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Nick Surface shares how living by a core set of values can redefine your definition of success

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Who is the most successful person you know? Is it you? Is it someone you know? Perhaps someone famous that you’ve read about? A more poignant question lies beneath your answer and that is the interesting part of this thought process. How do you define success and where did you get that definition from?

A quick Google search on successful people will give you names like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, and Oprah Winfrey amongst others. What do they all have in common? They are all extremely wealthy, business owners, and have a great influence on society. While they all, no doubt, offer great examples of success, they are not always ones that many people can relate to.

If you go on this thought process with me, I’d like to briefly look at the concept of success and offer a new definition that I have found to be much more empowering.

Most people never ask themselves where they learned to think the way they do. If you value introspection, I’d highly encourage you to answer that question for yourself. It is also not as common to think about the meaning of things and concepts in our daily lives. We have all looked words up in the dictionary, but we very rarely stop and question the things we take for granted. Success is one of those things!

Before diving into defining success, there is a pre-requisite belief required. We have to believe that we have the power to give meaning to meaning. If that is confusing, stick with me. We give meaning to meaning all the time without realizing it. A great example is romantic relationships. It’s common to celebrate anniversaries for things like marriage, first dates, etc. For everyone else in the world, it is just another day, but for you and your significant other, the day means so much more. Like choosing to make some days more special than others, we have the power to give meaning to everything in our life. Utilizing this power can have massive benefits to our perspective, fulfillment, and peace of mind. The key is to become aware of this and put it to use. 

Psychologists support this view and a high-level understanding of the Cognitive Behavioral framework will reveal that our thinking about the events in our lives dictates our emotions and, ultimately, our behavior. It is in this thinking about our events that we can choose the meaning of things, concepts, and events in our life. If you want to read about the Cognitive Behavioral framework, this is a great overview.

If we don’t take charge of our thinking on events, we are largely dictated unconsciously by our subconscious and core beliefs about our identity. Dr. Bruce Lipton explains in his book “The Biology of Belief” that the subconscious is formed in the first 7 years of a person’s life. During that time, we are largely operating in learning mode and we form our behaviors, responses, and belief systems that shape us for the rest of our life. Put another way, if we don’t take charge of our thinking, we are going through life with the beliefs that are put on us by those we grew up around and our random collection of experiences. If we don’t take charge of our own thinking, we will be operating on the “default mode” of thinking dictated to us by those beliefs formed in our subconscious. This type of living can lead to a lot of frustration and confusion.

The reason I wanted to lay the foundation for where we learn to think is to get back to our definition of success. What is success for you? It is incredibly common to look at the Google list we mentioned earlier and have a modified version of success based on people that society has deemed successful. For most people, success will mean money, status, possessions, way of life, freedom of time, and relationships. If you have a definition completely different from what I’ve assumed above, please don’t dismiss this thought process as I believe it still has value for you as a reader. 

The point is that common definitions of success typically all have to do with outcomes. And outcomes are tricky because they involve a lot of uncontrollables. For example, having a successful business may be one of the key parts of a person’s definition of success. If the recent pandemic taught us anything, it’s that things can change very quickly. There were a lot of business owners that did a lot of things right and still had to close up shop for reasons beyond their control. If they only felt successful when their business was thriving, then that is a difficult situation to make sense of.

With that in mind, let me offer a different definition of success that focuses entirely on controllables. What if we defined success as living by our core values? That would shift us from outcome-based focuses that involve many things out of our power and put the ball solely back in our court.

The only thing we have control over at all times is our thinking and ourselves. As Victor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” If you don’t know who Viktor Frankl is, he survived one of the worst Nazi prison camps in World War II, and his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a book I’d highly recommend.

To the point that Frankl makes, our last choice in any set of circumstances is within us. It is our thoughts and attitude and that is where our freedom to always be successful lies. With a clear set of core values that you live by no matter what, you have a recipe for life that offers peace and clarity. Peace comes not from knowing what will happen, but from knowing what you will do. And deciding to live your values no matter what means you will never have to question what you should do. You will always know. The hard part is actually living them.

If you don’t know what personal core values are, they are worth researching. I define them as deciding what matters most in life so you can live a life that most matters. They come from having a vision for your life. Ask yourself the question – “What do I want to be known for in life?” Your answer will give you a great starting point for determining core values. For example, if your life vision is to be a person that lights up the room and makes other people’s lives better, you will identify the key things you must consistently do to enable that vision. Actions such as serving, exercising (health), connecting (quality relationships), and giving (generosity) might end up on your list of core values in this example.

I said it earlier and I’ll say it again – having personal core values you live by means you will always know what you should do. They provide a filter for decision-making. In staying with the previous example, you may realize that taking that new amazing job that requires you to uproot and move to a completely different city where you know no one isn’t the right move because it goes against your value of connecting/quality relationships. While that may mean saying no to the job offer, you will have stuck to your values and lived up to your own definition of success. And controlling those controllables brings fulfillment and will keep you centered. The opposite of that is focusing on uncontrollables and that is a guaranteed recipe for misery. 

If you want someone with a widely regarded successful resumé to back up what I said, here’s a former Navy SEAL talking about success.

I hope this alternate definition of success has spurred your thinking. If you don’t like my definition, I would highly encourage you to come up with your own. Remember that you have the power to give meaning to meaning and focus on the controllables.

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