Everyone has a certain view of success. Some perspectives are formed by family, who tend to influence us the most, especially early on in life. Others are presented in the too-good-to-be-true depictions of “the good life” flowing across our screens every thirty seconds.

This seven-letter word often crosses my mind as I think about life. Freshman year of college, I let two years slip away because of my own self-doubt. I didn’t think writing would lead to much success, so I didn’t write.

Even though in the back of my mind, I knew writing could become a huge part of my creative journey, I’d allowed a rich-but-miserable culture to define what success looks like for me.

It wasn’t until I defined success for myself that I started to see real improvement in my life and in the steps I was taking to see it through.

Things Aren’t Always as They Seem

We see the word success all the time. It’s such a powerful but scary word—almost intimidating, to be honest. But that’s only because of the life we’ve been programmed to chase after.

People with lots of money immediately come to mind. Then there are the big houses and the fancy cars; up-to-date gadgets and jacuzzies; the best careers with the highest salaries.

This is a culture that glorifies these kinds of things. It’s no wonder we’ve come to associate the word with what we see on a regular basis.

The magazines, the television screens, and social media are all full of images and videos that tell us fame and fortune is the ultimate definition of success.

Yet, I’m convinced this is not really success at all. I’m convinced that some of the people who have those things aren’t successful at all. It’s just what we have been conditioned to believe.

My mind goes to this assumption of what achievement looks like by default. I’m so used to seeing these common displays of “I made it!” that it sort of rubbed off on me.

Distracted by the newest, most expensive piece of extravagance, I would lose track of what I should be doing. Less time was spent thinking about what I could give, overwhelmed with what I can get instead.

We see popular people telling their stories of how they went from nothing to everything in short timespans, and we chase the bait wholeheartedly (I know I have). But there’s always this gut feeling of, “That seems way too good to be true.”

We see the “happiest” people living “perfectly” and compare our lives with theirs.

We can’t help but attempt to align our worldview with that we see, so we do. And we don’t realize how detrimental this mindset is to our understanding of what real success is.

  • What if our motives in life were prompted by the have-it-alls who care more about the attention than helping anyone else?
  • What if how much you acquire doesn’t actually equate to the satisfaction of what you can give?
  • Is this really what we want to follow — an attitude so self-centered it ruins our awareness and widens the disparities we so desperately need to address?

If we thought about those questions long enough, we’d see our need to live our lives in a way that brings ultimate satisfaction, centered around a key desire to improve consistently.

There’s a Bigger Picture

Don’t get me wrong, having a lot of money in the process of utilizing your skills doesn’t make you a villain. It just gives you more of an opportunity to give and grow, inside and out.

The problem, though, is that most people aren’t aiming to grow. They just want more stuff.

They see the finest things and seek happiness in them. And if they don’t have them, they assume happiness is far from their grasp, resting peacefully in the grass that always seems greener over there.

Life becomes an endless pursuit of more and more things, rather than more and more growth. That’s why a counter-cultural view of success impacts the habits we act on.

Success is actively using your abilities (no matter how difficult life gets) to promote and experience growth. A growth that never ends for as long as you live.

Believe me, this is not a secret that’s somehow been hidden underground all our lives. It’s been there, waiting for us to notice. We just haven’t looked.

There’s so much dangling in front of our eyes these days. And like a camera, we set our focal point on what’s closest to us instead of what lies in the background.

This is counter-cultural to the ways in which we’ve been programmed to think about concepts such as success (and yes, we have been programmed). Our culture demonstrates this without a doubt.

It’s in the commercials. It’s in the ads. It’s in the magazines. Everywhere you look, it’s there.

But it’s up to us to distinguish between selfishness and success, happiness and greed. The popular worldview isn’t going to change on account of the famous, most-liked faces. It has to start with you.

We Can Do Better

To be fair, people have worked hard for what they have and possess total freedom to do with it what they please. They have defined achievement and maintain habits that reflect that.

However, too often we attempt to mold ourselves into someone else’s image, an image so far from where we need to be it damages our perspectives on life and the relationships we have.

Many of the reasons we give to explain our depression and anxiety is due to our inability to pull away from envy-mode. The comparison syndrome is so rampant we can barely distinguish what we need from what we want.

This isn’t healthy. We’re hurting ourselves. We’re not enjoying our own process because we’ve forgotten that there is a process.

You no longer have to trade your happiness for things that don’t last, all for the sake of getting other people to like you.

Chances are, they could care less about you and more about themselves anyway. They have their own agenda to worry about. That’s one of the reasons I don’t try to please them.

It’s not worth the time. It’s not worth the effort.

You are better than that.

We are better than that.

Life contains meaningful elements we ignore all too often. Things like our health, our peace of mind, our relationships.

Instead of chasing dollar bills and fame, ask yourself if you’re growing in those areas of your life. Ask yourself if what your habits are affecting other peoples’ lives positively.

In the end, you’ll see that success is both experiencing growth in the phases of your own life and promoting growth in the lives of those around you.

This version of success is not what I was used to, but it’s the one I’ve experienced in my own life. And I’m still experiencing it.

I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but I’m constantly learning. I’m constantly growing.

That’s what matters most.

That’s what brings the kind of happiness that never fades into the shakiness of our circumstances. It stands, strong and sure, for good.

Kevin Horton is a 24-year-old photographer, student, modest bookworm, and wanna-be web developer with a new-found love for writing. He writes helpful words about creativity, productivity, and the enjoyably simple life.





Image courtesy of Doran Erickson.