Satisfaction is the New Success
Chase your ambitions AND be happy with this one simple change in mindset
If I had a dollar for every time I heard an inspirational story about a businessman who quit his status-oriented lifestyle (in dramatic fashion) to pursue “what really matters,” then I’d be making six figures too. And while I’ve noticed that the happiest people I know tend to be the least ambitious, this is ultimately a false binary. As a novelist, of course I want to win the Newbery, spot a complete stranger reading one of my novels on the train, sign so many hardcovers at a festival I’ll have to ice my hand afterward. But I’ll be happy in my work even if none of these fantasies ever come true for me, and to get to this point I didn’t have to freecycle all my worldly possessions, move to an ashram, and sit on a dirt floor meditating until I couldn’t feel my backside. Grab a notebook and pen and I’ll show you how to make this astonishingly simple mindset shift.
Divide a sheet of paper into two columns, labeling the left column “Success.” In this column, you’re going to make a list of all the things you think have to happen before a particular person (whose opinion, real or hypothetical, matters to you) will consider you successful. Do you have to:
- Hire your first employee?
- Reach 100,000 subscribers? A million followers?
- Get a book deal with a big-four publisher?
- Hit the New York Times bestseller list?
- Make your first million (or billion) before the age of thirty?
You may notice that most of the items on your list are rather cliched: If you’re a musician, you want a record deal with a major label. If you’re a novelist, you want a big-budget film adaptation. It’s what everybody wants because it’s what we’re told we’re supposed to want.
Once you’ve written out your list, imagine how you’d feel if you did achieve every single goal on it.
- Will you feel happy to have one employee — or will you feel like you should be able to hire five or ten?
- Will 100,000 subscribers be “enough,” or will you only feel anxious to hit 500,000?
- When you get that book deal, will you feel 100% psyched and grateful, or will you feel resentful of someone else who got a bigger advance?
- How are you going to feel when the following week’s bestseller list is published and your book is no longer on it?
- Will a million (or a billion) dollars seem like “enough”?
Be honest: how likely is it that this totally-successful future version of you would actually feel satisfied with any of these outcomes?
Now review your list a second time. How many of these things do you actually want to achieve (as opposed to those things you’re supposed to want)? Cross out anything that belongs in the latter category. Add any new items as they occur to you and put each of them through steps one and two.
Now that you’ve come up with a list of ambitions that are 100% yours, ask a third question for each: Are any of these 100% within my control?
Here’s my list. For each item, notice that no amount of talent and hard work can guarantee any of these outcomes. You can develop and test and release your app, but there’s no way to ensure it will be profitable. You can write and revise your book until it’s as good as you can make it, but no one can promise you a traditional publishing deal. Sure, you’ve got to meet Fate halfway — but like a charming ne’er-do-well boyfriend, Fate doesn’t always show up for the rendezvous.
Now let’s move on to the right column: label it “Satisfaction.” Here you’ll draw up a list of achievements that are 100% within your control. To develop, test, and release your next app goes on this list. Same goes for self-publishing your book. You can create your own gallery space, or theatrical production, or whatever it is you’ve been waiting on someone else to give you. It’s a wise idea to diversify here: include any other creative pursuits that bring you a great deal of pleasure, even if you’re not “good” at them yet: Knitting? Jazz violin? Write them down, and be specific: Knit myself a sweater. Play “Ain’t Misbehavin’” all the way through with no mistakes.
As you’ve gathered by now, the trick is to put the better part of your energy into achieving the items in your second column, even as you’re continuing in the work you need to do in order to meet your goals in column #1.
This simple exercise has changed my life in ways I didn’t anticipate. The satisfaction column has opened me up to more empowered and empowering ways of pursuing conventional success-oriented goals — like working with indie publishers, starting a YouTube channel, and posting my work on Medium — and because I’ve prioritized creative cross-pollination, my drawing and fiber-crafting practices render me more interesting to colleagues and potential readers and give me even more to write about. (I also know just how awesome it feels to slip that hand-knit sweater over my head.)
The more achievements I rack up in my satisfaction column, the less disappointment I feel when a project of mine doesn’t garner the recognition I’d hoped for. Most importantly, focusing on satisfaction over success has allowed me to build a body of work I feel deeply proud of, regardless of how well (or not) my books have sold, and I can remind myself to feel that pride on days when any given item in column #1 feels more out of reach than ever. Choosing satisfaction means choosing not to live my life in terms of deficits.
Your ambition won’t suck the joy out of your life if you’ve unhooked your sense of fulfillment from external validation. Creative satisfaction is something you give yourself by doing the work that lights you up — it’s not something you have to wait and hope and strive for. You can prime yourself for sustainable happiness by rerouting most of that hoping, striving energy into achievements that are 100 percent within your control.