*This article revised and updated 17 September 2023
Success & You
Success begins with who you are, not what you do.
It begins and ends with you. So does failure.
Yet success does not depend on imitating the success or successful actions of others. You don’t become successful by trying to be someone else or something other than yourself.
Rather, it depends on finding that which is successful in you, through you, as you, so you can make the most of who you already are. It depends on finding that which makes you a successful human being.
Which is why being trumps doing every single time. So if your intent is to maximise your time here on Earth and achieve your highest goals, if your ambition is to live your life to the fullest and become the person you always dreamed you would, then look no further than this age-old maxim:
Get yourself right and everything else will fall into place.
Get yourself right first, then everything else will naturally come together. There’s a story told by motivational speakers and authors around the world that dates back to the early decades of the 20th Century and beautifully elucidates this point. Even though the story is many generations old, it is still very relevant to today’s generation, and it goes like this:
A pastor was struggling to come up with an idea for his sermon that he had to deliver the next day. While he sat at his desk, staring at the blank sheet of paper, he found himself becoming irritated with his young son’s continual complaints that he had nothing to do.
On the desk next to the pastor was the morning paper. It was splayed open to an advert for a travel agency, the centrepiece of which was a large map of the world, and this gave the pastor an idea.
He ripped the map into many pieces and tossed them onto the floor, telling his son to put the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. This, he thought, would take his son at least half an hour to complete and give him some much needed peace and quiet to write his sermon.
However, to his surprise, his son completed the task in under five minutes.
“But how did you do it so quickly?” asked the pastor.
“Oh,” said the boy, “the map of the world was very complicated and tricky, but on the back was a picture of a man that was much easier to piece together. I knew that if I got the man right, the world would be right.”
The pastor nodded and smiled. He had his sermon for the next day.
When you get the person right, their world will be right. This applies to everyone, yourself included. When you focus on being true to who you really are, everything will automatically align and support that truthful identity.
Being Vs Doing
How often, though, do we put the emphasis on the other way around? How often do we first focus on what we are doing before we consider who we are being?
How often do we piece together a picture of who we are—an identity—with what we do rather than who we are being?
As we move from childhood into adulthood, apart from our physical and social conditions—sex, gender, race, culture, physical features, mental intellect—our job title becomes one of the dominant factors or conditions with which we identify ourselves and the value and importance we ascribe to ourselves.
For the most part, the majority of our working day is defined by our job title and what we do in that role, part-time or full-time, which can consume 20, 40, 60 hours per week, even more. So it’s not surprising the dominating influence it has on our identity.
The fancier the job title, in fact, the fancier and more valuable we think we are. Doctor, lawyer, politician, CEO, actor, sports star, musician, the higher up the career ladder we climb, and the more accolades we receive, the more our job title becomes ingrained in our identity—the more it becomes us, the more we become it—and the more it becomes the overriding factor in determining the value of who we think we are.
The rewards of money, fame, power, and possessions reinforce the idea that our identity and self-worth is based on what we do. The golden handcuffs, as they are referred to in the corporate world, not only shackle you to a job and organisation but also shackle you to an identity. You literally buy yourself into who you are with the wages of what you do.
This is how the identity of who you are can get muddled and confused. This is how doing gets blurred with being, and how your ‘what I have’ gets confused with your ‘who I am’.
The external can never replace the internal, only reflect it. But the reflection is not the real thing, yet we still fall into the trap of believing that it can be.
The problem is this:
Trying to create and maintain an identity based on external circumstances and conditions is like building a house on loose and unstable ground.
When those external circumstances and conditions are no longer present, we have no foundation on which to secure ourselves.
It’s as if the ground on which we have built our identity suddenly gives way, like a sinkhole, and into it we collapse. We fall into a void of nothingness. We lose the very things on which we have built our sense of self, with the risk of sinking into depression and mental ill-health.
Of all that which you can lose, there are few greater losses than the loss of who you think you are. If you spend 50 or 60 years building an identity around what you do and what you have, when the time comes that you can no longer do what you do (retirement, ill health, forced redundancy, financial loss, divorce, accidents, and so forth), or you can no longer continue to afford what you have, your value and self-worth will come crashing down. The purpose and meaning of what you do will vanish, and it can seem as if your whole world is crumbling around you.
This is what’s known as ‘identity distress’, and it can be defined as:
“The pain or suffering associated with a person’s sense of identity after a change or shift in roles.”
Identity distress is more pronounced in those whose circumstances are forcibly changed (e.g. redundancy) than those who had a choice in what was happening and had a degree of self-determination (e.g. voluntary retirement) [Colbert, Jennifer, “Identity Distress Surrounding Retirement” (2009). ETD Archive. 514. https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/etdarchive/514].
