What Is Success?

What Is Success

This has to start with an admission. And, coming from the editor in chief of SUCCESS magazine these last few years, it’s a pretty big one: I don’t even remember applying to work here.

Maybe you were expecting me to say that it was my longtime dream to help people achieve their goals and live their best life. Well it wasn’t. Maybe it’s more on brand to say that I wanted to push entrepreneurs to do bold things that will shape a brighter tomorrow. I didn’t. I just wanted a new job.

New business cards aside, what I got was much more important. I discovered meaning. Maybe you’re searching for the same thing.

My Story

These days I do relish my opportunity to help people become the versions of themselves they want to become, and do the things they want to do. I think it’s just a natural byproduct of my time at SUCCESS. But when I was called in for my first job interview at the magazine, it was a total surprise. I didn’t recall having heard of the publication before. Apparently sometime before that (it turned out to be over a year), an opening at SUCCESS had popped up on some job board I was browsing, and they saved my résumé. This would’ve come at a time when I was applying for anything and everything to get out of a previous gig that left me feeling aimless. I probably didn’t even read the job description before applying. I wanted out of my old job that bad.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. I was already in what I thought was my dream job. I thought I was successful.

The story goes back a ways. I fell in love with writing in high school, and as your average greasy-faced and sports-crazed teenage boy, I set a goal early on to go to journalism school and eventually claw my way up to working as a reporter covering the National Football League. This was after it became apparent that my original goal of playing in the NFL needed to be abandoned for a number of reasons, the fact that I run as fast as a fat oak tree probably first among them.

But I still wanted to get as close as I could to pro football, this industry that fascinated me. I immersed myself into learning more about the craft of sports writing as I dug deeper and deeper into my obsession. I started at the very bottom, writing for my high school newspaper, then the local town paper, and was sent to cover anything and everything that the veteran reporters didn’t want to bother with. I wrote about a table tennis tournament. I wrote about the rodeo when it came through town. I kept score at junior varsity volleyball games.

I went to college and studied more. I got an internship and studied more. And then, thanks to my pestering emails to an editor, I eventually landed an unpaid position writing for the website of a real-life NFL team before my junior year of college.

I slept on the floor a friend’s walk-in closet that first summer. It didn’t matter. I was experiencing the NFL up close and personal, and expressing myself. I had my foot in the door. People were reading my work.

And then I graduated college, and the Dallas Cowboys decided to hire me straight away. I remember dancing and running around a parking lot when I got the call, fist-pumping and screaming. At 22 years old, I had made it.

As I know now, that was the best day of my dream job—the day I got it. It was all downhill from there.

Oh, I enjoyed the work for a little while. I was pretty good at it. I got to meet interesting people, travel the country and do some cool things. At first I felt fulfilled and challenged. But within a few years, I wanted out. I wasn’t making the kind of money I wanted. I didn’t have the kind of free time I wanted. I saw no way to move up in the corporate structure.

More than anything, I no longer felt that my work mattered, not even to myself. At some point every day, I would flip decades through my Outlook calendar until the date I imagined I might be able to retire—April 1, 2058.

It was no way to live. And my angst and boredom carried over to other areas of my life. I grew distant from friends. I gained weight. I simply hit a plateau.

But I did get out, of course. I was hired by SUCCESS and have been with the magazine since 2012, first as the features editor before being promoted to run the thing three years ago. And I’m here to tell you that the new job saved me.

It’s not because I make more money than I did, or because I don’t work nights and weekends all of the time. It’s not because I earned a promotion. All those things have made my job comfortable and rewarding. But being surrounded by the teachings of some of the world’s greatest thought leaders has had a much bigger effect on me than being able to contribute to a 401(k) or having the time to grill fajitas with my fiancé and best friends on Sunday afternoons.

Through studying success, achievement and personal development these last few years, devoting every day to learning about these subjects just as I once did the NFL, I now feel ownership of my life. I’m not pigeonholed into any niche, like working my way up the sports-writing ladder. The tools I’ve added here give me the power to make whatever I want of myself in the future, and enjoy my life in the process. Six years ago I didn’t know what success meant to me. Now I do.

