This piece originally appeared on Quora: What is success if you don’t know your main goal in life?
I thought I was done with the hard work of being a human being. I sold my first company for $15 million and I knew I was finished with all the hard work. I had achieved a goal.
But goals are man-made. And in one lifetime we will have many goals. And our small brains have never developed the capacity to understand what goals are in our own best interests.
Imagine someone slapping their hands to clean off the dust of hard work digging in the fields all day. “All done!” as he claps his hands and waits for the sun to set so he could enjoy the festivities.
Dancing maybe. Or drinking. Whatever. Done!
Success dresses up for Halloween and pretends to be that moment. That moment when you’ve accomplished your BIG thing and you think that’s all there was to it, this sojourn here on the planet – finishing the big thing and saying Done! I did my job as a human.
This happened to me a few times. I sold a company in 1998. I sold a company in 2004. I sold a company in 2008. Wasn’t this my goal in life?
Each time, I felt like I no longer needed to keep up the facade of being healthy. I was now a success. No longer did I need to work for success. I WAS success. The living embodiment of it.
But within months, or sometimes even seconds, of giving up on that slippery grasp we all hold on to called “Improvement” I would fall Fall FALL. Down through the inferno and each layer seeing the faces laughing, “I knew it!” or “I told you so!” or just “I hate you and will make you punish!”
People will not hesitate to punish you.
So many people on their own layers of hell, eager to see someone fall past them so they know, beyond certainty, that there are hells deeper than the one they find themselves in.
Success is a cheap good that gives you pleasure for a second before sticking the knives in and throwing you out of heaven.
So what then, is success. Because it is not money. That I know. And it is not some physical achievement. That I know. It is not a book written, or a reward received or a job completed or a promotion annointed.
Here are the stages of success that I think exist. I can easily be wrong. This is what works for me now.
Just like a single thought can’t be captured by a test tube and studied under a microscope to dissect it’s essential elements, nor can success.
Stages of success:
– GOAL. You’ve created something of so much value to the masses that the value gets reflected back to you, like a reflection in a pond on a clear day.
People look up to you. Money is showered down. This feels like success.
But, one might say, donuts can be mistakenly perceived as creating value for the many. So many people might get pleasure from your donuts that your “success” knows no bounds.
So this definition might be suspect.
– HAPPY. You’re happy with spouse, job, place, your private creative achievements.
You wake up and the birds sing. You’re happy. But we all know we age. People die. Creativity always carries on its back the weight of the criticisms all too eager to pile on. So this success is fleeting and hence suspect.
– HEALTHY. I always advocate a daily practice: every day attempt to improve just 1% along physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pillars.
This has been the only thing that has worked for me when I’ve been at my lowest points – whether divorce or bankruptcy or a single email criticizing me.
But in the pit of my stomach right now is a tiny clench of anxiety about who will I meet today.
Who will I reach out to today. What value will I bring today. What can go wrong today.
What can go wrong to the people I love today? What anonymous strangers will reach out and attempt to strangle me today? (And that might sound paranoid but even last night I got an email from someone claiming I’ve implaneted a chip in his brain and he will “destroy” me if he has to).
We have bills to pay. We have children to feed. We have people to touch. The world never ends with a bang but slides like a snake from one day to the next.
Is it success if we are physically emotionally mentally spiritually healthy? If we improve those areas by 1% each day? I think that’s closer.
– PRESENCE. Most of my life I time travel.
I’ve spent much time in the future analyzing the possible alternatives and being afraid of everything bad about to happen.
I’ve also spent valuable hours in the past, replaying, rewriting, regretting.
“But you have to focus on tomorrow,” people say, “so today you can best prepare for it.”
I’m staying in a house right now where the owner has a cute pad of “Lists” – every day she writes her to-do, grocery, bucket, life, etc lists.
But no matter how many items are on our list, we can only do one thing at a time and the rest is just stress of the future.
I can worry about fifteen things, but worrying will only weaken my energy for today, and do nothing to solve the problems of tomorrow. No matter what those problems are.
– FREEDOM. Some of us are in prison. Some of us are in man-made prisons, forced to do what we don’t want to do to feed our families and stay alive. Some of us are in self-imposed prisons, “if I don’t do THIS then I’ve FAILED”.
We’re the only jailors of these prisons. The doors are always open.
We open the doors by lowering our expectations. We walk out the doors when we realize how easy it is to exceed those expectations.
Learn what you can. Live what you can. Provide the value you can but just for this moment.
In a universe filled with a trillion galaxies and a trillion more years, there is no annointed goal that, when accomplished, will cause you to shout, “Success!” That’s a myth.
Doing the best we can this moment is success. It brings about all the other stages of success described above.
The best way to have a successful tomorrow, and a successful life, and a successful legacy, is having a successful moment right now.
I can’t claim to do it. I try and usually I fail. Success is not meant to be every second. Else, how would you know what to compare it to.
Be gentle to yourself. You’re a little baby and someone needs to cradle you and whisper to you and love you.
Then do the best you can. Right now. And if you can’t, then when you can. No self-judging. Maybe that’s the best success.
The pressure to have a goal, to have success, will take you further and further from success.
Be gentle to yourself this moment and stand in awe of everything we can’t possibly understand.
James Altucher’s latest book, The Rich Employee, is now out. This book gives you the tools to find satisfaction, meaning and true wealth as a rich employee. Get your copy here. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.