Success can feel like a shooting gallery

In the first part of this series on success and happiness (Balancing the accomplishment of our aspirations with the achievement of our ambition), I explored the balancing act between the internal (accomplishment of our aspirations) and the external framing of success (achievement of our ambitions) and how this tension may underlie achieving an aspiration of success and happiness. I also compared the pursuit of success to shooting a series of moving targets. Every time you hit one, five or more pop up from another direction. Just when you have achieved one goal, there is pressure to go after the next in terms of earning more money, exerting more effort, or collecting more life possessions. Standards and examples of ‘making it’ constantly evolve in a world of changing technology and social expectations.

Success is a relative concept

It is easy to understand why success can often be viewed as a winner takes all pursuit, and to achieve success it requires expending all your energy into achieving the goal with a single-minded focus. However, no matter how noble the cause, it is usually difficult for one goal to satisfy all our complex needs and desires. Thankfully, unlike an equation for say a successful marketing strategy, no one person can fully embody lasting success for others. Success is a personal thing that can and usually changes with time.

Four irreducible components of enduring success

Despite this individualist nature of success, are there any foundational principles that can apply in this search for success and happiness? Nash and Stevenson (2004) studied a broad range of high performing people who seem to have achieved enduring success accompanied by happiness and contentment. What they found in their study were four irreducible components of enduring success including;

  • happiness (feelings of pleasure or contentment about your life);
  • achievement (accomplishments that compare favourably against similar goals others have strived for);
  • significance (the sense that you’ve made a positive impact on people you care about); and
  • legacy (a way to establish your values or accomplishments to help others find future success).

Achieving success in all four categories is key to enduring success

These four categories form the basic structure of what their high performing research subjects shared in their pursuit and enjoyment of success. Take away any one component, and it no longer feels like ‘real’ success with the achievements and pleasures fading almost as soon as they occur. By contrast, success that encompasses all four kinds of accomplishment is enriching; it endures. The outcome of the research was that those who achieved satisfying, enduring, multidimensional success consciously went after victories in all four categories without losing touch with their values and special talents.

In search of synergy across the four categories

Synergy across the four categories may be achieved within a single activity. Take for example learning a musical instrument. The musical instrument provides release and pleasure (happiness), it is a challenge to master and build on (achievement), it becomes even more fulfilling when you join a band that competes with other bands or play concerts at hospitals (significance), and creates a lasting impression encouraging the next generation of musicians (legacy). Equally, they can be achieved through a juxtaposition of activities of different type in different facets of our work and personal lives.

The reasoned pursuit of just enough

Contrary to the more commonly held view around success being about breaking through limitations, that it’s about having more, being more, doing more; Nash and Stevenson identify that enduring success rests on a paradigm of limitation in any one activity for the sake of the whole – something that they refer to as the ‘the reasoned pursuit of just enough’. Their research showed that people who experienced success and happiness achieved it through the deliberate imposition of limits. They were able to focus intensely on one task until it gave them a particular sense of satisfaction, then put it down and jump to the next category with a feeling of accomplishment and renewed energy.

Breadth of accomplishments and adopting goals of widely varying magnitude

Their research identified two common underlying factors supporting the pursuit of success and happiness. First, their study group viewed success as a broad and dynamic experience of accomplishment, one that factored in all four categories. They didn’t attribute their success to one single event or even one single realm of life. Second, the study groups’ concrete examples of what counted as ‘real’ success included accomplishments of wildly varying magnitude. They were not setting maximum goals for themselves in each category; rather, they set some at a small scale and some at a scale that demanded sustained effort. The baseline for these individuals wasn’t the amount of activity or number of rewards in any one category, but the securing of a proportionate mix of all four.

Kaleidoscope model for success and happiness

It is these multi-dimensional foundations of lasting success that led to their adoption of a kaleidoscope metaphor for success.

Their success kaleidoscope is made up of four chambers – happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy – and you can add brilliant glass pieces (goals sought and fulfilled) to each chamber over a lifetime, making your unique pattern richer and richer. In this metaphor, success is about choice, movement, pattern, and a structure that holds all the separate chambers together. Just like a real kaleidoscope, you have to hold this pattern up to different lights to see your picture and how it changes from different perspectives. By regularly assessing the picture you are creating in all four chambers, you can quickly spot “holes” (places you feel require more attention) in your activities and be assured that you are justified in interrupting other work to attend to them.

‘Just enough’ is the antidote to society’s addiction to the infinite ‘more’

Not only do successful leaders continually create new chips in each of their four chambers, they also choose and balance their actions so that the whole picture will display a pleasing proportionality. Feeling deep satisfaction in each category strengthens these achievers’ ability to turn away from one category when another needs attention. They recognise the importance of setting their own standards for ‘enough’ and not falling prey to the lure of the infinite ‘more’. They anticipate what will be needed in all four dimensions of success despite pressures to deliver to the maximum in one. If you have a firm idea of the big picture in your kaleidoscope of success, it becomes easier to determine and appreciate ‘enough’ in any one activity. Without losing your energy for high aspirations, you set reachable goals.

The key to unlocking balance in the pursuit of success and happiness

My search for the secret of success and happiness has uncovered some valuable insights and perspectives that all seem to come back to balance – something that is difficult to achieve in the pressures of daily life. It is the balance between the more intrinsic (accomplishment of aspirations) and the more extrinsic (achievement of ambitions) framings of success. It is the balance between the chambers I am creating in my personal kaleidoscope (happiness, achievement, significance, and legacy) and the picture that comes from the meshing of these chambers when I hold it up to the light. And the reasoned pursuit of just enough seems to be a key to finding the right balance in a social order that seems to be addicted to the infinite more.

Andrew Rosengren, MD

Guberno Consulting