What does Success Look Like to You?

On week two of our Shattering the Meme novena, we look at how to tell the difference between illusion and reality, especially when it comes to how we define our success.  Success is not a destination, but a measuring stick.  When calculating how you measure up, make sure you are being honest with yourself and using valid criteria, not other people’s beliefs and agendas.

Mirror mirror on the wall...the evil queen just didn’t get it.  To her, beauty was defined very specifically as physical appearance. The mirror had a very different definition of beauty, or maybe it just changed its mind (since we never do learn of the mirror’s evaluation criteria, it’s hard to say what it was that made Snow White suddenly jump to the top of the mirror’s ranking). Whatever she had been doing to be declared “fairest of them all” suddenly stopped working for the queen and away went the daily affirmation that she had become so used to receiving. The queen was stuck in one definition of success - beauty - that she built her whole life around. When it was taken away from her, she reacted by trying to restore the past. 

Why go on about a fairy tale?  Because I think many of us define success as some version of vanquishing enemies, being a hero and living happily ever after.  Success comes to be an illusion, built on living up to other people’s expectations.  What success is really about is knowing that you are living your life to your fullest potential.  That requires taking the time to discover your true gifts and find a way to live your life as an expression of them.  Some common success memes that get shattered right now:

Letting others define you
Do you attach yourself to heroes and tie your self worth to how much praise or attention you can get from them? The queen could have spared herself a great deal of misery had she taken the time to think about what it was about beauty that really mattered so much to her.  She might have discovered beauty was not a particularly important or necessary criterion for a good queen (pity Queen Victoria wasn’t around until later).  Instead, she let a mirror define her, without even knowing the basis of the definition.  Everything was right with her world until she stopped hearing what she wanted to hear.    Have you lost the ability to know what you want for yourself because you are so busy trying to be something you think others will value?

Trying to eliminate the threat
Change is the one thing you can count on, and you either get out in front of it or get left behind.  In the red ocean view of the world that so many architects have unfortunately adopted, competition is a threat because you believe that it’s kill or be killed.  The evil queen set out to eliminate Snow White, thinking that that was the way to put herself back on top.  She never stopped to think about what her competition might be doing differently or how she might express her own beauty more strongly.  How many times do you think you are doing everything “right” and stubbornly persist in the same behaviors, becoming more and more competitive and cutthroat?  Success is never a static monolithic thing that you can “set and forget.”  It’s a constant state of becoming.  Understand that you need to adapt your strategies for achieving success to the changing factors around you.

Using the wrong criteria
I don’t know if much can be said to redeem the archetype of the evil stepmother, but it’s highly likely that the woman had some other positive attributes besides beauty.  By being stuck on a single dimension of herself, she was in an all or nothing position, where failure at life itself was the only alternative to being the “fairest of them all.”  How many times do you hold yourself to a standard of perfection?  Of all that you are capable of doing, all the things that you are really good at, you focus instead on a single attribute and allow yourself to feel like a failure because you haven’t achieved the fullest expression of that yet.

Ineffectively seeking feedback
Success is not a destination, its a measurement of whether you are on track to achieving personal fulfillment.  That said, it does require some external measures. However, external measures are a bit of a garbage-in/garbage-out proposition.  Let’s look at our evil queen example again.  This woman had a magic mirror, for God’s sake.  It always told the truth.  That’s a pretty powerful tool.  You think she might use it to find out if enemies were plotting the demise of her kingdom, or if a famine was on the horizon.  Instead, she asked it whether or not she was beautiful.  That’s because she was so stuck on being successful in the one way she had defined it for herself that nothing else mattered.  She could have gotten all kinds of useful information that would have made her loved and powerful (which is probably why she thought being beautiful was important anyway), she wouldn’t have had to compete to be “the most” of anything, and could have had everything she wanted just being herself.  But she didn’t trust that she was enough.  Use your feedback sources, be they a mentor, a client, a friend, a list of accomplishments to good effect by not filtering the information you seek so narrowly that you miss the larger message of how well you are really doing.

Shatter the Meme:
Think about what you want to happen in your life in order to consider yourself successful.  Look at those things you think are necessary for success and ask yourself why you think they are important.  Did someone else tell you that they were the only way to “make it?”  Do you think that someone whose opinion matters to you will be impressed?  Are other people expecting that you do these things in order for them to value you? Who said that particular attribute even was important?  Was it your mother, or a professor you admired?  What do they really know?

 Don’t get me wrong, I believe that we need to constantly challenge ourselves, to move outside of our comfort zones and grow.  But when you allow someone else, no matter how well meaning, to tell you what you should value you start to take on an idea of what success should be that is not your own.  You could check every box on their criteria list and still not feel successful because accomplishing those things may not resonate with you.  Success is living the fullest expression of yourself.  It is not living out someone else’s dream.