Here’s Why You’re The Only One Who Gets To Define What Success Is

photo credit: Tunnelling Through Space and Time
What matters to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right thing comes to pass should not bother him.
— Goethe

Belisarius is one of the greatest yet unknown military generals in all of history. His name has been so obscured and forgotten by history that he makes an underappreciated general like George Marshall seem positively famous. At least they named the Marshall Plan after George.

As Rome’s highest ranking commander under the Byzan­tine emperor Justinian, Belisarius saved Western civilization on at least three occasions. As Rome collapsed and the seat of the empire moved to Constantinople, Belisarius was the only bright light in a dark time for Christianity. Chances are, you haven’t even heard of him.

All the same, the man won brilliant victories at Dara, Carthage, Naples, Sic­ily, and Constantinople. He saved the emperor’s life when it was threatened by a riotous mob. He reclaimed farflung territories and recaptured Rome for the first time since it fell — all before he was 40.

His thanks? He was not given public thanks or celebrations. Instead, he was repeatedly second guessed by the emperor and at the end of his illustrious career, Belisarius was stripped of his wealth, and according to the legend, blinded, and forced to beg in the streets to survive.

Historians, scholars, and artists have lamented and argued about this treatment for centuries. They’re rightfully outraged at the ungratefulness, and the pettiness this great and unusual man was subjected to. But guess who never complained about it, even when he had the chance? Belisarius.

It seems that he was content to simply do his job. That he took pride in doing it well. And that was enough.

For Belisarius, this attitude came from a sense of Christian duty which allowed him to put up with the difficulties inherent in his position. Today, while we hope not to be exposed to this kind of preposterously unjust treatment whether at the hands of our bosses, colleagues or government, we nevertheless must understand that thriving in the real world — especially the creative world — will require a similar mindset. Not a religious devotion, but a commitment to the work, as opposed to the rewards.

Though obvious, we often forget that when we work on a project — whether it’s a book or a business or otherwise — at a certain point, that thing leaves our hands and enters the realm of the world. It is judged, received, and acted on by other people (whether they are called audiences, bosses, clients, critics, customers or judges). Their response is outside our control.

In other words, even if we do everything right, the reaction might be failure, disrespect, jealousy, or even a resounding yawn from the world. If we are motivated by the wrong thing — if ego holds sway — this response will crush us.

I’ve seen it happen a hundred times. I’ve done it myself too.

Belisarius could win his battles. He could lead his men. He could determine his personal ethics. He could not make the Emperor like and appreciate him. He had no ability to control whether a powerful dicta­tor would treat him well.

The same is true for our work. How we respond to this dilemma determines who we are as people as well as the quality of what we will create.

Can we do the right thing even if it’s not recognized? Will we work hard for something that can be taken away from us? Will we lash out and be wronged just because someone else doesn’t play by the rules?

I released my book two weeks ago. I sold more copies than I ever expected to sell — that’s a good thing. Yet I did not appear on the New York Times Bestseller List (despite rightfully earning a place there) or the Wall Street Journal Bestseller List (where my book should have been number one). Why did this happen? I’m not sure.

I do know that there are certain games it is possible to play with the list and I chose not to play them. I know that I might have done something that pissed the New York Times off a few years ago — maybe they’re still mad about it. I also know that my publisher messed some reporting stuff up that might have impacted my chances on one of the lists. (I did hit the national USA Today list and a few other international lists).

In any case, I did all the right things. I wrote the book. I hustled my ass off. I didn’t cheat. And the reward?

I was screwed over and deprived of something that was mine — that would be very good for my career.

Except that is a preposterously selfish and short sighted way to look at it. First off, because I actually achieved the thing that the list is supposed to recognize (selling well). In fact, I sold more than I expected to sell, reached a lot of people, and got recognized in some places but not others. But those are not things to take pride in. It’s better to find satisfaction in knowing that I wrote the best book that I was capable of writing. Knowing that I pushed myself continually through the process and emerged better for it. Those are two things that were entirely in my control. If my happiness was dependent on everything else going my way, then I would not only be a hypocrite, but a miserable person most of the time.

I’m not saying that it’s easy to think this way. I’m not saying that I haven’t had to struggle with my anger about it a dozen times since I first found out. But what else am I going to do? Throw a tantrum? Where will that get me?

We need to cultivate the humility and discipline necessary to accept that we have only minimal control over the rewards for our work and effort — other people’s validation, recognition, rewards.

Think of all the activists who will find that they can only advance their cause so far. The leaders who are assassinated before their work is done. The inventors whose ideas lan­guish “ahead of their time.” According to society’s main metrics, these people were not rewarded for their work. Should they have not done it? Should they not be kind, not work hard, not produce, because there is a chance it wouldn’t be reciprocated? Should they have done the wrong thing instead?

C’mon.

Yet in our most egotistical and wounded moments — when struggling with our earsplitting “expectation hangover” — every one of us has considered doing pre­cisely that. Wanted to say: “Fuck ’em, they don’t appreciate me anyway.”

It might feel good in the short term, but it’s awful in the long term.

It’s far better (and more resilient) when doing good work is sufficient. When fulfilling our own standards is what fills us with pride and self respect. When the effort — not the results, good or bad — is enough.

It calls to mind the encounter between Alexander the Great and the famous Cynic philosopher Diogenes. Allegedly, Alexander approached Diogenes, who was lying down, enjoying the summer air, and stood over him and asked what he, the most powerful man in the world, might be able to do for this notoriously poor man. Diogenes could have asked for anything. What he requested was epic: “Stop blocking my sun.” Even two thousand years later we can feel exactly where in the solar plexus that must have hit Alexander, a man who always wanted to prove how important he was. As the author Robert Louis Stevenson later observed about this meeting, “It is a sore thing to have labored along and scaled arduous hilltops, and when all is done, find humanity indifferent to your achievement.”

But Diogenes, he never experienced that. He was more powerful than the most powerful man in the world in this way. He had all he needed. He was self-contained.

We need to try for that as well. Because maybe our parents will never be impressed. Maybe our girlfriend won’t care. Maybe the investor won’t see the numbers. Maybe the audi­ence won’t clap. But we have to be able to push through. We can’t let that be what motivates us.

How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” “Ambition,” Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “means tying your well­being to what other people say or do . . . Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” In other words: Do your work. Do it well. Let that be the end of your concern.

And understand, that even so — there will be times when you will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail.

Recognition and rewards — those must be extra. John Kennedy Toole’s great book A Confederacy of Dunces was universally turned down by publishers, news that so broke his heart that he later committed suicide in his car on an empty road in Biloxi, Mississippi. After his death, his mother discovered the book, advocated on its behalf until it was published, and it eventually won the Pulitzer Prize.

Think about that for a second. What changed between those submissions? Nothing. The book was the same. It was equally great when Toole had it in manuscript form and had fought with editors about it as it was when the book was published, sold copies, and won awards. If only he could have realized this, it would have saved him so much heart­break. He couldn’t, but from his painful example we can at least see how arbitrary many of the breaks in life are.

This is why we are the only people who should define what success looks like — and that that success should not depend on externals. It should be on us.

The world is, after all, indifferent to what we humans “want.” What can go wrong will. If we persist in wanting, in needing that to not happen?

Only misery and disappointment awaits.

But if we can find joy and satisfaction in the work? Well that can be ours right now.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Ego is the Enemy and three other books. His monthly reading recommendations which go out to 50,000+ subscribers are found here.