What is success?

As a Singaporean, the message that you can be successful if you work hard had been ingrained in me since young. Except that no one explained what it really means to work hard, and what it really means to be successful.

(In a previous post, we explored the idea of hard work. In this post, we are going to explore the idea of success.)

Definition of success

Have you ever thought about what success is? Have you questioned where your ideas of success came from?

Here’s a list of things that might have crossed your mind:

  • Do well in your studies
  • Do well in your career
  • Have strong relationships with family and friends
  • Being financially comfortable
  • Achieving some form of goals that you set for yourself in any area

Or maybe it’s about the milestones in life laid out for us by well-meaning parents and elders: getting into the best schools we can, a tertiary education, a job in certain professions, getting married and starting a family.

Success means not failing?

I think these goals could perhaps be summed up by one idea: to not fail in life.

This might be what separates us from more Western (mainly American)-centric definitions of success. Just do a Google search and you will find many articles arguing against their conventional ideas of success defined by fame, fortune and status.

While the majority of us in Singapore don’t grow up hearing parents asking us to aim for fame, fortune and status, we probably would have been told to work hard so that we can avoid failures.

And by not failing, what we really mean is not to fail in our outward achievements in life. If you don’t work hard enough, you might:

  • end up not getting into a good school
  • not be able to get a good job.
  • find it hard to provide for your family.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to romanticise failures. But setbacks are never final. And I think there is a problem when our aim is to not fail.

Here’s an analogy. If you can drive (or ask someone who can about the experience), try driving up a narrow carpark ramp or narrow mountain roads by focusing on not to hit the sides. It’s very likely that you will actually hit the side by paying more attention to the sides.

As a driver, you instinctively know that it’s crazy to drive by focusing on avoiding the sides. And yet we think that it’s ok to navigate life by paying attention to the failure markers we’ve set for ourselves. It’s tiring to live life trying not to fail.

You might have heard of the Greek mythology of the story of Icarus, where Icarus was warned by his father not to fly too high because the sun might melt the wax that held the wings together.

But the problem is, flying too low is also problematic. If you fly too low, the mist in the air above the ocean can weigh you down, and you will surely drown in the ocean:

Video credits: Goalcast

If you try not to fail, you will fail to try

I think the opposite of failure is not success. I think that the opposite of failure is just the absence of failure. When we aim to not fail, we are likely to be afraid of trying new things at all.

Being pragmatic, we might always want to stick to things that work. But it’s a fine line between being realistic and being overly-pragmatic. Are we worshipping the ideals of pragmatism that we’ve talked ourselves into only doing things that work?

Of course, it’s stupid to do things we know doesn’t work. But what about trying things if we are not sure if it will work out?

If you think about your life, what are the things that you have avoided because you were afraid to fail? Did you choose to bury a dream that you had for the fear that you might fail to achieve the dream? Did you avoid making something new just because it might not work?

Maybe just like how failure shouldn’t be something you set out to avoid, success shouldn’t be a goal that you set out to achieve either. I think success is not exactly an end state that we can achieve anyway. What happens after you get the perfect job that you wanted? What happens if you actually achieve all your definitions of success?

Does it mean that you have made it? That now you can turn around and display your status to the world?

It’s like the boss who thinks that just because he has slogged 14-hour days and ‘paid his dues’ in his early career that now he has the right to demand that of his employees. Is he successful? I don’t think so.

Towards a more successful year ahead

I think we can say that we aim to have a more successful year in 2020 than in 2019. But I don’t think we can say that we have achieved success in 2020.

I think success is more about the journey and the act of always seeking improvements. And it’s not just limited to outward achievements either. It could be about inward achievements. Maybe success is about reviving your buried dreams, gaining greater awareness of yourself, or becoming a more patient person.

To sum up, I would like to leave you with this quote (also attributed to other people) that I love:

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one’s self;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived — this is to have succeeded.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

And if I may add, I think it’s also to have the courage to try new things even when others are afraid. To have the courage to dream big and to take practical steps to achieve those dreams. But also to have the courage to remain flexible so that we are not stuck on a single vision of our life.

May 2020 be a more successful year for you. Instead of chasing someone else’s idea of success, may you start dreaming the dreams that you have buried because of the practicalities of life. It’s not going to be easy, nor is it going to be realised quickly for some dreams.

But to not start trying in the first place, is to resign yourself to fail right from the start.

Here’s wishing you a great start to the year and a wonderful 2020!

(Featured Image: Zac Durant on Unsplash)


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