Success is Relative

Easy, now. Put the Sword of Truth down. I have NOT lost my moral marbles.

I said relative not relativism. Support for my claim that there is a distinction comes from the eminent historian Paul Johnson, who, in his monumental work, Modern Times, makes this very point on behalf of no less than Albert Einstein himself. (You know, that guy who came up with the whole “Theory of Relativity” thing?) In the opening pages of the work, Johnson writes:

At the beginning of the 1920’s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly, but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

No one was more distressed than Einstein by this public misapprehension.

Feel better? If not, consider three broad, simple examples:

  1. Life – for a person in war, success is staying alive. For a person living in peace and harmony in the developed world, it might be a wife [or husband, depending], two kids, and a house with a white picket fence.
  2. Business – some people just want a job, or to get offered a specific job; others want to be CEO and have a 7-figure salary.
  3. Sports – one athlete will accept nothing less than the championship, while some other kid just wants to make the team.

I won’t belabor this point any further.

I bring this to your attention because it bears directly on my purpose here: to build toward a definition of Success, one that you and I can apply to our lives as a whole, as well as to individual events within them.

Specifically, here, I want to answer this question: “If Success is relative, then why bother trying to define it? It’s different for each person, in each situation.”

Well, voice in my head, that seems to be true, but defining success is like setting a goal. It gives us something to work toward, as well a marker against which to measure our progress and stay on course.

I’ve tried to be clear about my position on the whole “success means wealth” thing in previous posts, but if this is your first time joining us, let me repeat: I don’t think money equals success, but it is part of the equation. Or, at least, a certain amount of it makes life a heck of a lot easier. All of that being said, a recent example, drawn from the world of finance, provides a helpful illustration. In his latest book, Money: Master the Game, Tony Robbins challenges readers to come up with a number that would provide “total financial freedom” for the them. This is not just paying your bills and basic necessities, but income and wealth that allows you to live the life you otherwise only dream about.

But Robbins goes beyond just the mere suggestion: he actually provides the tool(s) to come up with such a number, through a calculation and formula available in the mobile app that readers get along with the purchase of the book.

Certainty, a form of knowledge, is power. He gives the example of man, who, at one of his seminars, said he needed (or wanted?) a billion dollars to live the life he “really wanted,”  which included travel on private planes, yachts, etc. Tony challenged him on the point, and, rather than just letting him persist with what is, for 99.99999% of people an unattainable (and maybe even inconceivable) dollar amount, he actually went through some real calculation of the cost of such luxuries, and helped the man arrive at a revised 8-figure goal. That’s still a lot – but it’s WAY less than a billion dollars, and significantly more realistic and attainable.

Now unfortunately for me (or for all of us), there’s no formula for determining success in other – or any – areas of our life, big or small. There’s no “app for that.” (They lied to us!)

But I do have a simple formula, drawn from what is, at least to me an unlikely source: my former boss. A smart guy, he began his career in the Air Force and the NSA, and, among other things, went on to be a partner at Deloitte. As we were preparing an investor presentation for our startup company, and I was wondering how to find the answer to a question he asked of me, he told me (maybe a little condescendingly) about his rule for making “directionally correct assessments.” He said you need three “lines of bearing” all pointing you toward, or validating, the same point. Those three lines of bearing are:

  1. Research, Evidence, or Data – this should be some objective source of information that relates to the question you are trying to answer
  2. Experience of Others, preferably someone you know – this should corroborate the information gleaned in your research, but add some “color” to what could otherwise be dull, gray facts.
  3. Your Gut – things may be stronger in (or on?) some of us, than for others, but trusting yourself, and your intuition, should not be dismissed.

If you can, in any situation, take time to understanding what each of those three things tells you, then you’ve at least got a “directionally correct assessment” of what success may look like for you. Or at least you’re in a better position than believing that you need the equivalent of a billion dollars.

In the next few posts, I’m going to going a little deeper, and even use some unconventional ways to help us arrive at our definition of success, including:

  • What prevents us from wanting/trying to define success?
  • What are the “normal” ways people try to define success?
  • Defining success through its opposite: failure

Stay tuned.



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