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More thoughts on success (and this time, I’ll be quiet)

July 19, 2011

So, I have my first ever guest post! It’s by John Smartt, one of those cool people with a ‘portfolio career’: corporate consultant and awesome osteopath (he’s the guy who fixes you when the doctor can’t). Thanks for contributing John!

Recently Belinda asked: “What does success look like?” It took me 50 years to work out an answer that works for me. Belinda kindly invited me to share my answer with you, in 500 words or less. Before we launch in, it will be helpful if you think about one area of your life (e.g. work, family, friends, finances, health, leisure) where you would like to be more successful.

Ready? Ok. My 500 words start…. now.

Let’s think about two people. One lives in New York. She is under 40. She sets goals and works towards them. She gives a lot to her work and she also studies. And jogs. She expects to achieve. She strives. She lives for the future, hoping and expecting to get wealthier. She believes she is in charge or her life.

The other person lives in Thailand. He is over 50. He lives each day as it comes. He doesn’t expect much from his work. He goes placidly. He doesn’t think in terms of ‘achievement’. He appreciates. He lives in the moment. He is content with what he has. He accepts that there is a lot he can’t control.

Is she more successful because of her material wealth, her status, and her achievements? Or is he more successful, because he has everything he wants?

And are these the only options?

No, they aren’t. A third approach is ‘learned helplessness’. This means lacking both ambition and contentment. “I’m miserable, but it’s not worth exerting myself to do anything about it.” While self pity can be seductive, there aren’t many people who would recommend this as a way to live life. Not much joy or success in that direction.

But there is a fourth way. It is possible to be both ambitious and content.

The trick is to become content before, rather than after, you achieve your goals. It can be hard to find contentment when you are in the middle of great ambition, but it’s quite possible to set goals and to be ambitious once you have found contentment. One reason for doing this is just to be even happier. Another is to help others. You might not drive as hard towards your goals if you start from a place of contentment, but you are likely to be much more effective with the effort you make. Sports people often perform best when they aren’t trying too hard; they can relax into the flow of what they are doing. Maximum achievement often lies in a sweet spot somewhere short of maximum effort. Contentment is a surprisingly strong launching pad for ambition.

Contentment is a skill that improves with practice. Consciously think about what’s good right now (which doesn’t mean you have to repress thoughts about bad things). Cultivate optimism. Spend time with people you like to be with. Spend time alone to find yourself. Lose yourself doing things you enjoy. Eat enough. Exercise enough. Rest enough. Think about how to make someone else happier.

Then, once you feel content and appreciative about your life, set your goals and have your ambitions, knowing that if you achieve them you’ll find great joy, and that if you don’t, you’ll still love the journey.

At least that’s my idea of ‘success’ (even if I did have to cheat on Belinda’s 500 word limit). Of course, that’s what I think now I’m aged 52. I hope in another 30 years my answer will be even better.

 

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