Consider a different way to define success.
“Follow your heart,” “Go with your gut,” “Find yourself,” “Speak your truth”—we’ve all heard these phrases ad nauseam. Each one is supposed to encourage us to live authentically and in line with our own wishes, desires, values, or ideas. Yet, we can also find it so very difficult and challenging to do so (or even to fully understand what doing so means).
First of all, what is our “heart” or our “truth,” exactly? And is it really ours? As someone who has taught in high-achieving environments like Yale and Stanford, it’s easy for me to see how one’s culture completely shapes what one thinks is “truth.” High-achieving students (and high-achievers generally) buy into the idea that “I am what I do.” They think their value stems first and foremost from their productivity—whatever shape or form that takes. As a consequence, their well-being depends entirely on whether they are getting rewards and achieving their goals: receiving A’s, successfully founding that start-up, getting a powerful internship, or landing that coveted leadership position. You are a worthwhile human being if and only if you are successful, powerful, or wealthy or have reached a certain status.
Many female students I have taught in my classes shared with me that—even if they are deeply interested in starting a family—the message they receive is inevitably “You can’t do that until you’re in your 30s or you’ll ruin your career.” No one would take them seriously if they admitted what they truly wanted—even though, medically speaking, the healthiest time to have a child may be in one’s 20s.
Unfortunately, this skewed mentality in which identity and productivity are so deeply intertwined in young women can lead to a lifelong quest to become the most successful and productive version of themselves, always leaving them hungering for more—because we know only too well from research (and life experience) that achievements, awards, honor, and financial gain only bring limited satisfaction in life, never deep fulfillment.
Similar to these students in their Ivy League culture, we are all subjected to the culture in which we live—whether it’s a workplace, a family, a community, or a religion. We buy into beliefs that may or may not be life-supporting or beneficial for us—and view the world through a lens that is heavily influenced by the thoughts, beliefs, and ideas we have learned.
The other day, I challenged the idea of “success” in my class. I asked my students, “What are the qualities of the most wonderful person you know?” The adjectives that came to mind for them were “loving,” “caring,” and “present.” I then asked, “Would you say that this person has had a ‘successful’ impact on your life?” There was silence. They had never even considered this definition of success before.
And yet isn’t it the wonderful people, the generous, kind, and compassionate ones, who actually do the heavy lifting? Isn’t it they who carry us through life? They are there when we have fallen, they love us when we don’t love ourselves, they care when no one else does, they show a depth of empathy that inspires us to be better people, they laugh from a place of wisdom and peace, they share with us a kindness we don’t find elsewhere. It’s the wonderful people who are the most successful and impactful influences on all our lives, and we are blessed to encounter them.
So, what does the research show us? It shows us that we will gain only momentary bursts of joy from all the pleasures we are seeking in life, from sex to money. The long-lasting fulfillment we seek comes from living a life of purpose, of meaning, of compassion, and of altruism. It comes from being there for others, helping where we can, loving one another despite our differences, and making others smile. Forget the stories you have heard, forget the cultural lenses you have been subjected to: You already know what leads to true happiness. You already know what you will know on your deathbed: that a life well lived is a life in which you have shared an abundance of love. That the only aspiration to have is to be a wonderful person for someone else.