We’re continuously brainwashed by images of “success” and constantly bombarded with pictures of the rich and famous who seem to have it all. In our modern society, aggressive advertising implants images of successful people in our minds and encourages us to ponder how we can join this select group. Surveys have shown that most people view success as one of the major contributors to their happiness.
But can success really provide you with everything you desire? Are these “successful” people happier than the rest of us? Research has shown time and again that those who are considered successful aren’t happier, nor do they feel better about their lives, than the average person.
Using your imagination as your Internal Guide can help you achieve your own personal success and avoid the trap of being successful in everyone else’s eyes but your own.
Models of success
Elvis Presley, Virginia Woolf, Howard Hughes, Joseph Stalin … apart from being indisputably successful, what else did they have in common? For a start, they led very unhappy lives. But perhaps most importantly, they didn’t see themselves as being successful.
As our models of success, these four were achievers who were famous, powerful or accumulated unparalleled fortunes. They achieved what the average person can only dream of. But how did they see themselves?
Elvis Presley (1935-1977)
Born in the south of the US to a poor working-class family, Elvis became one of the most important figures of 20th century popular culture. He was the object of desire for millions of women and his fame still continues decades after his death. He has sold over 1 billion records, more than any other singer in the history of music.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Prominent British novelist Virginia Woolf was among the leaders of the literary movement of modernism. Among her books are masterpieces like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. She is mentioned with admiration together with other elite novelists such as James Joyce (1882-1941) and E.M. Forster (1888-1965).
Howard Hughes (1905-1976)
US industrialist billionaire, movie producer and entrepreneur, Howard Hughes often achieved the impossible. He is considered the father of commercial aviation and was the first to fly around the world in less than four days. In 1947, he created and flew the awe-inspiring Spruce Goose, the largest aircraft in the history of aviation, with a wingspan of 320 feet (the current Boeing 747 has a wingspan of 213 feet). “Trying the impossible, achieving the impossible, it’s an end in itself” was his motto and way of life.
Joseph Stalin (1879-1953)
From a background of poverty, the “Man of Steel” became the undisputed leader of the USSR, holding the position of premier from 1941 until his death. Many achievements are attributed to him: defeating Adolf Hitler’s army; the industrialisation of the USSR; the creation of the Warsaw Pact. He was, undoubtedly, one of the most powerful individuals to shape the 20th century.
There’s no doubt each of these individuals was a person of great ability and extraordinary achievements. But, as you may have guessed, these examples of success weren’t selected by chance. They were unsatisfied individuals who led unhappy and tragic lives.
Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 after years of drug abuse and suffering. Off-stage, Presley was plagued by self-doubt, a basic dissatisfaction with his life and a feeling of utter loneliness.
Virginia Woolf committed suicide at the age of 59 after long periods of depression.
As for Howard Hughes: “Because he believed so strongly in himself he tended not to trust anyone else,” says biographer James Steele. His last years were spent in complete isolation. He refused to leave his fortress or meet anyone, suffering from paranoia and feelings of desolation.
Joseph Stalin’s chronic suspiciousness led to his infamous brutality. His fearfulness made him see enemies everywhere. In the end, he even turned on his closest friends. One of his acquaintances testified after his death that in his last days the only human trait he had left was his unhappiness.
Of course, success doesn’t necessarily lead to unhappiness. There are plenty of examples to the contrary. Yet, the above four demonstrate that the common idea of success might not lead you where you want to be.
Is a seachange for everyone?
Some believe success is about learning to enjoy the simple life. Are they right? Would a harmonic, pastoral idyll be the answer for you? Let’s look at the famous urban myth.
While holidaying in a tiny village, a rich businessman saw a fisherman coming back with his catch. When he found that the fisherman had spent only a short time at sea, he asked why he hadn’t stayed out longer to catch some more fish. The fisherman explained that the catch was enough to meet his needs and that he liked to sleep late, play with his children and spend time with his mates.
The tourist then suggested the fellow should start fishing longer every day, sell the extra fish and with the revenue buy a bigger boat. He then calculated that if the fisherman continued to invest the extra money back into the business, within 10 to 20 years he could be worth millions.
