A few years ago my therapist asked me, “What do you want out of life?” I said the first thing that came to my mind: “I want to be successful.”
He looked at me, puzzled, and replied, “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” I said. “I want to be successful. I want to be wealthy, powerful and recognized.” In other words, I framed a conventional vision of success, the one drummed into us by popular culture and other societal constructs.
My therapist chuckled at my naïveté for a moment and then asked, “Alan, why do you believe that wealth, power and recognition are the definition of success?” He explained to me that success is defined as “accomplishing an aim or purpose,” but the definition of that aim or purpose is completely up to you.
My mind was officially blown.
Up until that day, I had never really thought about why I defined success that way—instead, I’d been obsessed with how I would attain those things. That focus on the how instead of the why had really tripped me up. It had led me to make some very bad decisions and to experience some very unhappy times. When you follow the influence of mainstream culture—television, movies, magazines and more—to elevate the goals of wealth, power and recognition above all else, it becomes logical to take selfish or negative actions in order to attain them.
After all, that kind of approach—playing for keeps, as they say—is put forth as the way to achieve success and happiness. Machiavelli’s writings are often referenced to support this point of view—statements like “the ends justify the means”—but it should be noted that Machiavelli died alone and in exile.