Continuously brainwashed by images of ‘success’; constantly bombarded with pictures of the rich and famous, who seem to have it all…
In our modern society, aggressive advertising implants images of successful people into our minds and encourages us to ponder how we can join this select group. Surveys have shown that most people view success as one of the major contributors to their happiness.
But can success really provide you with everything you desire? Are these ‘truly successful’ people happier than the rest of us? Research has shown time and again that those who are considered to be successful aren’t happier, nor do they feel better about their lives, than the average person.
Elvis, Stalin, Virginia Woolf… apart from being indisputably successful, what else do they have in common? For a start they led most unhappy lives; perhaps most importantly, they didn’t see themselves as being successful.
Using your imagination as a guide can help you achieve your own Personal Success, avoiding the trap of being successful in everyone else’s eyes but your own.
Models of success
As our models of success, the four below are achievers who were famous, powerful or they accumulated unparalleled fortunes. They achieved what the average person can only dream of; but how did they see themselves?
Elvis Presley (1935–1977), born of a middle-class family, and became one of the most important figures of twentieth century popular culture. He was the object of desire for millions of women, and his fame still continues decades after his death. He has sold over one billion records, more than any other singer in the history of music.
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), a prominent British novelist. She is among the leaders of the literary movement of modernism. Among her books are masterpieces like Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. She is mentioned with admiration together with other elite novelists such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot.
Howard Hughes (1905–1976), an industrialist billionaire, movie producer and entrepreneur, who often achieved the impossible. He is considered the father of commercial aviation and was the first to fly around the world in less than four days. In 1947 he created and flew the awe-inspiring Spruce-Goose, the largest aircraft in the history of aviation, with a wingspan of 320 feet (compare to the current Boeing 747 with a wingspan of ‘only’ 213 feet). "Trying the impossible, achieving the impossible, it's an end in itself” was his motto and way of life.
Stalin (1879–1953), the Man of Steel. From a background of poverty he became the undisputed leader of the USSR, a position he held until his death. Many achievements are attributed to him: defeating Hitler’s army; the industrialisation of the USSR; the creation of the Warsaw Pact. He was, undoubtedly, one of the most powerful individuals to shape the twentieth century.
There’s no doubt that each of these individuals was a person of great ability and unparalleled achievements. But as you may have guessed, these examples weren’t selected by chance. The four were unsatisfied individuals who led unhappy and tragic lives.
Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 after years of drug abuse and suffering. Off-stage Presley was plagued with self-doubt, a basic dissatisfaction with his life and a feeling of utter loneliness.
Virginia Woolf committed suicide at the age of 59 after long periods of depression.
Howard Hughes: “Because he believed so strongly in himself he tended not to trust anyone else," says biographer James Steele. His last years were spent in complete isolation, refusing to leave his fortress or meet anyone, suffering from paranoia and desolation.
Stalin’s chronic suspiciousness led to his infamous brutality. His fearfulness made him see enemies everywhere. In the end, he even turned on his closest friends. One of his acquaintances testified after his death, that in his last days the only human trait he had left was his unhappiness.
But success doesn’t necessarily lead to unhappiness. There are plenty of examples to the contrary. Yet, these examples demonstrate that the common view of success might not lead you to where you want to be.
So what do people really mean when they say they want to become successful? Can a harmonic, pastoral lifestyle be your answer?
Dream or reality?
Some believe that success is about learning to enjoy the simple life. Are they right? Will it suit you? Let’s look at the famous urban myth.
While holidaying in a tiny village, a rich businessman saw a fisherman coming back with his catch. When he found that the fisherman had only spent a short time at sea, he asked why he hadn’t stayed out longer to catch some more fish. The fisherman explained that the catch was enough to meet his needs, and that he liked to sleep late, play with his children and spend time with his mates.
The tourist then suggested that he should start fishing longer every day, sell the extra fish and with the revenue buy a bigger boat. He then calculated that if he continued to invest the extra money back into the business, within 10 to 20 years he could be worth millions.
But when the fisherman asked what he was to do with all these millions in 20 years time, all the businessman could come up with was: “then you'll be able to retire in a pastoral village, sleep late, play with your grandchildren, and spend time with your mates."
