3 Prerequisites to Success

A few months ago, I stood at the edge of the ocean in Riviera Maya, Mexico, looking out at the expanse. I was not searching for anything in particular, not seeking, just seeing. That simple moment was success, but it doesn’t take a trip to Mexico to find it, so long as you start with these three prerequisites.

On any given day, we can find an article about “5 ways to find success” or “7 habits that are making you less successful.” Yet we rarely see these articles take it back to square one and define what success is. We take for granted that we know what success is. For many of us, success looks a little something like riches and celebrity-style popularity. And yet we need only look to the numerous depressed celebrities, the pop-star suicides, and the end-of-the-rope song lyrics to know that riches and celebrity-style popularity aren’t everything.

So what is success? The only universally-applicable definition of success, that I know of, is happiness and contentment. When you get down to it, that’s really what everyone is seeking: happiness and contentment.

A lot of us think that the secret to happiness and contentment is all about the future. Happiness is a white rabbit checking his pocket-watch and darting away just a few steps ahead of us. It is graduating and getting a good job, it is getting that next pay-raise or promotion, it is finding that person to marry, it is buying that car or house. In any case, it is there, up ahead, we think. Not here.

There is something to be said for having goals, aspirations, and something to look forward to. These can create a healthy hope, a desired drive, a necessary need for bettering ourselves. But they aren’t happiness — either now or in the future. That bears repeating: our goals and aspirations are not happiness. Happiness, by definition, is a feeling. And a future event is not a feeling.

Those few months ago, when I was in Riviera Maya, Mexico with DH as his photography assistant (I am superb at holding light stands), I had the opportunity to just breathe. Our time there was so vibrant, so happy, and not because we were essentially on vacation with our time there unstructured and free — it wasn’t. It was because all our senses were alive. The newness of the situation made it easy to pay attention: to the trees, the wildlife, the smells, the language, the food, the ocean, the weather, the terrain, the everything. For lack of a better explanation, we were extremely present.

You may have felt the same way just going on a walk outside, or taking a new route home from work, or spontaneously taking your child out for a date. That newness smacks us with awareness and makes us pay attention to the present. And the present is where we come to terms with our feelings. It is where we can allow ourselves room to feel all sorts of things, including sorrow at times, yes, but also including happiness and contentment. We find happiness and contentment when they come to the present and we meet them there.

There are countless things that might bring a person happiness or contentment and, therefore, success. But one thing that is true of them all: they are dependent on how we feel about ourselves internally.

Now, you might claim — with refreshing honesty — that for you, it’s not about feeling right on the inside, that you actually just want outward, worldly success. “No, really,” you say, “I just want praise and money and fame.” That’s fine. It’s still internal.

Whether you believe it or not, your internal, personal experiences are what have led you to define success the way you have and to believe certain things will bring you that success — that happiness and contentment. Whatever those things are, no matter how external they may seem, how separate from your personal psyche, it is your personal, internal beliefs and experiences that defined them.

Taking that premise then, you have to realize that you will never be truly happy until you are okay with yourself internally. Something about what you’ve seen, heard, read, experienced tells you that outward praise, money, and fame will bring you happiness. Why? What will praise, money, and fame make YOU feel about YOURSELF? And what leads you to believe that? You’re looking for something there. And it’s personal. If you can figure out what it is before you seek it out, you’ll be much more likely to take the right path to find it, and much less likely to be disappointed when you get there.

To put a point on it: If you get to the what, you might discover that it doesn’t actually satisfy your why. But if you get to your why, you might realize that you don’t even need the what.

This is the hardest of the three, especially if we are really bad at #2, because we usually can’t quite put our finger on what it is about our desires that we think will make us happy. We don’t know what our why is. If that’s the case for you, then I would recommend two things: start a line-a-day gratitude journal and practice daily mindfulness meditation.

Stopping once a day to think sincerely about what you are grateful for that day will help you pinpoint what it is that brings you the most happiness. And stopping once a day to be present through mindfulness will help you hone the ability to be grateful in the moment, so you’ll be better at finding something to write down in that gratitude journal.

The internal is hidden even from ourselves at times. We need clues to find out what it actually wants. These two practices are ways to get those clues. And there are many other ways as well (pay close attention to what makes you angry, examine your fears, get an outsider’s perspective on your experiences, do a priority sort, go for daily walks, etc.).

No matter your process, you have to get to the bottom of not just what you’re looking for but why you’re looking for it. If not, you may just end up realizing (possibly too late) that it wasn’t a white rabbit that you were looking for after all; it was just yourself. Yourself being alive and awake and alright. And that usually comes from different sources than we would expect.

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Thoughts. About Stuff. On purpose.

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