When you think of the word “successful,” who comes to mind? *
For me, it’s Elon Musk and Bill Gates. Then I feel guilty for choosing two guys with more money than most island nations. Well, they have had a positive impact, I rationalize. In his companies Tesla and Solar City, Musk has unleashed forces that could end our addiction to fossil fuels. And the Gates Foundation has given billions to eradicate disease, promote clean energy, and educate the impoverished.
But that’s not why Elon and Bill popped into my head. The truth is, at first blush, I equate success with material wealth. I think most of us do. In our culture, wealth equals success. And we all want to be successful.
Yet more money doesn’t mean more happiness, the research shows, after basic needs are met. A staggering account balance is not the secret for contentment. Consider the flood of antidepressants on the market. Which tax brackets, do you think, are most served by these high-priced drugs?
If money doesn’t make us happy, then why do we equate it with success? This is a deep question. The answer, I think, lies in our comparing minds. We see Christian Bale and grow jealous. He must be happy, we conclude, because he’s rich and famous. And because he’s Batman.
“Someone is bright, intelligent, successful, is applauded; and the other, I, am not,” said Krishnamurti. “Through comparison, through measurement, envy is cultivated from childhood.”
We idolize certain traits and they become hardwired into our brains. The American dream – and it’s inherent peril – is summarized in The Wolf of Wall Street, a film in which DiCaprio’s character has nearly unlimited buying power. He even throws lobsters at a pair of detectives that visit his yacht. Yet despite his antics, it’s hard not to root for Leo. We love a winner.
Let me clarify – there’s nothing wrong with wealth itself. The success delusion runs deeper than the size of our money pile. It’s our thought patterns that keep us mired in fantasy.
There’s a sense we can achieve our way to happiness. This is indeed a slippery slope. Each time we read about the latest startup sensation, for example, this image of success becomes more engrained. We become obsessed with getting there, and miss the subtle delights of the actual journey.
‘If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of the present,” wrote Alan Watts. “I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass.” Why imagine a bright future if we can’t enjoy it when it arrives?
And our image of the perfect future is shaped by our views on success. We think that high achievers have reached the pinnacle of happiness. Our goal is to be like them. Each time we advance in the rat race, we are rewarded with a shot of dopamine. But soon it fades, and we hunger for more.
If we fall short of our goals, we feel inadequate. But we keep playing the game. Even the smallest victories whet our appetites for more. Much of our lives, it seems, are spent in a state of anticipation. Is it really worth spending our precious time yearning for more and more material wealth?
So why not just hop off the success carousel? Not so easy. If we pay attention, though, we can notice the role our conditioning plays. We can feel the envy building in our minds when we notice another tech mogul cashing in. What are we so jealous of anyway? They’re a hot mess inside just like everyone else.
No doubt we’re deluded about success. To rise above this, we need to turn our bullshit detectors inward. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself,” wrote physicist Richard Feynman. “And you are the easiest person to fool.”
Feynman, Richard. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. W W Norton, 1985.
Krishnamurti, J. On Relationship. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992. Print.
Watts, Alan. The Wisdom of Insecurity. New York: Pantheon, 1951. Print.
*Credit to Tim Ferriss – he asks this question on most of his podcast interviews