The moral of this story is meant to be simple. If only you opened your eyes, wouldn’t you see that everything you need is already within your reach?
It’s a wonderful moral, but is it applicable to everyone? It’s definitely true for the villager, who felt successful and happy, regardless of how the tourist viewed him. But what about the tourist – was his final ‘realisation’ real? Could he be happy now with the simple life he hopes to achieve when he retires? Most unlikely!
The tourist may enjoy the stress-free holiday, and might even be dreaming of a retirement in the village. But with his business mind, how long could he really cope with the simple lifestyle?
A pastoral lifestyle just doesn’t suit us all.
Success: a personal feeling
Success [Encarta dictionary]: 1. achievement of desired aim: the achievement of something planned or attempted. 2. attainment of fame, wealth, or power: impressive achievement, especially the attainment of fame, wealth or power. 3. something that turns out well: something that turns out as planned or intended.
No two people have the same view of what success is. Dictionary definitions don’t seem to help either, as they only refer to the outcome and never to the achiever and how he or she feels. So why should you expect that success will lead you where you want?
The Latin origin of the word – successus: a happy outcome – might give us a better clue. It’s not about the outcome, but rather about the emotion, or feeling of happiness resulting from it. It can’t be defined by using external, measurable terms, and like any other emotion, the only way to know it is to feel it for yourself. Personal Success is the achievement of whatever produces this feeling for you.
Success: the technique
Research has shown that there’s little difference between our emotional and physical responses to reality and to the vivid mental images of the same reality. You can verify this for yourself: create an image of a situation you dread, may it be walking in the dark or giving a public speech. Make the image vivid in your mind, and examine your body and feelings. You’ll find that although you’re in the safety of your home, your body reacts as if you were experiencing the actual situation. You might find that you feel a knot in your stomach and that your heart is beating faster. You will use this response as your Internal Guide for Success, in a process similar to the children’s game of Hot & Cold.
You probably already have some image of what success means to you: having a dream home, owning a business, becoming famous or creating a masterpiece. Maybe your view is entirely different and you might desire a happy family life with time for hobbies and friends. There are no rights or wrongs, only some images can serve you well and lead you to the desired feelings; others don’t.
Now examine your feelings while making the image in your mind as clear and vivid as possible. Once you become aware of your feelings, slightly modify the image and examine your feelings again. Have they become more positive? If they have, you are on the right track. Make this modified image your new Internal Guide. On the other hand, if your feelings become less positive, return to the original and change it in a different way. Repeat this until you’ve found the image that produces the most positive feelings.
Put it into practice
Let’s look at an example. We’ll start by using the size of your bank account as your initial Internal Guide. You should imagine that you already own the account. Make the image specific: see yourself reading the bank statement, or viewing it on the Internet. You’re rich! At this stage, however, you mustn’t imagine using your money for any purpose. You can’t buy a house or take a holiday. These are not part of your image. Focus solely on the size of your bank account. Now, check your feelings while holding onto this image. If the image is vivid enough, your feelings will be as if your bank account were real. Where in your body can you feel it? Do you feel happy, fulfilled, satisfied? Are these the feelings you hoped to achieve?
If this image produces the right feelings, make it your Internal Guide. If it doesn’t, then it’s not the money that will lead you to Personal Success. Money, in this case, may only represent other desires you haven’t unleashed yet.
It might be a dream home that money represents, or maybe leisure time. Create these images and check how you feel. There are many avenues you can explore. Would you, for instance, feel the same if you earned the money, inherited it or won it in the lottery?
When you first start, you might find that your feelings are vague and weak. But keep it up. The more you practise, the more you’ll be able to refine your image and the stronger your feelings will become.
Selecting a good Internal Guide is an important first step on your way to Personal Success. It creates potential – but potential alone isn’t enough. Once the image is embedded in your mind, you must refer to it regularly.
It’s like cooking, as a prominent chef once told me. Imagine that you’ve decided to create a new dish. You want it to be a masterpiece. In your mind’s eye you can see it, smell it and taste it. You’re not sure how to create it yet, but you know that as long as you keep this vivid image as your guide, you’ll eventually be successful. You could use a recipe as a starting point, but the recipe could never replace the image in your mind. After all, unlike the image, a recipe is only a description and can never convey the eating experience – the taste, smell or texture.
