John Maxwell: Aim High for a Joyful Life

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 7, 2012

What is the secret to achieving happiness? I believe the key is to not make happiness your goal at all.

More than 100 years before the Me Generation of the 1960s made pursuing happiness its focus, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne warned of the danger of doing so. He observed, “Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained. Follow some other object, and very possibly we may find that we have caught happiness without dreaming of it.”

I believe Hawthorne was right. I’ve known people who spent their entire lives chasing happiness. It’s lured them from job to job. It’s driven them to debt as they look for fulfillment. It’s taken them through multiple marriages.

If you believe Hawthorne was right, as I do, then what? What should we be making our goal in life? I want to make a case for living a useful life. That’s what I’m trying to do. To measure my progress, I look at four things.

1. The Relationships I Form

The older I get, the more important relationships have become to me. I am naturally a people person. I’m an extrovert, I enjoy my time with others, and most of the time people energize me. I know that not everyone is like that. But I think that even the most introverted person will acknowledge the importance of people. Our highest highs and lowest lows in life involve others.

People cannot live a truly useful life unless they give their best to their families. For many years my definition of success has been to have those closest to me love and respect me the most. That doesn’t mean I have to be perfect—which is good, because I can’t be. It means I try to be authentic and honest and loving to my wife, children and grandchildren.

I also highly value the relationships I build with my team. As a leader, I must do more than focus on getting things done with and through my team. It’s my responsibility to help the people who work with me to personally succeed, to grow to their potential and to have fun in the process.

2. The Decisions I Make

Few things in life are more important for determining the direction you go than the decisions you make. What are our lives but a culmination of all our choices?

The two main factors that come into play in my decision-making are values and discipline.

I decided early in life what my values were going to be. Those values basically define the direction I want my life to go. They also help me to know where I don’t want to go.

Having made those big decisions, I work to manage them on a daily basis, which requires discipline.

Discipline and decision-making complement one another. If I make the decisions without having the daily discipline, I have a plan without a payoff. If I have discipline but I haven’t made the important decisions, then I have regimentation without reward. But when I put the two together, I give myself great odds for success.

3. The Growth I Gain

When I started my career, I had vision and high aspirations. I thought hard work and the right attitude would be enough to help me accomplish my goals. But I soon discovered that the only way to achieve big goals was to grow to them.

The day I changed my focus from accomplishment to growth, it did two things for me. First, it put me on a path to ever-increasing potential. The more I grow, the greater my potential becomes. With each step of growth, I create capacity; I don’t use it up. Growth is one of the few areas in which the more you use, the more you get back.

Second, by making growth a life goal, I was setting a goal that I could always achieve, yet would never truly be completed. How is that possible? Because growth is not a destination; it’s a process.

While I’m on the subject of growth, I want the readers of SUCCESS to know that my next book is called The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential. It will be published in October, and I’ll tell you more about it as that time approaches.

4. The Value I Add

The final area I focus on in my effort to live a useful life is adding value to people. This has become the major focus of my life. Helping people has been important to me throughout my entire career, but now my career has become helping people. It’s the only way to make a lasting impact on this world.

The search for happiness is by nature a selfish pursuit. If my focus is on being happy, it’s all about me. And I may be tempted to ignore, exploit or use others to get what I want.

In contrast, adding value is by nature unselfish. It puts others first. It prompts me to pay more attention to what I can do for others instead of what I can do for myself. I don’t know about you, but I need that reminder not to focus on myself.

Will this change in focus lead to some uncomfortable experiences? Yes. Will it sometimes require me to make sacrifices? Yes. Will that sometimes make me feel less happy than the traditional definition of the word? Yes. But being connected to a cause greater than myself provides a more rewarding kind of happiness, a deeper level of happiness: contentment.

If you have been making the pursuit of happiness your focus, then I want to challenge and encourage you to reevaluate that goal. I believe that if you trade happiness for the four factors that help to make a useful life, you will go farther in life and learn to become content in the process.