Congregating in the quietness of a rose garden

A few weeks back I was fortunate to participate in an experience which was humbling which stimulated some personal introspection. A group of elderly women came together to remember and honor one of their mates who had passed a few years earlier. It didn’t happen with any fanfare, nor did it take place on central stage. Rather it occurred with a small intimate gathering in the quietness of a rose garden at the back of my sibling’s old high school. It was a place of solitude away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. There was no marching band, lengthy speeches, statue, or building naming rights. Rather it was an occasion filled with the warmth of remembering shared experiences and reflecting on the impact their mate had on their, and many others’ lives. Their coming together was marked with the placing of a little memorial plaque in memory of their mate on a seat perched within the rose garden. Their mate was my mother.

On many common metrics of success in today’s world, my mother is unlikely to have registered. After starting a family, she never again worked for money. She didn’t take on any new formal qualifications or accreditations. She didn’t enhance her role title or get promoted. She wasn’t recognised with awards or promotions. She lived in the same house for the last 40+ years, didn’t drive fancy cars or go on fancy holidays. Despite these apparent shortcomings, here she was the center of attention and being honored three years after her passing by her aging mates in the quietness of this rose garden.

Success and happiness – comfortable bedfellows or in a tug of war

This moving experience stimulated my personal reflection on the topics of success and happiness. Was what I had witnessed the essence of lasting success? Are success and happiness comfortable bedfellows, or is there a constant and inevitable tug of war that must go on between them?

The dichotomy of success

It is not uncommon for success to feel a little like knocking down targets at the shooting gallery on sideshow alley. Success is like a moving target and even when you knock one down another target seems to pop up in what can feel like an endless pursuit. There is also the dichotomy that while success is widely sought by many people, successful people are often displeased by their status of perceived success. This is epitomised by a recent survey suggesting that CEO’s experience depression at twice the rate of the normal population.

Defining success

So what is the definition of success? This is the first of a two-part series of articles where I explore the concept of success – defined as ‘a state or condition of meeting a defined range of expectations’.  In this article, I will unpack two parts to this definition – firstly, what it means by ‘a defined range of expectations’ and secondly what it means by ‘meeting’ these. In unpacking the first element, I will reflect on the nuances between related concepts of ambition and aspiration, and in the second element, the related concepts of achievement and accomplishment. In the follow up article, I explore a Kaleidoscope model for thinking about the relationship between success and happiness.

Are ambition and aspiration interchangeable?

Ambition and aspiration are often used interchangeably when articulating ‘a defined range of expectations’.  But are they interchangeable – and if not is the difference important in thinking about success?

Ambition is thought of as an ardent desire to attain a particular goal – often with a focus on personal gain or recognition in the form of rank, fame or power. It is frequently associated with competing and winning based on standards set by others. It comes with characteristics of a relentless pursuit of goals and dreams – often persisting despite obstacles and setbacks along the way. In conversation, ambition is commonly framed as where do you want to be or see yourself in the future. But ambition is not without its challenges and risk, such as your self-worth being determined by external factors outside of your control, or ambition being overplayed leading to a singular focus and potential blindspots, and finding yourself in a constant quest for the next challenge that frankly can become exhausting.

In comparison, aspiration can be thought of as a strong desire to achieve something great, to deliver against a higher purpose or ideal – often with a focus on personal growth, self-improvement and fulfilment. It is more commonly associated with deeper desires fueled by inner standards, values and a sense of purpose as a pathway to leading a more fulfilling life – that is, in achieving the goal of contentment and happiness. Unlike ambition, which is framed around where you want to be, aspiration is more commonly framed as what impact you want to have. However, like ambition, aspiration is also subject to risks and challenges that include holding aspirations that are too lofty or intangible, general versus specific, and potentially unrealistic.

Are achievement and accomplishment interchangeable?

While ambition and aspiration are important concepts when describing a defined range of expectations, achievement and accomplishment are common concepts for defining what it means to meet such expectations. While achievement and accomplishment are both associated with completing a task or goal, both require effort and perseverance, and both provide a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment, are they interchangeable? If not, is the nuance important in thinking about success?

Achievement is commonly associated with meeting a significant and meaningful milestone that requires considerable effort, perseverance, and often with a specific timeframe. A high level of recognition and external validation is often associated with achievement that may come in the form of a promotion, winning awards, or an increase in salary. Accomplishments are also about completing tasks or goals but don’t necessarily need to be deemed significant or impactful, and don’t necessarily require significant effort over particular timeframes. This is because accomplishments are more personal and subjective in nature and tend to be measured against our internal perception of satisfaction.

Life’s balancing act of achievement of our ambitions and accomplishment of our aspirations

So does this dissection of the nuances of defining success assist in our understanding of the tug of war between success and happiness? The underlying tension may be between the achievement of our ambitions and accomplishment of our aspirations. The former seems to be more heavily influenced by an external framing (that is, less in our control), while the latter is more related to an internal framing (that is, more in our control). Like most things in life, success and happiness may be associated with striking the right balance between the two. However, achieving this balance can be difficult in a social order that seems to reward and recognise the former more than the latter.

Who will come to our rose garden and why?

As I reflected on the conversation of the ageing women standing around the rose garden and the way they described my mother, I realised the discussion was biased towards her accomplishment and aspirations more so than the achievements of her ambitions. It was fronting up to the daily task of raising twelve children and being a grandmother to thirty more, the forty years of community service to support the school community, and the thoughtfulness of being a good friend. These were the things that were being remembered in the quietness of the rose garden. As I again reflected on my own success, I couldn’t help but wonder who would come together after my own passing and what would they be celebrating.

Stay tuned for the second article in this series on success and happiness which draws on research associated with understanding the key ingredients to lasting success and the metaphor of a kaleidoscope model for thinking about success.

Andrew Rosengren, MD

Guberno Consulting