But when the fisherman asked what he was to do with all these millions in 20 years time, all the businessman could come up with was: “Then you’ll be able to retire in a pastoral village, sleep late, play with your grandchildren and spend time with your mates.”
Quite obviously, the moral of this story is simple. If only you opened your eyes, wouldn’t you see that everything you need is already within your reach?
It’s a wonderful moral, but is it applicable to everyone? It’s definitely true for the villager, who felt successful and happy, regardless of how the tourist viewed him. But what about the tourist? Was his final “realisation” real? Could he be happy now with the simple life he hopes to achieve when he retires? Not likely!
The tourist may enjoy the stress-free holiday and might even be dreaming of a retirement in the village, but with his business mind, how long could he really cope with the simple lifestyle? A pastoral lifestyle just doesn’t suit all of us.
Success: a personal feeling
Success, according to the Encarta Dictionary, is: 1. achievement of desired aim: the achievement of something planned or attempted. 2. attainment of fame, wealth or power: impressive achievement, especially the attainment of fame, wealth or power. 3. something that turns out well: something that turns out as planned or intended.
No two people have the same view of what success is. Dictionary definitions don’t seem to help, either, as they refer only to the outcome and never to the achiever and how he or she feels. So why should you expect that success will lead you where you want?
The Latin origin of the word — successus, meaning “a happy outcome” — might give us a better clue. It’s not about the outcome but rather the feeling of happiness resulting from it. It can’t be defined by using external, measurable terms and, like any emotion, the only way to know it is to feel it for yourself. Personal success is the achievement of whatever produces this feeling for you.
Finding your Internal Guide
Research has shown there’s little difference between our emotional and physical responses to reality and our responses to vivid mental images of the same reality. You can verify this for yourself. Create an image of a situation you dread (for example, walking in the dark or giving a public speech). Make the image vivid in your mind and examine your body and feelings. You’ll find that, although you’re in the safety of your home, your body reacts as if you were actually experiencing the situation. You might find you feel a knot in your stomach or your heart is beating faster. This response can be used as your Internal Guide for success, in a process similar to the children’s game of Hot & Cold.
You probably already have some image of what success means to you: having a dream home, owning a business, becoming famous or creating a masterpiece. Or maybe you desire a happy family life with time for hobbies and friends. There are no rights or wrongs: some images can serve you well and lead you to the desired feelings; others don’t.
Now examine your feelings while making the image in your mind as clear and vivid as possible. Once you become aware of your feelings, slightly modify the image and examine your feelings again. Have they become more positive? If they have, you’re on the right track. Make this modified image your new Internal Guide. On the other hand, if your feelings become less positive, return to the original and change it in a different way. Repeat this until you’ve found the image that produces the most positive feelings.
Putting the technique into practice
Let’s start by using the size of your bank account, for example, as your initial Internal Guide. You should imagine you already own the account. Make the image specific: see yourself reading the bank statement. You’re rich! At this stage, however, you mustn’t imagine using your money for any purpose. You can’t buy a house or take a holiday. These are not part of your image. Focus solely on the size of your bank account.
Now, check your feelings while holding onto this image. If the image is vivid enough, your feelings will be as if your bank account were real. Where in your body can you feel it? Do you feel happy, fulfilled, satisfied? Are these the feelings you hoped to achieve?
If this image produces the right feelings, make it your Internal Guide. If it doesn’t, it’s not the money that will lead you to personal success. Money, in this case, may only represent other desires you haven’t unleashed yet. It might be a dream home that money represents, or maybe leisure time. Create these images and check how you feel. There are many avenues you can explore. Would you, for instance, feel the same if you earned the money, inherited it or won it in the lottery?
When you first start, you might find your feelings are vague and weak. But keep it up. The more you practise, the more you’ll be able to refine your image and the stronger your feelings will become.
Selecting a good Internal Guide is an important first step on your way to personal success. It creates potential — but potential alone isn’t enough. Once the image is embedded in your mind, you must refer to it regularly.
