When we measure our success, it’s often a proxy for how other people view us. Status. Position. Relative rank to the rest of society. This constant comparison is a strategy for misery. The thief of joy. True happiness, real success, comes from developing your own inner strength and contentment.
Here are three ways you are defining success wrong and what you can do to help yourself stay on track.
Wrong: Seeking external validation
As the youngest of five siblings, I desperately wanted to be noticed. As I unconsciously competed for my parents’ attention, I always looked for that attaboy from my mom or dad. This was before smartphones and social media. Now, in addition to feedback from our families and peers, we seek digital likes, follows, and emoji-filled comments from people we may not even know.
Happiness is an inside job. It’s not to say we don’t care what others think. We do. But our true happiness, true freedom, comes when we focus on ourselves, on our own journey. Instead of looking to the outside, we develop inner strength. We have self-compassion.
Here’s a black belt-level self-compassion exercise to try. As you’re getting ready in the morning, look at yourself in the mirror. Look in your eyes. Placing your hand on your heart, say “(your name), I love you.”
Yes, it is harder than posting and getting likes. But, by making it a daily practice, the effects last longer and are more real.
Wrong: Overidentifying with your career
Often when we’re first getting to know someone, we immediately start talking about our work. Our own identity and self-worth are often linked to our place on the career ladder.
I’ve found that moving up the professional ladder didn’t make me any happier. In fact, some of the career choices I made damaged my long-term relationships. Our careers, our status—these are things that often impact how we think the outside world measures our own success. I’ve come to understand that the job that we’re so obsessed with right now, the one we’re sacrificing everything for because of the stories we’re telling ourselves, will likely be reduced to three bullets on a resume or a LinkedIn profile in 15 years.
On our death beds, we won’t wish we’d focused more on work. Ultimately, we will measure our success by the quality of our relationships. What we wouldn’t give to have just one more day with the people we loved?
Yes, we still work. Yes, it’s important. Don’t confuse net worth with self-worth. Realize that relationships and connections make us happier than status.
Wrong: Comparing yourself to others
Keeping score against others as a measure of success is a strategy for misery. If we want to keep score, why not compare ourselves instead with the person we were yesterday, the person we were last year, or even five years ago? Are we happier? Are we wiser? Are we more loving?
Wanting to achieve is not wrong. We are inherently creative. We were born with a strong desire to evolve and express our true nature. We want to hone our craft: whether that’s caring for others, creating a company, or writing code. How can we avoid this trap? Think back to kindergarten when the teacher reminded us “You worry about yourself.”
Imagine training for a marathon. You join a running club. There’s a 12-week training program and a diet plan to adhere to. You follow both religiously. Each day you put in the work. Each day you can feel yourself getting stronger, fitter, faster, and healthier. Your mood lightens.
You start getting used to getting up early. You actually look forward to the group runs at 5:45 am. You look forward to the sunrises. You look forward to the connections you’ve built with your little team.
Over the course of three months, you have developed a deeper understanding of your diet and how it affects your body. Your inner talk track is healthier and kinder. Your family notices. You’re easier to be around.
On race day there’s a strategy. You know not to start out too fast. You find the pace group that will run nine-minute miles and you settle in with them. By the 18th mile, you’ll know if you can go any faster or if you’ll just be hanging on. It hurts, but it feels good at the same time.
As you round the final corner with half a mile to go, you’re surrounded by cowbells and cheering fans. Your family is here to take pictures and shout encouragement from the sideline. They are beaming. They’ve seen the transformation in you. They’ve been inspired by your growth. Your nine-year-old daughter is already thinking about how she’d like to do a marathon someday when she grows up.
You’ve done everything you could do. As you cross the finish line and throw your hands in the air, you know that you’ve completely maxed out your capability. There was nothing more you could have done. You smile a giant smile as you hold your finishers’ medal and bask in the endorphins.
In that precious moment, does it really matter that your friend David finished twelve minutes ahead of you?
No. You ran your own race.
And you won.
Developing your own inner guidance system is not complicated, but it can be challenging. These three steps are a great start to put a smile on your face and those around you.
Scott Shute is the head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn and a founder of the Mindful Workplace Movement, a group of business leaders dedicated to developing mindfulness in the corporate world. He is the author of The Whole Body Yes: Change Your Work and Your World from the Inside Out.