The current research on retirement transition is finding that pre-retirees, on the whole, live in a settled routine and structure, knowing where they are going to be and what they are going to be doing during their regular week. This gives them a sense of stability and identity, one that is related to their work. But in retirement, when work ceases, whether they are prepared for it or not, they have no choice but to navigate through a new life structure and build a new identity. For all intents and purposes, they need to build a new life and explore new ways of thinking about themselves.
Harvard Business School Professor Teresa Amabile and her colleagues have confirmed this rocky transition into retirement in a large study of retirees in the USA. As the preliminary findings of this study showed, retirement begins smoothly for many but then develops into a bumpier ride when they start to question their own identity.
Identity distress, though, isn’t just confined to the realms of retirement. The restructuring of a person’s identity can happen at any time along the journey of life. The ‘midlife crisis’ is a case in point, where a reassessment of life commonly occurs around the age of 50. Divorce also forces divorcees to reassess their life and their circumstances.
During the middle of the COVID pandemic, a friend of mine from university days began the separation proceedings for divorce and was finding the situation more difficult than he had imagined. He was in his early 50s and had been married for over 25 years. As an off-hand comment on his current predicament, he said one day, “I’m doing a lot of self-evaluation, which I’ve never had the time to do before.”
Like many divorcees, my friend has been going through a readjustment and reconsideration of his relationships, his own mortality, who he is, and where he thinks he belongs. The death of a parent, loved one, or friend has much the same effect. So too a severe and traumatic accident that results in disability, loss of work, or change of lifestyle.
So when our circumstances change, often abruptly, we are forced into an identity crisis of sorts. We are forced to look in the mirror and confront the image of who we think we are.
More often than not, we don’t like what we see.
For good or for bad, I’ve experienced many identity crises where I’ve had to readjust my own perspective on who I thought I was. The stress of multiple identity changes has taken its toll; and my shiny scalp gives testimony to the collateral loss of hair in the process of identity restructuring. Which, to be honest, has primarily been due to my resistance to letting go of an old image of myself and the refusal to accept a new identity that I felt was being forced upon me by others and by circumstances.
But that’s because I absently navigated through the changes of identity restructuring in an incomplete and dysfunctional way—I thought my identity and my value as a man was wrapped with what I was doing, not who I was being.
On the 2nd February 2000, I walked out of my job as a junior paediatrician at The Royal London Hospital, one year after I’d had a vision of my death 50 years in the future. That future death was full of bitterness, anger, and self-loathing, but it didn’t have to be. The vision made me realise that I had a choice to change the path I was on and that I had the power to change my destiny.
In my book, It’s Up to You! Why Most People Fail to Live the Life they Want and How to Change It, I discuss in detail what that vision was and the life lessons it taught me. Here’s a snippet of what I discussed in the book (page 11):
It has been said that the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why. I had just experienced that second epiphany, and I now knew without doubt—with sudden clarity—that my purpose in life was to follow a different path than the one I was currently on. I had to stop procrastinating. I had to stop lying to myself. In the centre of my being, I knew who I really was, and I knew what I really wanted. It was now incumbent on me to finally be true to myself and to be that person I was born to be.
You see, one of the biggest lessons I needed to learn before I could reach my potential and become the person I was capable of being was this:
Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll always be dissatisfied with what you have and what you achieve.
This wasn’t an instant lesson learned. I didn’t walk out of this experience singing “Halleluja!” It took time to sink into my psyche and there were many times over the course of many years when the lesson of ‘being first, doing second’ had to be relearned.
As a junior doctor, not only did the title and role give me the respect of the community and other health workers, it also heightened my sense of self-respect and self-worth. What I did as a job, I thought, determined who I was. My title was the lens through which I saw myself.
I also earned a reasonable amount each month which meant I could pay the rent on my 1-bedroom apartment in Soho, buy the groceries, look after the bills, and ensure I could fly to Italy, Spain, France, or back to Australia for a holiday whenever it suited me.
Both the title and the ability to earn money gave me a sense of self-determination. I could provide for all my needs without having to rely on someone else. I felt I could do anything I wanted. The world, as they say, was my oyster.
But that changed overnight when I walked out of The Royal London Hospital at the end of my last night shift on that cold February morning, never to return. The image of who I was as a doctor ended with the new dawn, and I joyfully embraced the identity of a writer and author like a returned soldier reunited with his lover.
For the first time in my life, I felt reborn into the skin of who I really was. Now unshackled and free to be my true self, I felt as though I had reclaimed my life back, with the sudden realisation that I hadn’t even known that I’d given it away. Sold it, in fact, for the price of a job title and an above-average salary.