It’s like cooking, as a chef once told me. Imagine you’ve decided to create a new dish. You want it to be a masterpiece. In your mind’s eye you can see it, smell it and taste it. You’re not sure how to create it yet, but you know that as long as you keep this vivid image as your guide, you’ll eventually be successful. You could use a recipe as a starting point, but the recipe could never replace the image in your mind. After all, unlike the image, a recipe is only a description and cannot convey the eating experience — the taste, smell or texture.
With this image in mind, you start experimenting with ingredients, time and temperature, comparing the results to the image in your mind. Then, one day you realise the dish on your plate matches the one in your mind exactly. Eureka! Your body and mind are filled with the great feeling of achievement and satisfaction. You’re successful and, more importantly, you feel successful.
To achieve any goal, whether in cooking, art, sport or business, you must continuously use your Internal Guide like a landmark. While everyday life might distract you from your path, the landmark is always there; and, as long as you keep it in sight, you know you won’t lose your direction. If you check frequently where it is in relation to where you are, you’ll never drift too far. As long as it’s clear in your mind, you know you’re on the right track.
Obstacles to avoid
Any plan has its pitfalls and obstacles: for example, procrastination and lack of self confidence. The main difference between those who achieve and those who don’t is their ability to foresee obstacles and deal with them. So many great ideas have been initiated; so few have come to conclusion. So many people are starters; so few are achievers. So let’s cover two main (though less talked-about) obstacles, namely a fall after an easy climb, and the risk of attachment.
A fall after an easy climb
The inability to recover from a fall (for example, a great setback or disappointment) after an easy climb has prevented many from achieving their goals.
There are times in everyone’s life when things just fall into place. Everything happens the right way, effortlessly. It’s like a mountain climber who has reached an easy stretch after a long struggle and is now ascending rapidly and easily. Like the climber, you should enjoy these opportunities but never forget their perils.
Under normal conditions, the climber would place an anchor into the rock every few steps to ensure they could never fall too far. But when the climb is easy, a fall seems unlikely, and while progressing rapidly the climber may inadvertently fail to place anchors and leave long segments of unsecured rope. When the climbing gets tough again – as it always does – with no anchors behind, the fall can be long and grave. The same applies to your path towards personal success: you should, undoubtedly, enjoy and take advantage of good times, but you must never fail to check your Internal Guide frequently.
Take vocational English in Japan, for example. It used to be really fashionable. English conversation schools were popping up and the demand for English teachers soared. Often, the sole requirement to be employed as a teacher was to be a citizen of an English-speaking country.
Jane (not her real name) was one such teacher. After years of working back home as a secretary, she was attracted to the high salary, ease of life and glory the position of teacher (sensei) offered in Japan. She became a “celebrity”, was invited to glamorous social events and was even asked, once she could converse in Japanese, to appear on TV. Life was perfect and she put aside any thought of what it was that she actually wanted.
Reality inevitably changed and, when vocational English lost its appeal, Jane, like many others, was forced to return home. The change from being a well-off celebrity to going back to her mundane old life was more than she could cope with. Her fall was hard. It was the price she had to pay, not for having enjoyed the good life but for losing sight of her direction.
Falls are always painful, but if you keep your Internal Guide in sight, a quick recovery is more likely.
The risk of attachment
Attachment to your goals is another obstacle to avoid. Although striving relentlessly towards your goals will help you achieve them, this mindframe can become your enemy when trying to achieve personal success.
You may find yourself reaching your long sought-after goal, only to discover it’s not what you want any more. You must never forget that your Internal Guide isn’t merely a goal but rather a means to create the desired feelings and emotions that come with personal success.
Reality changes and so do our feelings. Things that only a few years ago seemed attractive might seem meaningless now. Things you didn’t care about in the past might become the centre of your current life. Your Internal Guide must reflect these changes. So it’s vital that you not only keep your Internal Guide vivid in your mind but also examine it frequently and make sure it always produces the right feelings.
Sometimes you may find only small adjustments are required. Other times you may find you’ll need to create an entirely new image. By doing so, you’ll avoid the trap of being successful in everyone’s eyes but your own.