Three definitions of success

December 21, 2020·7 mins read

In his latest book The New Corporation, Joel Balkan mentions a concept called economization (of individuals). Today's capital driven system is leaving its' footprint on our personal lives. We're turning into living creatures operating as mini-corporations. Many of our actions carry a purpose to invest in ourselves and attract investors.

It's undeniable that the road to mastery is appealing in human's search for meaning. Yet, most of the fields we choose to pursue are serving economic imperatives. Even worse, our hobbies are transitioning into side hustles. We feel miserably trapped in the 9/6; every effort that produces a tangible outcome resembles an easy way out. As Austin Kleon also points out, our best compliment is telling somebody they're so good at what they love to do, they could make money at it. "Wow, you could open a bakery!"

As a person in-between Generation Y and Z, I can observe the impacts of economization on many people I know, including myself. Around the age of 12, we found ourselves in a race with our acquittances to get into a good high-school. Up next, there was another race for the university, which was beyond intense. In turn, we faced real world, where studying wasn't enough by itself; we also had to behave accordingly and look out for someone else's interest—either a human being or an institution.

Among all those years, I never had a clear definition of success in mind. I guess the default behavior is to follow what society celebrates. Human leverage –such as political power or having people work under you–, media leverage –hypnotizing people to repeatedly seeing your face or another body part on their screens–, and money leverage. Not surprisingly, they are material values. Being guided by anyone else's lights is not the best way to find our way out. It's a path that leads to envy, which is an open invitation for anger and dissatisfaction. There's no way to catch-up. But there is an alternative.

How can we define success in our terms and minimize unrealistic expectations? I'm unable to answer on my own, but I know some people who could help.

How many useful things you create?

Derek Sivers is one of the most interesting people I get to know over the last couple of years. He's been a musician, circus performer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and book publisher. When he was an aspiring musician, he started CD Baby to sell his records online. Then things went crazy, and he ended up running a company that worths millions of dollars. After selling CD Baby –and donating a vast amount of his exit money to music education–, Derek published three books. They contain his thoughts and takeaways along his journey of life. In Anything You Want, he wrote a piece titled "How do you grade yourself?"

Here's an excerpt from it:

We all grade ourselves by different measures:

  • For some people, it's as simple as how much money they make. When their net worth is going up, they know they're doing well.
  • For others, it's how much money they give.
  • For some, it's how many people's lives they can influence for the better.
  • For others, it's how deeply they can influence just a few people's lives.

For me, it's how many useful things I create, whether songs, companies, articles, websites, or anything else. If I create something that's not useful to others, it doesn't count. But I'm also not interested in doing something useful unless it needs my creative input.

How do you grade yourself?

It's important to know in advance, to make sure you're staying focused on what's honestly important to you, instead of doing what others think you should.

– Derek Sivers

I'm sure you have plenty of ideas to solve problems many of us experienced first-hand. What's holding you from the generosity of sharing them with the rest of us?

What your days look like?

Austin Kleon is an inspiring creative who wrote three best-selling books, also known as Steal Like an Artist trilogy. If you haven't heard of him, give the first book a try. They are succinct and compelling. I bet you'll read the whole trilogy in a short period.

According to Austin, success is "closing the gap between what your days look like and what you want your days to look like." To leverage this idea, you need to know what your days look like. Writing things on paper has a surprising effect of surfacing the ridiculousness of inherent actions. It's a great start to find out what drives you away. There's no obligation to quit your day job to make time. Limitations such as scarcity feed creativity.

When you don't have much time, a routine helps you make the little time you have count. When you have all the time in the world, a routine makes sure you don't waste it.

– Austin Kleon

Stepping out of the game

Naval Ravikant also has many titles, but I see him as something like the Buddha of the digital age. I even had a human priest in World of Warcraft named after him. Running with sandals and a white robe to help my digital friends to slay dragons.

As an angel investor living in the middle of the industry, he has skin in the game and can surprisingly stay sane in all those mumbo jumbo. Naval hasn't published anything apart from a short-story and many prolific tweet-storms. A first-grade follower named Eric Jorgenson collected the wisdom sprinkled in various mediums and published an almanac.

Naval presents several perspectives of success, such as changing the lives of humankind, doing extraordinary work, and the ability to step out of the game entirely. I found the latter most inspiring.

To me, the real winners are the ones who step out of the game entirely, who don't even play the game, who rise above it. Those are the people who have such internal mental and self-control and self-awareness; they need nothing from anybody else.

There are a couple of these characters I know in my life. Jerzy Gregorek—I would consider him successful because he doesn't need anything from anybody. He's at peace, he's healthy, and whether he makes more money or less money compared to the next person has no effect on his mental state.

Historically, I would say the legendary Buddha or Krishnamurti, whose stuff I like reading, they are successful in the sense that they step out of the game entirely. Winning or losing does not matter to them.

There's a line from Blaise Pascal I read. Basically, it says: "All of man's troubles arise because he cannot sit in a room quietly by himself." If you could just sit for thirty minutes and be happy, you are successful.

– Naval Ravikant

Naval's arguments resonate with several existential philosophies as they are about accepting what we can control and focusing on the process rather than the outcome.

This reminds me of Stoicism. If you're a wise person, you already know it better than me. If you're lucky, you read it in a book or another worthwhile medium. If you're neither of them, some productivity-guru YouTuber will soon preach it to you as his kryptonite behind consistently waking up at 5 AM and jumping into a cold shower or reading two thousand books a year. Don't forget to like and subscribe.

The Stoics advised to focus on what we control and let the rest happen; however it happens, and accept the outcome. Establishing a process is its own reward. Do whatever you can, within your power. Even if things don't turn out well, you'll be in peace with yourself because you tried your best. After all, most of our actions doesn't have an impact on the macroscopic scale.

Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don't even know your name.

How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now—and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt.

That to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything.

– Marcus Aurelius

We are going to die one day, and no one will remember us.