In my mind, I was going to be just like my heroes, Stephen King, Wilbur Smith, Paulo Coelho. I was now embarking on a magnificent career as a writer and I was going to be a great success.
But it didn’t happen.
Writing, as with all the creative fields, like acting, painting, dancing, music, doesn’t have the structured pathway to success as does the medical or other professions. In medicine, you do the work, you study, you do the specialty training, and you rise through the junior ranks to senior specialty. You get rewarded for your time, your effort, your dedication.
That’s not how it works in the world of creatives. As a general rule, you don’t get rewarded for your time, your effort, or your dedication to your chosen career. You do the work, you study, you do the training to master your craft, and you generally stay where you are, unrecognised, undervalued, underpaid. The surveys tell us that only 5% of writers earn a living from their writing, and this includes paid journalists. This figure of 5% is reasonably consistent across the arts, which is why many writers, painters, dancers, actors, musicians, and other creatives turn to government grants, benefactors, or even teaching to support themselves.
Although surprising to me, but not unsurprising to my friends and colleagues, I quickly found myself amongst the 95% of writers who couldn’t earn a living from their craft and provide for themselves. My savings ran out within 6 months of diving into the world of writing. Pretty soon I couldn’t pay the rent. I couldn’t buy groceries. I couldn’t look after the bills, and the hope of taking another overseas holiday was now disappearing over the horizon like my dreams of being a published author.
Within 6 months of giving up my medical career, I had become totally dependent on my partner for support. I had lost all my personal independence and all vestiges of self-determination. Worse thing of all, I had lost my sense of identity.
I lost my sense of self because I had fallen into the trap of thinking and assuming that I was what I did. Up until then, I had seen myself as a success. Now, I saw myself as an abject failure.
“I am what I do,” I falsely believed, a silent mantra that I had repeated over and over many thousands of times without the slightest questioning of it.
As a doctor, this “I am what I do” belief structure had been supported and maintained and rewarded. I didn’t have to think twice about it. But as a writer who struggled to get his manuscripts published and sell his articles to magazines, the whole foundation of who I thought I was—my identity—was swept away in the deluge of failure.
I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was no longer a doctor, but I wasn’t a successful writer either.
So who was I?
The turning point came for me when I realised that my aspirations, hopes and dreams were entirely my own and that I had let other people affect my sense of self-worth. I had done this by accepting without question a faulty definition of success.
This definition, as it transpired, was the one commonly accepted by most of society, and at first it had worked to my benefit. As a doctor, I ticked every box of society’s definition of success: job title, salary, social status, all the things that I agreed were important to being a success in life. If I wasn’t a success, then who could seriously claim that they were?
As a writer, however, I couldn’t tick any box of what I thought success was. I was a pale comparison to who and what I was before, at least when I looked at my previous life through the eyes of how society had taught me, which was every day. I just didn’t stack up anymore, and like a house of cards I collapsed into a world of abject failure and despair.
I felt continually annoyed at trying to get ahead, but I kept hitting the same wall over and over again. I seemed to encounter obstacles and difficulties at every step along my way. I faced many roadblocks and turned down many paths that seemed to go around and around in circles. I felt helpless and powerless to change my luck.
As the months and years passed, life turned into a frustrating maze of dead ends and no way out. I was desperate to find a route through to my ultimate goal on the other side of my failures, a route that had for too long become a convoluted journey of lefts and rights, back and forths, twists and turns.
When I turned left, I hit a wall. When I turned right, I hit a wall. Even the way forward was blocked.
With no clear way through, and no end in sight, I despaired at the seeming futility to keep going.
Yet, I was to learn a valuable lesson through all my struggles:
A successful life is ultimately the triumph over one’s self, a great part of which is the conquest over doubt and despair.
Doubt and despair cause you to stop trying, put your tools down, and succumb to the belief that you’ll never achieve your dreams. That you’ll forever be trapped in the maze of failure and never find your escape route.
Which is exactly how I felt, and a significant reason why I had so many doubts was the way I had measured success. That’s, of course, if success can actually be measured, as if success is some kind of gold nugget that can be weighed against other gold nuggets.
Even so, I tried to do just that. I continually measured my success based on the two common metrics we have been discussing: my job title, and my salary. If I had a good job title and a good salary, then I was a success. If I didn’t have a fancy job title and my salary was mediocre or non-existent, as it had become as a writer, then I honestly believed that I couldn’t claim to be a success.
But I came to question whether that definition of success was actually true. What about other metrics of success, I reasoned, like mental health, physical health, free time, and maybe even liking what you do for a living, all the things that I was now enjoying as a writer?
Or were there still other metrics, like effort, persistence, service, dedication, character, selflessness, intention, kindness, forgiveness, hope and faith, even love?
