I noticed a common pattern among the people I’ve been communicating with lately: even though they all are successful in their own ways they still think that they haven’t achieved many things. In the following lines I will attempt to explain my idea of success. It’s not bad to want to achieve more and be more successful but this modern prevalence seems to be the effect of the availability heuristic of success and survivorship bias. The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that returns a fast example in one’s mind when he/she is thinking about something or deciding. When not engaged in cognitive demanding processes the mind tends to wander off and a frequent subject of its ruminations is the status of one’s life. Am I happy? Am I successful? Am I doing something useful with my life? Do I feel like I have a purpose in life? There is also the tendency to compare ourselves with others, to assess our socio-economic hierarchy and the availability heuristic serves us immediate examples learned, usually, from sources like the news and social media. The news tend to present only the most successful companies and on social media people tend to “cheat” by presenting themselves only in positive contexts. So, in appearance, there might seem like a lot of success is going around us and we might feel left out.
Survivorship bias: “Survivorship bias or survival bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions in several different ways. Survivorship bias can lead to overly optimistic beliefs because failures are ignored, such as when companies that no longer exist are excluded from analyses of financial performance”. In other words, humans have an innate tendency to see only what worked, what succeeded.
The way success is commonly portrayed is by achieving a high socio-economic status: money in the bank, an expensive house, expensive car(s), expensive traveling in exotic places and so on. If money, fast cars, a big house and a trophy wife truly motivate you than great for you, go for it! but it should be noted that not all people are motivated by the same things, different personalities are motivated differently but unfortunately many tend to acquire and internalize the notion that success = money&high status. Albert Einstein is considered to have said the following 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.” Let’s change it a bit: If you judge yourself by your ability to become a multimillionaire even though you don’t really want to or don’t need to but everything around you makes you believe that, then you will live your life thinking you are a failure. The word millionaire can be replaced with whatever notion of success that doesn’t really motivate you.
Update: meanwhile, I also came upon the concept of Strain Theory. Strain theory states that this kind of pressure from the society to achieve the “American Dream” can lead to nefarious consequences. From Wikipedia:
Strain theory is a sociology and criminology theory developed in 1938 by Robert K. Merton. The theory states that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (such as the American dream) though they lack the means, this leads to strain which may lead the individuals to commit crimes. Examples being selling drugs or becoming involved in prostitution to gain financial security.
According to the Myers-Briggs personality test my personality is INTP-A also known as the “Logician” personality type. INTP’s are introverted and thinking types, shy in social settings, need intellectual stimulation, love patterns, constantly come up with ideas and solutions, are inventive and creative. Given this short description is not hard to infer that a lot of money in the bank and/or a high social status is not something that really motivates this personality type but rather what motivates them are ideas, discoveries, exploration. Money should be seen as a means to an end not an end in itself. My definition of success is tightly related to my Personal Mission Statement. I first learned about the concept of the Personal Mission Statement about 3 years ago while reading Stephen Covey‘s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
What is a Personal Mission Statement?
“In ones life, the most effective way to begin with the end in mind is to develop a mission statement one that focuses what you want to be in terms of character and what you want to do in reference to contribution of achievements. Writing a mission statement can be the most important activity an individual can take to truly lead ones life. Personal mission statements based on correct principles are like a personal constitution, the basis for making major, life-directing decisions, the basis for making daily decisions in the midst of the circumstances and emotions that affect our lives. Your mission statement becomes your constitution, the solid expression of your vision and values. It becomes the criterion by which you measure everything else in your life.”
For example, this is part of my personal mission statement:
Live free and exercise the right to be free, be the master of my own destiny.
Learn about my self, my family, my peers, my surroundings, nature, the universe.
Experience the best that humanity has to offer: it’s beauty in all of its forms, architecture, events, art, movies, literature, music, its emotions, culture, history, languages.
Experience the best that nature has to offer: scenic places with mesmerizing beauty.
Challenge myself, grow each day, learn each day, experience each day, connect each day, test myself, get out of my comfort zone.
No day goes to waste.
Influence and make a difference so my existence is not meaningless.
Add value. Don’t forget to smile and laugh.
“The founder of the universe, who assigned to us the laws of life, provided that we should live well, but not in luxury. Everything needed for our well-being is right before us, whereas what luxury requires is gathered by many miseries and anxieties. Let us use this gift of nature and count it among the greatest things.”
—SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 119.15b
Like I was saying, my idea of success is strongly intertwined with my personal mission statement. I am practicing my personal mission statement on a daily basis and thus I consider myself to be a successful person given this criteria. It can be clearly seen that it doesn’t take a lot of money in order to achieve most of the things in my list. Now, obviously, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution, each should take some time off to figure out what they truly want.
I was stating that each day I am practicing my personal mission. How do I know that? Today, at the end of the day I will know it because I just recently did it, the memory of doing it is fresh. How will I know it tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow? How will I know it decades from now or if I get Alzheimer’s disease or another memory related disease? The answer is that I also keep track of what I do on a daily basis, it’s a very basic journaling system: I have a file where I write down the current date and what I have achieved that day on a personal and work level. For example, if I read from a book, I just put in its title, nothing more or nothing less, or if I go for a run I just write down “run”, sometimes “run (6)” to hint out the number of kilometers even though I don’t usually do that now, if I read from Wikipedia some articles I put in Wikipedia and the titles of the articles in parenthesis like this “Wikipedia (Unconscious thought theory, Unconscious cognition, Attention restoration theory)”. It doesn’t take a lot of time to put down these short notes and this system makes it very easy to keep track of what you do daily, your achievements. I check this file daily and I also do some quick checks from time to time on what I did for the past week, the past month or year and so on. Each year has its separate file, now I’m taking notes in 2017.txt. This process really helps me to strengthen my memory. I might hear about some important concept or theory, read about it on Wikipedia or some other place, close the tab and one week after I might forget about it already. With this system, I am reminded again about it and if my memory doesn’t do very well I will just check the article again. I also have a separate file in which I note down just my better-than-usual or first-of-the-kind achievements like the title of a book I just completed reading, a semimarathon I managed to run or a new personal best in speed or distance, a new skill that I learned like skiing for example, a new experience and so on. I write down all these thing because they are important to me. I have another file in which I write the most significant achievements of my life like writing a book for example, obviously, I rarely write in this file. Some of my bucketlist items also go into this file. I find this 3 level system very useful in tracking out how I exercise my personal mission statement and thus my success. Our memories are usually bad, mine included, and we tend to forget what we did a few days ago or a week ago including our achievements of various degrees.
It’s important to remind ourselves from time to time that even though we don’t live in a castle or traveled in space we still achieved plenty of smaller but meaningful things.
“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look
back and realize they were the big things.” Robert Brault