of us assisting life itself in its continued exploration of, well, itself. When people are attracted to new products, ideas, services, songs or stories, thus making them “successful”, it is because those things help people in their own personal exploration of life. Take a moment to consider Google, Facebook, Apple, Tesla, Pixar, Ethereum, Harry Potter, The Beatles and similar success cases from that point of view. They all help people connect, feel, think, create, learn or explore in new ways, and, thus support humanity’s continued exploration, on both individual and planetary levels. Success lies in the actual process of exploration and creation, not in its potential side-effects of money or fame. Life success is to live your life to fullest, in your own way. Success does not reside in the comparison between you and others, it resides only in you. That’s why success can never be a competition. There is no common metric to measure success, and no common definition of success. You have your own definition, as do I.

Nils von Heijne

Written by

Creative changemaker, entrepreneur, author, speaker, podcaster, burner, dreamer

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