Setting goals and assessing your performance against them are common practices in both the physical training and personal development communities. Both are worth exploring for the reflective process if nothing else. We’ve all heard the adage that if you don’t know where the end zone is, you’ll never score. The danger in this linear mindset is the belief that scoring is the only point.
There is no shortage of athletes who reach their goal and walk away dissatisfied. Even more common are those who define success by things that are almost entirely outside their control, like scoring a certain number of points in a game, or being hired for a specific job.
We need to dig deeper. Before we choose a goal, we need to know why that goal is worthwhile. Useful goals should be individualized based on need, but must also emphasize the elements that bring true success. Shortsighted objectives don’t really get us what we want. When we know our crafts, our purpose, and ourselves, we can invest our time more effectively.
Direction is essential, but we need to make sure that the direction we choose focuses on the controllable processes that drive our performance. Once we establish the right direction, we will be more inclined to find motivation and realize fulfillment. This is where true success lies, and to reach it, we need to be willing to buck the standards our society has imposed, and look at the world through a different lens.
Your Definition of Success
How you define success is the single greatest determinant in how fruitful and rewarding your efforts are. The superficial signs of success popularized in the media (things, property, glamor) leave those who chase them deeply miserable. While there is nothing wrong with things, they don’t create happiness or fulfillment on their own.
When we define success externally and without purpose, we can achieve all our goals and not get what we really wanted.
Success is built on a mindset that knows there is no endpoint. The human need for continual growth must be fed, and efforts that contribute to a purpose greater than oneself bring self-actualization. Fruitful efforts are those that bring fulfillment, not comfort, glamor, ego stroking, or temporary excitement.
All this may sound preachy, but it’s important that we understand some of the flaws in how society has come to define success. A short review of history may help.
Success Through the Ages
For the vast majority of human history, we lived a dynamic physical existence as nomadic hunter-gatherers. The world around us promoted an abundance of movement. Our work was getting food and preparing it, and the food itself was very nutrient-dense. Work weeks were short (well under 40 hours), social bonds were extremely tight among the tribe, and there was plenty of time to think and do as one pleased. Society was less alienated and far more egalitarian. Success meant surviving long enough to pass your genes on to another generation.
This all changed with the agricultural revolution. Through farming, humans could have a fixed, reliable food source. Permanent towns were created, and people began to spend their hours in backbreaking positions, obsessing over their precious crops. Social stratification increased, and people sectioned themselves off in separate homes and fenced-off parcels of land. Success became tied to property and surplus.
But the close proximity of large masses of people coupled with poor sanitation and reduced dietary variety to allow diseases to flourish into epidemics. Life expectancies shortened, and people subsisted on a less nutritious diet, with far less freedom and agency. Their less-adaptable lifestyle left them subject to mass starvation at the whim of a couple crops. So while success became more accessible, it also became more tenuous and fraught with risk.
People were lured into this lifestyle by the perceived luxuries, what Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, calls “the luxury trap.” The idea that people could have more created a revolution that humankind could not go back on. This set us on the course toward the unthinkable comforts we enjoy today. Our lust for luxury has only grown but has brought with it a new set of costs.
Comfort at What Price?
Compare the nomadic life of our ancestors with that of most modern Americans. We work more and more hours, only to come home to a literal laundry list of responsibilities. We still have to prepare food, wash clothes, answer messages, and cart the kids off to their friends’ houses and sports practices. Then we’re supposed to find time for our own health and fitness, visit our friends, buy presents for the next birthday or graduation party, and look after all the other odds and ends we have to take care of this week.
The driving force behind all of this is the societal pressure make more money to get more things. Once we make that money and get those things, we have to continue to make more money to pay our new bills. We ceaselessly strive to make more and get more, certain that the next wave of things will finally make us happy.
There’s no jumping off the hamster wheel. Even if we’d like to return to the simpler existence of our nomadic ancestors, we’ve opened Pandora’s box, and as a society, could not sustain ourselves with a mass return to the tribal life.
Not that we would ever want to, anyway. To be fair, the nomadic life was far less safe, with less certainty, and no luxury as we understand the word. There was no AC, no cell phone, no car or plane, no internet, no television, and no books (although rich oral traditions existed). I certainly couldn’t handle it; I wimp out when it’s too warm in the house for me to sleep.
If there’s no going back, why bother comparing the two? The point is to question the major drivers of our actions and concepts of success. This backdrop provides the context for a greater discussion of what real success is—of what drives fulfillment.
When we define success as comfort, we find a never-ending search for more things, all at the expense of a dynamic physical existence. Comfort is fine, but it’s a never-ending arms race. When we define success as making others happy, altruistic though it may seem, we run ourselves ragged trying to be who others want. Making people happy is okay to an extent, but no quest is less fulfilling than trying to be cool.
The Common Values of True Success
The values that provide fulfillment are unique to each person, yet share common threads:
- Value your time first and foremost, as it is all you really have. Ponder the reality of death and ruthlessly eliminate those things that waste your life away.
- Invest your time in skills that create opportunities, and deepening valuable relationships.
- Nurture social bonds based on shared passions and mutual contribution toward growth.
- Seek projects that both excite you personally and contribute to the greater good, rather than just chasing dollars. A great many fulfilled people have found wealth by combining passion with a true human need. Wealth may have followed, but the fulfillment they received is a consequence of their passion and contribution to a greater purpose.
- Place a high priority on your physical, mental, and emotional health. Health will grant you more time, and more depth of experience in that time.
- Prioritize experiences over things. Research continues to tell us that people are more fulfilled when they invest in experiences. We almost always adapt to expect whatever new level of luxury we afford. This hedonic adaptation is a well-documented human phenomenon that quickly negates the initial pleasure of new toys. Experiences, conversely, change who we are. They are woven into our identities and enrich and shape us.
Question How You Measure Success
What standards of success are inherently flawed? For years, American schools have prioritized standardized test scores and graduation rates, while the academic experience has improved little. Recently released findings show that a large chunk of college seniors possess only a basic or below a basic level of the critical thinking skills necessary to interpret data and form intelligent conclusions. Are our quantifications of educational success meaningful, if that’s the case? Other nations do not have standardized tests, class rankings, regional rankings, homework, or many of our American staples, and yet exceed our system in terms of student outcomes. The backbone of their accomplishments is a clear vision that success in education is not about test scores and diplomas, but about creating autonomy and skills to better navigate the world.
In athletic development, too many coaches measure the success of their training programs exclusively by the typical “combine” tests. Make no mistake, a fast 40-yard dash is a great indicator. Speed kills in athletics. Still, the greatest physical preparation program in the world does not have a chance in a culture that allows tardiness, mental weakness, laziness, or selfishness. The most talented teams in the world are failures if coaches aren’t calling the athletes by name and stirring them to greater levels of focus and passion.
In an age where technology can tell us every time an athlete blinks, let’s not be distracted from the underlying truths that truly matter. Success on the field or court begins with relationships and clear expectations. Both deepen with consistent effort, care, and accountability. If your team has not defined success as something deeper than mere statistics, you’ll find yourselves losing more than you should. More importantly, you cannot consider yourself successful if your athletes or teammates don’t walk away better people, more prepared to thrive in real life.