Success Happens When We Forget About Trying to Find It
A Confederacy of Dunces was one of the funniest books I ever read. I ran across it in 1980 soon after it was published, and then did what I do whenever I read a book I like. I searched for more books by the author.
That’s when I discovered that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide 11 years before his book’s publication. A Confederacy of Dunces won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, but Toole wasn’t around to savor success. After repeated rejections, he thought he was a failure. At 31 years old, he took his own life. It was his mother who resurrected the book and sent it to publishers who finally recognized its quality.
Was John Kennedy Toole a success?
I guess it depends on how you define it. If your idea of success is to create a work of art that stands the test of time or influences and entertains people for decades to come, you might say yes. But if your idea of success is to find pleasure and satisfaction and happiness on your daily journey here, the answer would have to be no.
“But I want both,” you might be thinking. “I want success and I want it now so I can enjoy it.”
Yet, what makes you think you would enjoy it? Because the truth is, when we reach some pinnacle of success we thought would make us happy, we raise the bar. Success is more elusive than reaching a goal.
If you don’t believe me, think about your own journey. How many times have you reached some predetermined goal, enjoyed it for a minute, then set your sights on the next thing?
I’ll give you an example from my experience. I published my first book several years ago, after studying what the most successful writers wrote and figuring out (or so I thought) what worked. I wrote and re-wrote, polished and perfected, then finally published.
Next, I sat back and waited for sales to happen. Or comments. Or feedback. Or something! Only nothing came. Crickets. Nothing. Nada. The silence was deafening.
I was devastated and quit writing. I obviously didn’t have I any talent. My writing didn’t resonate. I wasn’t going anywhere with it.
My decision to quit lasted exactly one day. But by dinner time I was writing again, because that’s what I do. Only this time, I approached it differently. I asked myself something: was I going to let failure and other people’s opinions discourage me? Or was I going to continue doing what I wanted to do?
I decided to continue, but I tweaked my idea of success. No longer would I aim to reach thousands of readers. No longer would my success be measured against the best-performing writers. If I could write something that resonated with just one person, if I did the best I could and continued to improve, and if I enjoyed the gift of every day, I would consider myself successful.
If you have committed all things to impacting a life at a time, or impacting a community or society, then welcome to a life of significance.”
― Sunday Adelaja, The Mountain of Ignorance
Maybe your goal is to make a certain amount of money, or publish a book, or start a company, or get married. If you can attain it, you’ll be successful. Or so you think.
But maybe not. I read the story of a writer who published his first book, which was moderately successful. But after the first flush of success, he went into a deep depression because it wasn’t a bestseller. He had raised the bar from wanting to publish a book to wanting to publish a bestseller.
It’s okay to raise the bar if that means continuing to improve, to strive toward goals, to move forward and excel. There’s nothing wrong with aiming for a bigger readership, more money, or whatever it is you’re aiming for.
What isn’t okay is for the attainment of these goals to be your yardstick for success. Because success isn’t the end result. Success is being able to find satisfaction and happiness at whatever point of your journey you are on at any given moment. Success is not in the achievement, it’s in the process.
When we make success all about the end result, failure looms large in our minds. Gratitude for small achievements and joy in our journey is lost. Seeds of bitterness and envy take root as we compare ourselves to those who seem more successful.
Listen to these wise words by Viktor Frankl:
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run — in the long-run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Success happens when we forget about it? That’s an interesting thought. Success doesn’t happen when we strive for it. It happens as a by-product of surrender. The harder we pursue it, the more elusive it becomes. It becomes an end in itself, for our own glory, rather than a way to make a difference, improve a life, or impact one person.
Maybe if John Kennedy Toole had forgotten about success and thought about his impact on just one life, he wouldn’t have been so devastated by failure. He might have lived to write more books, impact more lives, and enjoy his Pulitzer Prize.
Success is short-lived and unsatisfying unless I’ve learned to enjoy the small moments that add up to a day’s worth of living. It’s a goal post that vanishes when I get there unless I’m driven by a desire for impact rather than self-glory.
Have you ever attained something you were striving for, only to find out people don’t like you or admire you more because you reached your goal? They are busy with their own lives and their own goals. If you can impact their lives, help them reach their goals, make them feel good about themselves, your influence is far greater than if you are only focused on your own accomplishments.
Switch your focus from being successful to “listening to what your conscience commands you to do,” as Viktor Frankl said. Enjoy the masterpiece you are creating each day; a life filled with gratitude, hope and joy, and the opportunity to impact more people than you ever thought possible.