Success and Achievement

Quick Summary: We often conflate success and achievement. In doing so, we narrow the definition of success to our detriment.

I often hear from patients a feeling of tremendous pressure to be successful. To achieve. To do something with my life. It is a feeling I feel too. Who, after all, wants to be unsuccessful in life? Yet, in order to be successful, we need to actually consider what that means.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about starting with the end in mind. If we imagine ourselves at the end of our lives, looking back, and thinking about our day-to-day, what constitutes a successful life? Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine that you are 85 years old— what does happiness look like? Take a moment and think about that picture in your mind’s eye.

My guess would be that success, from that perspective, involves a few things: it involves friends being around, it involves health in mind in body, it involves being surrounded by family, and a sense of satisfaction that your time on this planet was well spent.

However, when we live our lives, we are often much more focused on achievement. When we look ahead, we often think about what we want to accomplish. When we think about success, more often than not we are focused on material success.

Conflating success with achievement can lead to many challenges. We often unconsciously narrow our definition of success, and equate success with achievement. This limits our understanding of what real success means. By focusing solely on external markers of achievement and accomplishment, such as wealth, status, or accolades, we may overlook other important aspects of a fulfilling life, such as relationships, personal growth, and well-being. Narrowly defined success can result in a constant pursuit of external validation, leaving us feeling empty, unsatisfied, and like we are coming up short, even when when we are living a broadly defined successful life.

Conflating success with achievement can also set us up for unhealthy comparison and competition with others. When success is defined solely by what one has achieved, we constantly compare themselves to others, measuring our worth and theirs on external factors. This can create a relentless and never-ending cycle of competition, envy, and anxiety, as we constantly strive to outperform or outdo others, neglecting our own well-being and happiness, as well as the people we are comparing ourselves to..

Focusing overly much on achievement can lead us to prioritize external goals over their own values and happiness. We may pursue goals that society deems successful, but deep down, these goals may not align with their authentic desires and passions. We end up sacrificing our happiness in pursuit of achievements that hold little personal meaning. We collect achievements we don’t care about with time taken from what we value to impress people we don’t even know.

Relentlessly pursuing achievement without considering the broader aspects of success then leaves us feeling burned out and chronicly stressed. We end up losing sight of the bigger picture and overlook the simple joys and pleasures of life to chase the next achievement. By constantly chasing achievements, we neglect the present moment. Because the next achievement is always looming, we do not celebrate the smaller wins, and forget about joy in everyday experiences. This leads to a perpetual state of dissatisfaction and a constant feeling of never being “enough.”

Success is a broad concept that goes beyond achievements. By embracing a more holistic view of success, we can cultivate a balanced and fulfilling life that aligns with our values, promotes well-being, helps us appreciate what we have and what actually makes us happy.

Have you unintentionally narrowed your definition of success to focus just on achievements? If so, how do you redefine what it means to be successful?

-Dr. Justin