And I’m here to tell you that through your own study and progress, you can find your own personal definition of success and meet it, too.

The Framework

One of the first objectives I had when I took over as the editor in chief of SUCCESS was to rethink the opening section of the magazine—the first thing you dive into when you start to read each issue and the piece that sets the tone for what is to come on every page. It was a huge process. I wanted to distill what the magazine was all about and give readers something tangible to get them moving in the right direction as soon as they started flipping through the pages.

We spit-balled hundreds of buzzwords trying to narrow the subject matter down to the very few that would mean the most, the values most universally held in people’s ideas of what it is to live a good life.

Ultimately we settled on four pillars: Happiness, Health, Growth and Purpose. As I explain each one, you’ll see how they fit together, and begin to understand the place each has as you form your own definition of success. When we discuss the building of that personal definition a bit later, you’ll understand how the pursuit and maintenance of these four cornerstones of the self will guide you.

Happiness

You know how, when an airplane is experiencing major turbulence or some critical malfunction, oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling? Before every takeoff, the flight attendants will instruct you to put on your own mask securely before helping your children or anyone else around you. It makes sense. If you can’t breathe, you can’t help them breathe.

Personal happiness may seem like a selfish pursuit on its face, but it works in much the same way. If you don’t enjoy your life, you will be less of an asset to everyone you encounter, including the people who depend on you the most. When we are truly happy, we are more engaged at work, more present for our friends and more connected to our loved ones. If not, we are often stuck in our own minds, feeling sorrow and resentment.

It may seem simple, but this value can be incredibly difficult for people to master. All too frequently, we discover that people who seem to have everything going for them and whom we respect and adore simply do not feel the same way about themselves. How terrible that we don’t get to experience their full selves and their full contributions, and how sad that they don’t see the good in themselves.

Positive psychologists, who study human happiness, measure it by “subjective well-being.” But I tend to think of self-esteem first. We don’t live in any neighborhood, or city, or state, truly. In actuality, we live in the space between our ears. The entirety of our experience exists there. Make it a nice place to live.

Health

There are wealthy people who are massively overweight. There are celebrities who smoke. Even some elite athletes have been known to border on drug and alcohol abuse. Can you meet society’s generalized definitions of success and still treat your body poorly? Sure. But shouldn’t the way you feel count for something?

Does it matter that you can outrun a gazelle if you wake up in the morning with a splitting hangover headache? Does global fame and esteem negate daily coughing and wheezing fits? Does being able to afford grand vacations to exotic places really matter if you have to stop so often to catch your breath? Consider what a huge part of the human experience that tactile feeling plays—pain and pleasure, simply. Isn’t it a worthy pursuit, for anyone in search or true life satisfaction, to actually feel good?

Health, or the lack thereof, is a completely tangible factor in success, too. Imagine what more you could accomplish every day if you just had more energy and vitality.

Luckily, this is the simplest part of the framework to master. It is more difficult for scientists to prescribe solutions to develop happiness, growth and purpose. But you already know how to be healthier. Eat better. Exercise. Get plenty of sleep. It’s really that basic. You’ll be amazed at how much control you feel in other areas of your life after you make good health an unbending priority.

Growth

A stagnant person is a languishing person. Think about it this way: Pretty much the best any of us could possibly hope for is to live, say, 100 years. Every day that passes in which we don’t progress in some way is a waste of time, truly a waste of this unfathomable cosmic opportunity we have been given. What is the point of a lifetime if not to grow?

Missing the daily chance to learn something new, further develop a skill, progress toward a goal or simply understand oneself better is a true shame, and a dangerous one at that. When we become complacent for a day, we soon become complacent for a week, and a month, and a year. Soon decades of our lives have slipped by and we wonder where the time went. Living that way is not success.

Growth can manifest itself in a few different ways, from personal evolution to basic advancement toward a goal. So many people see success as the accumulation of wealth, and this may be a fine place to consider the role of money in your life, so long as its end purpose is to have a worthwhile impact on the world around you, or at least to reinvest in your own happiness, health, growth and purpose for exponential returns (to maximize what you are able to give to the rest of the world, naturally). Working toward a financial goal, perhaps through savings, career development, or through starting a business or solo venture, is a fine way to apply the talents you’ve been given.

