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A man's pursuit of happiness

Success is bad

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Woah! yes you read that title right, success is bad. Don’t stop reading, hear me out but first, consider this quote:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

With that in mind, consider that success is a measure that only works when compared to a different measure (it’s relative). For instance, a mouse can run faster than a fish, in simple terms the mouse is more “successful” but in reality, is this a fair measure? How can you compare a fish’s ability to run? well, you can’t.

Similarly, we men compare ourselves to each other which, perhaps in an evolutionary sense, made sense; we wanted to out perform our peers to win the affection of a female. Driven by our biological imperative to spread our genes we were competing against other males. Without this innate sense of competition, the human species might not have grown so successfully. Think about it, a cave man’s ability to pro-create was linked to many things including, a larger family group to gather/hunt for food. This same large family group also served as a retirement plan to provide for the caveman in his old age as well as security against other tribes (a bigger tribe means more warriors) etc etc. So to “win” or “succeed” we were in effect, competing against each other.

Fast forward 30,000 years and we see that in today’s world security is enforced by police, retirement is handled by nursing homes and food is readily available at the grocery store. Further, there are 7bn+ poeple on the earth of which roughly half are female. This means your chances aren’t too bad when it comes to finding a mate. Put simply, men don’t NEED to be successful against other men anymore.

Unfortunately, our biology doesn’t know this and we still feel the need to peacock about to attract a mate (at least in our early years). Young men also feel the need to test each other in a competition to see where they fall within the “pecking order”. This happens in sport, academics, in front of girls, in peer groups, etc.

Now, think about what it might be like to lie on your death-bed (dramatic, I know but stay with me). Do you think a 90 year old with a few minutes left on his clock is thinking about where he sat in the pecking order at school? is he thinking of how fiscally wealthy he was compared to other men? or how much better he could play the guitar than his brother? My feeling is no.

Wanting to know more, I turned to Google and came across a blog by Bronnie Ware who has written a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Bonnie is an Australian registered nurse whom worked in palliative wards caring for dying patients in their last 12 weeks of life. After work she would keep a record of the patient’s thoughts and regrets and eventually published them in a book that she hoped might help poeple discover what is really important.

While I can’t go through the entire book, I can give you the top 5 items that dying patients thought regretted on their death-beds. They are:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

In the book Bronnie makes special mention of men with regard to point #2. She says that almost without fail, dying men wish that they had not spent so much time on the hampster wheel of work. She says those same men wish that they had rather spent time with their children or partners.

So how is this related to Success again? well, if we’re defining success as a relative measure that forces us to look outwardly and compare ourselves, then we naturally want to work harder to achieve that success. Whether this is earning more money to keep up with the Jones’ or practicing harder to be better that your peers at sport, it is likely to be unimportant to you at the end of your life. To the contrary, striving for success just makes men tired, greedy, unsatisfied and timepoor. So in that sense “success is bad”.

But what if there was a different way? What if success wasn’t measured relative to peers? What if success focused inwardly and was measured against yourself and your own internal measure? By redefining success as a feeling of contentment or to acheive happiness, we shift the goal posts. In fact we damn hear tear them down. You see, the object of life isn’t to kick a goal, earn more money or get buff. It’s to live a life well lived. What does that mean? spend time with loved ones, create memories, share experiences and emotions like joy, love and sadness together.

As an excercise, perhaps try this. Pretend you are end of life. You’re old and frail with only weeks to live. What advice would you give to your younger self? Perhaps write a letter to yourself and see where it goes. My hunch is that you won’t be egging yourself on to buy that new SUV or climb that corporate ladder. I’ll bet your thoughts will be similar to mine; find the poeple you love and spend time with them.

Forget about traditional success and focus on what matters.

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