I’ve thought about what “success” means to me at various points in my life and the only thing I’m sure about, is that there is no one, easy-to-fit-in-a-box answer. My definition has changed and evolved over various points in my life and the more I speak with people about this casually thrown about, loaded word, the more I realise that this is true for a lot of people. In an attempt to understand this word and articulate it a little better, I spent some time thinking about it and spoke to two people I admire a great deal, to get their perspective; Sidu Ponappa, a 39 year old tech founder whose startup got acquired by Gojek and Ria Chopra, a 24 year old writer who’s written for Vogue, The Hindu and now works with Stumble.
The first time I remember defining “success” was when I was 10 and had just started playing the piano. My primary goal was to play Beethoven’s Fur Elise in its entirety, with a secondary goal for the performance to be at a concert hall with lots of people in attendance. A few years later, when I started playing drums, my definition of success changed to wanting to play open air arenas and big stadiums in front of thousands of fans, living the rock n roll life with all its bells & whistles. Cut to a few years later when I started composing and producing music and was running my studio, I wanted to see my work on the big screen. How many of these were defined by me, I’ll never know, but I’m pretty sure a large part was me equating success with things that could be measured externally and would make people around me proud.
Is ‘Success’ a society defined trope?
Ria too, recalls that the concept of success for her was unsaid, but defined early by society. Doing well in things that were a priority for educational institutions was rewarded and as an extroverted child with a natural interest in sports, elocution and academics, she found it easier than others to meet the standards set for her. Achieving these goals made her feel “successful”, and this cycle continued till much later in life, including, doing well in her boards, getting into a “good” college and getting a “highly coveted” job.
When I look back at how we define success through our lives, an interesting pattern appears. When we’re young, we have no yardstick of our own & let society define success for us. This usually comprises tangible things, like rank and status in our academic life and maybe moves on to money, power and status in our working lives. Sidu stumbled upon this core idea when he was leading teams at his startup. He realised that trying to define “success” was a fruitless activity, as there was nothing actionable about it. For most people, “success” was another word for cash or status and he always urged them not to waste time trying to define it. Instead understand which of the two they really wanted and then optimise for that. He also felt that “success” is one of the many meaningless words like growth, which is too abstract to define but is thrown around anyway.
Defining success is a trap; we still want to be caught in it.
According to him, trying to define “success” is a trap that intellectual people are drawn to in an attempt to get to the bottom of things when something in their lives doesn’t feel right. Most problems at the surface boil down to optimising for cash and status, even though some of it is subjective. Upon trying to solve it with cash or status, either you’ll figure out which combination of the two “success” is, or you’ll go through your own Buddha's arc and realise that none of those really matter. The important part though, is that these are all personal journeys and there is no single definition that can work for everyone.
That being said, conventional “success” does have its benefits. Sidu first realised it when he saw people’s changing attitudes post his startup getting acquired. As an independent consultant, his views and opinions weren’t accepted as they were post the acquisition, even though he was still saying the same things. Ria too, has no regrets about working towards all the “success” she did, as it got her to where she is today. Even though the markers of “success” weren’t set by her, she had a good time doing the work and achieving these goals. With the credibility attached to markers of conventional success and the confidence that came with it, her faith in herself became stronger and gave her the courage to venture out and experiment with freelancing. As for me, the story was similar and I realised that achieving things in the music business that were considered “successful” gave me the confidence and validation I desperately sought when I pivoted from music to startups.
The shifting goal post of success.
The problem though, with conventional “success”, is that more often than not, it leads to designing a life that may not be the healthiest. Equating success with money, fame and power, provide temporary ego boosts and feel really good, since they’re all tangible and can be measured, but chances are that once you reach your destination, you’ll just move the goalpost forward, and consistently be stuck on the treadmill. The question then, for me, changed from “what do I need to do to be successful”, to;
How do I design a life that feels good to me, instead of one that looks good to others?
Trying to answer this question has forced me to redefine the idea of success for myself and to look at things from a more zoomed out, holistic perspective. I strongly believe that the way we spend our days, is how we spend our lives and with that in mind, true success for me would mean a life where the days that constitute it are spent doing things that are important to me and bring me fulfilment and joy. For me, apart from spending time with my loved ones, a large part of my fulfilment comes from building and creating things. So if I can spend a majority of my time building things and solving interesting problems, I would consider my life to have been well lived and successful.
‘The third axis’
Interestingly, Sidu has been thinking along the same lines as the third axis, as he calls it, which he defines as craft. Even though it’s another one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, it is the best way to describe anything that gives us satisfaction, fulfilment and drives us forward. The first time he understood this was when he was reading a novel where the protagonist, an urban climber, had the chance to design his own universe. Since he loved climbing skyscrapers so much, he made his entire universe a never ending skyscraper and wiped his mind of all other desires except the desire to climb. This is what craft truly is. To continuously work on and get better at the thing that drives you everyday. The cash and status can be used to help you in your journey towards your craft and enable you to do it better, but true satisfaction stems from the practice. That being said, it is important to remember that we have the privilege of talking about this because we’re survivors. The vast majority of people are too scared to try around and find out, or have tried, but gotten burnt.
Success is actually simple - but; you have to work hard to find it.
For Ria, the definition of success has changed in the recent past too. She feels most successful when she does a good job at whatever it is that she’s working on and if she has a good time while doing it. This can be something as simple as teaching a neighbourhood kid to ride a bike, having someone reach out to her to tell her how her work resonated with them or on a personal note, getting better at conflict resolution, which she has actively worked on. She also understands and acknowledges her privilege, where she doesn’t have to think about financial responsibility which lets her take risks which she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
The arc then seems to be simple, but not easy.
- First, we chase what others define as “success”.
- Upon achieving some part of it though, the path usually forks into two; moving the goalposts forward & continuing on the same path or then realising that while it’s important, it might not necessarily give us the fulfilment we so desire.
- The latter path then leads us to find our craft and if we’re lucky, design our lives in ways that help us keep practising our craft.
Success then, is something that is incredibly personal and almost impossible to define. If you, like me, find yourself in the midst of existential moments at various points in life, here’s a question which has immensely helped me figure out my next steps.
“If everything was taken care of and you could do anything that you ever wanted to do, how differently would you spend your day?”
If the answer is drastically different from how you’re spending your time right now, you know there’s something that needs to change. Success then, for me can be defined in this one line put more succinctly by Julian than I ever will be able to;
Success isn’t an end state. Success is having the freedom to pursue the continual grind that you most enjoy.