But don’t forget to further enhance yourself and your abilities as you go along. Be better tomorrow than you were today.

Purpose

We all have a vague notion of the role of purpose in our lives. If there is nothing that causes us to shoot out of bed in the morning, it becomes awfully tempting to hit snooze over and over again. Have you ever pondered what’s the point?

For me, the point is to make the most of my time on this earth. I want to influence others for the better, experience all that there is and live in alignment with my values. I have a vision of the person I want to be in my head. It’s not unattainable, but it’s a work in progress. My purpose is to become that person.

Your purpose is the light at the end of the tunnel—the thing that will keep you going when things are bleak or setbacks occur. Whatever it is for you, it’s vital that you have it, and that you remind yourself of it constantly. Losing sight of your purpose makes success very difficult to attain, and if you achieve it in some measure, then forget what spurred you to get there in the first place, success can be easily lost.

Consider this: If you knew you had only a few more years to live, what would you devote yourself to? I don’t mean a bucket list, or any one-off experience like skydiving or swimming with sharks. I mean the one, big thing. Think about that question, and start after it immediately.

Defining Success

Based on my personal experience and my understanding of the values described in the framework outlined above, I have to say that success is not the goal. Success is the process. A journey. It’s the way you feel and the energy that is created on your way to whatever your goal may be. It’s you, striving for something.

In my old career, success didn’t occur the day I got my job in the NFL. It didn’t occur after that when I wrote a great story, either. It occurred when I was doing everything in my power to get to that point—when I was crashing in my buddy’s closet, or covering those junior varsity volleyball games, or taking the classes that would expand my knowledge and understanding, improving myself.

Success didn’t come when I got a job as an editor at the magazine of the same name, or when I was promoted to editor in chief. It came when I was reading the work of Jim Rohn, Zig Ziglar, Dale Carnegie and so many of the other all-time greats in this field, trying to understand their lessons better. After the promotion, it came in the form of working with my team, evolving into a confident manager who could understand how to serve the people in my charge as well as our readers.

It came by doing all of that hard work, growing and understanding what I was moving toward, while also navigating a personal life at the same time—dealing with a difficult breakup, gathering myself and moving on, falling in love again, supporting my stepmother through the loss of my father, coming to grips with that loss myself, and allowing happiness to shine through despite all those ups and downs. Success came from taking better care of myself in my late 20s and early 30s; I began to watch what I ate, created an exercise habit and started seeing a doctor every year. Somewhere along the way, I started to understand that I owed it to myself to consider myself and to like myself.

Each of us has a past. We have regrets. We’ve said or done things to ourselves or others that we wish we hadn’t. The people who know you best may forget those things, or dismiss them. But you’re more likely to internalize them and not let them go. I was guilty of that. And then I forgave myself for the person I had been, the one who ate all the junk food, who made mistakes in those old relationships, who argued with my dad and who didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity at hand. In time I came to love the person I was in the present, and I grew intensely excited about the person I knew I could become.

I’m not rich by any means. I don’t have the physique of a body builder. I don’t wear the smile of a cheerleader all the time. I can’t predict what my life will look like on April 1, 2058. But I’m proud of who I am today, because I know where I’ve been, and I know that I can improve even further. I’ve accepted the fact that I am a work in progress, and am willing to put in that work. There are people who are wealthier, better looking, happier and who contribute more to society. But no one can tell me I’m not a success right now. I feel successful.

The legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who spent more years studying success than I have spent on this planet, eventually came to define it this way: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” That, succinctly, is how I feel today. My goal is to feel the same way next week, or next year, or in 2058, or when I lay on my deathbed.

What is your goal? Maybe it’s a nice, round net worth figure. Or it’s celebrating a 75th wedding anniversary with your spouse. Perhaps it’s the number of mourners who will be at your funeral, because you positively touched so many lives. Whatever your goal is, imagine the process and the person who will complete it. Put the past aside, and step into that process. Step into the shoes of that person. Work it. Live it. Love it.

That is success.

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Josh Ellis

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