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Success recipes most people know, but few people follow

Posted on 22 January 2020

If you want to look back on a satisfying and happy life, conventional rules for success are not the place to start

Most conventional ideas about success go wrong because they focus on outcomes and results instead of on the processes of living. Outcomes come around from time to time, but life itself — the process of living, acting, thinking, and being — happens all the time.

No outcome is going to make a lousy, miserable process feel worthwhile — especially chasing money, power, or status. If they come to you, that’s fine. But if you hate what you do, no amount of power or money is going to make up for that.

If your life is constantly stressful, boring, unhappy, or frustrating, how can achieving some high status once in a while make up for all the miserable days and weeks you spent getting there? If you live for the weekends, that means five sevenths of the week (that’s 71% of your life) is boring or wretched and only two sevenths (29%) offers you any chance of being happy. Cut off the weekend time you have to give to chores (maybe up to half of it) and you’re down to having only 14 or 15% of your life available to truly enjoy. I don’t call that much of a bargain.

It’s tempting to feel that the end will more than make up for the means; that you’ll forget the misery in the blaze of achievement. And you will — but only for a few moments. Then you’ll be back on the treadmill, with only the distant hope of some fresh achievement or monetary gain to console you. That’s like being a laboratory rat continually running a maze for occasional rewards of food. It may keep you nourished, but it’s not much of a life.

Here instead are the recipes for success that really do work long-term. You probably already know what they are, but you’ve overlooked them because they aren’t glamorous and they don’t offer instant gratification. They’re slow, but nearly always certain.

Take whatever time you need to discover what matters to you most

We’ve seen that success isn’t simply a matter of money, power, or prestige. You could gain all of those and still feel that you have fallen short of what you wanted; or you could gain none of them and be blissfully happy and fulfilled.

What constitutes personal success is mostly in your mind. It has much less to do with finding the best career in other peoples’ eyes, creating a killer business, or holding down a fancy job with a big salary, than with achieving what really matters to you. Many people find this out too late. They struggle for years to get where other people said they should go, only to find it does little or nothing for them. By then, they’ve lost the chance to do anything else.

Start from the right place: what means most to you, whatever that is. Find a way to build a career around that. If the answer really is money, power, and status, go for it. If it’s something else, follow that instead. Whatever it is, doing what you believe in and most enjoy is going to make the daily process of living a source of satisfaction, instead of having to wait for the occasional tidbit tossed to you by fate.

Don’t base your choices on others’ approval

We all want to please those we care about, so it’s natural to try to do what they approve. Natural, but rarely a good idea as the basis for life’s choices.

I don’t say that you should deliberately ignore sound advice — or reject a career path simply because other people suggest it — but even the most loving parent or friend can’t always see what is going to make your heart sing.

Listen to others. Value their input and their support. But go your own way. It’s better to be committed to doing what you truly love than accept something lesser for the sake of being approved by someone else.

Stay authentic

That means always doing what truly matters to you and is part of who you are. The simplest definition of a hypocrite is someone who says one thing and does another: like a person who says that he or she wants to work at something that benefits society, then forgets that at the first sight of a fistful of dollar bills.

Somewhere inside of you is a part that recalls what truly matters and will never quite let you forget it. Over the years, that inner voice is only going to get louder.

Go for meaning over money every time

It’s perfectly possible to do something meaningless to you and earn a great deal of cash while doing so. Some people do, especially in parts of the media world. It just requires a stronger stomach and more cynicism that most people possess — plus a huge tolerance for boredom.

Is it worth it? If money is truly all that matters to you — and you can make lots of it quickly and get out — it might be, but few areas of work will allow you to do that, aside from criminal ones.

Meaningless days corrode most peoples’ minds and destroy their happiness. Doing something that means a great deal to you almost always makes you feel energized and alive. It’s your choice.

Be endlessly greedy — for learning

You can never learn too much or overfill your mind with new ideas. Nothing is more useful in life than a well-developed, well-stocked mind, especially one that has been broadened and enlarged in the process.

It’s hard to name a single famously successful person who was narrow-minded, bigoted, or stupid. The list of notable successes who are recognized for the power of their minds is long. You don’t even have to have an expensive education to be able to develop a great mind. There have been plenty of near geniuses whose education was almost entirely self-produced.

Make a friend of failure

You are certain to fail sometimes, and the higher your aspirations, the more frequent and significant that failure will be. People who don’t strive for anything glorious rarely fail; they take no risks and never aim beyond what is easily attainable.

If you treat failure as an enemy, it’s going to lead only to discouragement and even the abandoning of your hopes and dreams. Failure can be a friend, pointing out what isn’t right yet and showing you the way to do better. The more proficient you become at accepting the lessons of failure, the quicker you will succeed.

Make sure that every time you make a mistake, it’s a new one

Making the same mistake several times shows that you haven’t learned what it can teach you. Making new mistakes proves that you’re trying something different.

The best definition of a loser is someone who makes the same mistakes over and over again, never managing to learn anything in the process. Such a person is doomed.

Choose to spend your time with the right people

I don’t mean that in the sense of the rich and the powerful, the movers and shakers of society. Whether they’re powerful or not, the best people to spend time with are those from whom you can learn most: the ones whose own lives have brought them joy and endless fulfillment.

That means people who do what they love and love what they do. People who have become experts in life, thinking people, people with wide-open minds and wide-open hearts.

Seek them out wherever you can. Listen to them. Never mind if they are no longer living. Read their books and emulate their largeness of spirit. Learn from them all, but don’t simply copy what they did in this world. What they did was right for them, but may not be right for you. What you need to use as models are their ways of thinking and responding to the challenges of the world; the process of their lives, not what it happened to contain.

Drop whatever is inconsistent with these principles

That means all activities that don’t move you forward towards what you value most; things that get in the way of learning; pursuits that waste time and dull your senses; and people who hold you back.

You may sometimes have to be ruthless. Each of us has only one life. If you waste it, you don’t get another chance. Besides, if you have chosen your dreams and aspirations wisely, what you must leave behind by dropping what’s inconsistent with those dreams will not be worth worrying about anyway.

Those who make bad choices find, too late, that they have abandoned things and people that meant more to them than whatever they gained in exchange. If that happens, you have truly reached one of life’s lowest points.


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photo by Alan Light

This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Smoothtoppper says:

    Thank you for this article. I has reminded me to stay the course even in the face of quite a bit of pressure to “conform” to a life that is not one of my choosing. Thanks again for the reminder.

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Smoothtoppper: Thank you for letting us know. I’m very glad you found it helpful. Keep reading, my friend.

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