Although it took me a while (yes, I’m a slow learner), I began to open up and consider these other metrics of success. Even though my job title and salary were easily quantifiable—very high as a doctor, very low as a writer—I was actually finding that these other metrics of success were, in fact, more meaningful and valuable despite being more difficult to quantify.
Could anyone other than myself quantify how much I had sacrificed to achieve my goals? Of course not, but that didn’t mean that what I’d gone through was irrelevant or had no worth, even if I no longer had the title or salary to match.
So my identity crisis began to dissipate when I realised that a lot of worth and satisfaction comes from striving to achieve your goals and the amount of effort you put in. If, however, the value of who I was as a human being was determined by my job title and salary, then I was a human doing, not a human being.
I can tell you from genuine experience that the janitor in a hospital who goes about her work with a smile on her face and is kind to everyone is a far more successful human being than the arrogant doctor who treats his patients without care and his junior staff with disdain.
Which is why, if we are serious about what success truly means, we need to define success in broader terms than just job titles and salary. Even if it’s only for the sake of our mental wellbeing and happiness, we need to define success in terms that encompass metrics that are not always quantifiable, like faith, purpose, and self-belief.
Remember, success is about finding that which makes you a successful human being.
I therefore propose a definition of success that incorporates all aspects of who you are, what you do, why you do it, and how you do it. A definition that is subjective and not objective, and can therefore only be measured by your own internal values. Success for me is not success for you, and vice versa. Your success is personal and can only be experienced by you.
In previous books and articles, I have defined 4 Tenets of Success, and although they are more characteristics of success than a pure definition of it, they will nonetheless help guide us to a definition of success that we can use from here on:
- Success is self-defined
- Success comes through you, not to you
- Success is a side-effect of your commitment to your Life-Purpose
- Success is a habit
Because success is self-defined, you shouldn’t rely on others or society to tell you what they think success for you should be. Nobody else knows you like you do. Only you know what success looks like from your point of view.
Success also comes through you, not to you, because it is first built on the foundation of you. Therefore, make your foundation—your you—a rock on which to build your success.
Success too is a side-effect of your commitment to your Life-Purpose. To focus solely on outward success is to focus on a constantly moving target, a target that is virtually impossible to hit. But when your focus is on becoming the person you were born to be—your Life-Purpose—success is a natural outcome of that journey.
Finally, success is also a habit. It involves action. Success isn’t a secret treasure waiting for you to stumble upon. Success is an act of creation. Any type of winning, any type of achievement, is created through a process—a process of hard work, determination and unyielding will—which is why it’s a habit. A habit that requires determination, dedication, and perspiration.
So any definition of success we are going to use needs to, for completeness sake, incorporate these 4 Tenets. Which is why I’m borrowing the most succinct definition of success I’ve found by Earl Nightingale. Nightingale was a motivational speaker and bestselling author and is considered the father of modern-day personal development. In the 1950s he was one of the first authors to put his books to audiotape, selling millions of copies and inadvertently creating the ‘learning through listening’ industry.
The definition of success he used is still valid today:
Success is the progressive realisation of a worthy ideal.
Using this definition, success is progressive, not an end in itself. It is a process. It involves all aspects of who you are and what you do to help you realise your worthy goal. By inference, success then becomes a side-effect, a manifestation, of who you are. Your success grows when you grow as a person.
That’s why it’s important to get yourself right first, then all else will follow, including your so-called material ‘success’.
You are first a success in your heart and your mind, then external ‘success’ manifests as a result. As within, so without. Or, as the fridge magnet says:
Worth before wealth.
The progressive nature of realising your worthy ideal is a result of the Law of Cause and Effect. It means to first get the unquantifiable metrics of success right (cause), and then the quantifiable metrics of success will come to fruition (effect). This means:
Your inner value (self-worth) is the cause, your outer value (success) is the effect.
This is why it’s vital that you get yourself right first and don’t ignore the importance of inner self-worth. If not, the reverse, failure, will more often visit you because it is also beholden to the Law of Cause and Effect.
If you fail to look after your inner world, your outer world will invariably reflect that failure. Failure to get the unquantifiable metrics of success right will mean the quantifiable metrics of success will fail to materialise. It’s just an inevitable consequence of the Law of Cause and Effect, but not how you want it to be.
In this sense, failure is the opposite of progressive. Which is regressive, to give up on your dreams and go back to what you were doing before. To fail to progress. To stagnate. To lose faith in who you want to be and what you want to do, to throw your hands in the air and stop trying. It is to be full of doubt, to be inactive, to cease doing the things that will realise your goal.
This is why success in anything you do depends on you… and your failure too.