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  • Mike X

How Do You Define Success


We all want to be successful.

But a lot of us aren’t entirely honest with ourselves about how we define success.

Given that you’re reading this blog, you have some interest in making your life the best it can be.

You want to be happy and fulfilled.

You want to wake up every day feeling energized and excited about what life has in store for you.

And isn’t that exactly what defines real success—feeling great about life—and feeling great, period?

What more could you want?

Well, what if I told you that you had a choice between these two options?

(1) Being rich and famous but depressed, empty and unfulfilled, or

(2) Being dirt poor and totally unknown—with zero followers on Instagram—but happy and fulfilled.

Well, if you had to answer that question out loud, you’d say that you’d choose to be poor and happy, because you know it’s the right answer.

There’s a good chance that’s also what you’d tell yourself you really believe.

I mean, none of us really thinks that money buys happiness, right?

Or do we?

Is it possible there’s a tiny bit of hesitation inside you about that?

Let me see if I can read your mind...

“Of course, money doesn’t buy happiness, but I’m not going to be happy if I don’t...

...have the money to take care of my family...

...or to feel financially secure...

...or to pursue my dreams...”

So, if you think any of those things, there might be some internal conflict to work out.

I mean... money doesn’t buy happiness, but you can’t be happy without money?

Well, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement with that.

Fair enough. If you don’t know how you’re going to pay for your next meal, that is likely to interfere with your happiness.

But how much money would you need to consider yourself truly successful?

Well, check this out.

In 2019, a nonprofit did a big national survey about how Americans define success.

92 percent of people believe that others think you’re successful if you’re rich, have a high profile career or you’re well-known.

But only 3 percent of people said that’s what they themselves believe.

Here’s what 97 percent of Americans say they believe:

“A person is successful if they’ve followed their own interests and talents to become the best they can be at what they care about most.”

Now, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say you’d give that statement a thumbs up.

You’re part of the 97 percent.

Well, yeah, me too.

This is a healthy, wholesome view of success. We have to agree with it.

But isn’t it a little strange that everyone says they believe success has nothing to do with fame or wealth, but they think everyone else thinks it’s all about fame and wealth?

The group that commissioned the study is called Populace, and they describe themselves as “a think tank dedicated to building a world where all people have the chance to live fulfilling lives in a thriving society.”

Part of their mission is “to change the cultural narrative around success.”

They coined a phrase to describe the weird disconnect between what people say they believe about success and what they say everyone else believes.

They call it The Success Gap.

And I have an explanation for it. Here goes...

I’m going to describe a hypothetical person to you, and I want you to be completely honest with yourself as you’re reading this about whether you’d say this guy is successful or not.

And, more importantly, about how you’d compare yourself to him in terms of

success in life.

This is the two hundred thousand dollar Mercedes he drives around town.

And this is the house in the Pacific Palisades that he recently dropped 19 million bucks on.

(The Pacific Palisades is a ritzy neighborhood in LA, right on the ocean, about 5 miles from where I’m writing this in Venice Beach.)

It’s got seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a gigantic walk-in closet, a gym, a movie theater and a sprawling yard where he plays fetch with his white lab, whose name is Martha Stewart.

His net worth is 150 million dollars.

And, for two years, he dated someone who People magazine called “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Then, he married his “dream woman,” who’s an international sex symbol with a net worth of 80 million dollars.

And they have three adorable kids together.

Oh, and he’s got two Academy Awards.

So... would you say this guy is successful?

I mean, it’d be pretty hard to say anything else. Right?

The guy I’m talking about is Ben Affleck.

And the Internet can’t stop talking about how sad he’s looked recently, like in a YouTube video entitled Sad Affleck, in which he’s asked about the onslaught of negative reviews of Batman v Superman.

As the interviewer talks, the video slowly zooms in on Ben’s face, which does look profoundly sad.

In a brutally honest interview with The New York Times, Affleck talked openly about his struggles:

“People with compulsive behavior—and I’m one—have this kind of basic discomfort all the time that they’re trying to make go away.

You’re trying to make yourself feel better with eating or drinking or sex or gambling or shopping or whatever, but that ends up making your life worse.

Then, you do more of it to make that discomfort go away.

Then, the real pain starts.

It becomes a vicious cycle you can’t break.”

After that, he opened up about his 13-year marriage with Jennifer Garner, which ended in 2018:

“The biggest regret of my life is this divorce.

Shame is really toxic. There is no positive byproduct of shame.

It’s just stewing in a hideous feeling of low self-worth and self-loathing.”

At that point in the interview, he took a sharp breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm himself down. Then he went on.

“It’s not particularly healthy for me to obsess over the failures and beat myself up.

I’ve certainly made mistakes, and I’ve certainly done things that I regret.

But you’ve got to pick yourself up, learn from it, learn some more... and try to move forward.”

That’s pretty intense.

Now, I want to go back to the question of how we define success.

And here’s the definition from before that we all agree with:

“A person is successful if they’ve followed their own interests and talents to become the best they can be at what they care about most.”

You’re probably gonna say,

“Yeah, that’s totally true of Ben Affleck!”

Except, clearly, he doesn’t believe that, even if we do.

And we all agree that success is not about being rich and famous, because—and I love this quote:

“Wealth and fame are like sea water. The more we drink, the thirstier we become.”

(A guy named Arthur Schopenhauer said that, a century and a half before Twitter had its first tweet.)

So, do we think Ben Affleck is successful?

Is he more successful than you and me?

Hello?? YES, we all think he’s successful!

It doesn’t matter that he feels like a failure.

The fact that he’s successful is something we feel in our bones.

And the reason is... The Success Gap.

None of us want to admit this to ourselves, so I’m gonna spell it out.

We’re all steeped in a definition of success that might as well have Ben Affleck’s picture right next to it in the dictionary.

This is especially true in the US, where the American dream is engraved on our hearts.

I mean, his dad was a janitor and his mom was a third grade teacher.

Getting from that to two Oscars and a hundred mil in the bank... is the American dream.

Except I’m pretty sure that both you and I are happier than Ben Affleck.

But if we’re gonna be totally honest with ourselves, we do think he’s more successful than we are, which means...

We’ve got to get our heads straight about this.

We cannot live with a definition of success that’s gonna drive us to the place that Ben Affleck is right now, because that is not a happy place.

So here’s the plan.

You and I are gonna stop and think hard about this. About what success really means to us.

And then we’re gonna write it down.

I mean, what’s more important than this?

If we don’t have a crystal-clear idea of what we’re aiming for in life, how are we possibly going to achieve it?

And are we okay with denying that wealth and fame constitute success, even though we believe it deep down inside?

Well, I’m not okay with that.

And I’ll tell you the definition I’m gonna write down:

Success is about using every ounce of talent and ability that you have to make a difference in the lives of others.

It’s about doing what you’re here on this planet to do—and doing so with fierce dedication and relentless grit.

It’s about having the strength to do what is hard and to do what you know is right.

Success is about making life an awesome adventure.

It’s about pursuing your biggest dreams without letting fear stand in the way.

And it’s about squeezing out every drop of joy you can get from life and sharing that joy with others every single day.

That is my definition of success.

What’s yours?



This article is an excerpt of the forthcoming book, Your Best Life: Tactics, Tools and Insights to Create a Life of Fulfillment, Joy and Abundance, by Mike X — to be released on March 14, 2023.

Originally published on Illumination.


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