With this image in mind, you start experimenting with ingredients, time and temperature, comparing the results to the image in your mind. Until one day you realise that the dish on your plate matches the one in your mind exactly. Eureka! Your body and mind are filled with the great feeling of achievement and satisfaction. You’re successful, and more importantly, you feel successful.
To achieve any goal, whether in cooking, art, sport or business, you must continuously use your Internal Guide like a landmark. While everyday life might distract you from your path, the landmark is always there, and as long as you keep it in sight, you know that you won’t lose your direction. If you check frequently where it is in relation to where you are, you‘ll never drift too far. In this respect, your Internal Guide is like any other goal. As long as it’s clear in your mind, you know that you’re on the right track. Unlike other goals, however, your Internal Guide ensures that your path will lead to where you want to go.
Obstacles to avoid
Any plan has its pitfalls and obstacles: procrastination, lack of self-confidence, to name a few. The main difference between those who achieve and those who don’t is their ability to foresee obstacles and deal with them. So many great ideas have been initiated; so few have come to conclusion. So many people are starters; so few are achievers. So let’s cover two main – though less talked-about – obstacles, namely: falls after an easy climb, and the problem of attachment.
The inability to recover from a fall – eg a great setback or disappointment – after an easy climb has prevented many from achieving their goals.
There are times in everyone’s life when things just fall into place. Everything happens the right way, effortlessly. It’s just like a mountain climber who has reached an easy stretch after a long struggle, and is now ascending rapidly and easily. Both the climber and you should enjoy these opportunities, but must never forget their perils.
Under normal conditions, the climber would place an anchor into the rock every few steps to ensure that they could never fall too far. But when the climb is easy, a fall seems unlikely, and while progressing rapidly the climber may inadvertently fail to place anchors and leave long segments of unsecured rope. When climbing gets tough again – as it always does – with no anchors behind, a fall is often long and grave. The same applies to your path towards Personal Success. You should, undoubtedly, enjoy and take advantage of good times, but must never fail to check your Internal Guide frequently.
Vocational English in Japan used to be really fashionable. English conversation schools were popping up, and the demand for English teachers soared. Often, the sole requirement to be employed as a teacher was to be a citizen of an English-speaking country. Jane was one of those teachers. After years of working back home as a secretary, she was attracted to the high salary, ease of life, and the glory that a position of teacher (sensei) offered in Japan. She became a celebrity, was invited to glamorous social events, and was even asked – once she could converse in Japanese – to appear on TV. Life was perfect, and she put aside any thought of what it was that she actually wanted. Reality inevitably changed, and when vocational English lost its appeal, Jane, like many others, was forced to return home. The change from being a well-off celebrity back to her mundane old life was more then she could cope with. Her fall, from which she has never recovered, was hard. It was the price she had to pay, not for having had a good life, but for losing sight of her direction. Falls are always painful, but had she kept her Internal Guide, a quick recovery was much more likely.
The risk of attachment
Attachment to your goals is another obstacle you should avoid. Although striving relentlessly towards your goals will help you achieve them, this mind-frame can become your enemy when trying to achieve Personal Success. You may find yourself reaching your long sought-after goal, only to discover that it’s not what you want any more. You must never forget that your Internal Guide isn’t merely a goal, but rather a means to creating the desired feelings and emotions.
Reality changes, and so too do our feelings. Things that only a few years ago seemed attractive might seem meaningless now. Things you didn’t care about in the past might become the centre of your current life. Your Internal Guide must reflect these changes.
So it’s vital that you not only keep your Internal Guide vivid in your mind, but also examine it frequently and make sure it always produces the right feelings. Sometimes you may find that only small adjustments are required. Other times you may find that you’ll need to create an entirely new image. By doing so, you will avoid the trap of being successful in everyone’s eyes but your own.
No one has put it better than Marlon Brando in his last days: “I searched for, but never found, what I was looking for either on screen or off. Mine was a glamorous, turbulent life but completely unfulfilling.” With your Internal Guide, you can do better.