The American ethos is founded on the idea of success. Names like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, J. K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, and Tony Robbins invoke phrases like “making it big” or “rags to riches.” Loaded words like fortune and empire.
When you earn or achieve enough, you “are” deemed a “success.” Success becomes the be-all and end-all that we go to Herculean lengths to achieve. We are taught that the point of life is to be successful, but we rarely ponder who is delivering that message or to what end.
The best way to sell something is to ensure that it satisfies a need, and the best way to ensure the existence of a need is to create it. When success is something that people tell themselves they must have and be, you can be sure that someone will figure out how to fuel that need and then design (and sell) something that satisfies that need.
The same principle applies to the idea of beauty. When people are bombarded with messages that prompt them to think about how they could be “more” “beautiful” (quote marks intentional), the subliminal message is this: “You’re not beautiful but you could be—here’s how.”
When the Success Industry whispers, “You’re not successful but you could be,” ego is the commodity being sold.
The Success Industry
The Success Industry creates cultural perception around the message “This is what success is. This is what it looks like, sounds like, feels like, smells like. This is what you could be.” You can spend just as much time and money trying to become a “success” as people who spend great sums trying to be “beautiful.”
The point isn’t that success, beauty, or any other aspect of life is wrong. It isn’t that having personal goals is a waste of time. The issue is that modern culture turns a feeling that is different for each individual into both a commodity and an assumption. The message is this: “Everyone wants this…wait, you don’t? There’s something very wrong with you.”
We learn at a young age that success equates with a certain level of professional status (i.e., job title), of income (i.e., wealth), and most elusive of all, of cultural influence (i.e., fame). Remember the words of Tyler Durden? “We’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t, and we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
If you feel like shit because you haven’t launched a global corporation, or earned a million dollars, or shared a stage with Oprah Winfrey or Seth Godin, or written a book that’s been translated into 38 languages, or invented a technology that catalyzes a dozen industries, or produced the video that’s been viewed by 500 million people—you’ve allowed yourself to become a slave of The Success Industry.
What are we to do? What is better than chasing the myth of The Success Industry?
Consider the in-your-face message of Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. “In life, we have a limited amount of fucks to give. So you must choose your fucks wisely. Manson brings a much-needed grab-you-by-the-shoulders moment of real talk…this manifesto is a refreshing slap in the face for all of us so that we can start to lead more contented, grounded lives.”
When you stop giving a fuck about a lot—not ALL, but many—of the ladders that “everyone” (quote marks intentional) has said that you must climb in order to be “successful” (quote marks intentional), you start identity detox.
Redefining Success as a Process
It is my view no one owns anything other than their mental space. A house, car, fleet of ships, or box of light bulbs—these material things have utility but eventually disintegrate. The only thing you truly have and can control is your mind.
Your definition of success is your own. You can shape it in any fashion you choose, regardless of The Success Industry. You can redefine “success” less as a quantitative state to achieve and more as a process, a state of mind accessible to anyone at any time. You can take control of the perception rather than being enslaved by a carefully engineered urban legend.
A shift in the wording is helpful. Saying “I am a success” (or the alternatives “I am not a success” or even “I am a failure”) turns the word success into an identity, as if it were something you happened to be born with. In addition, the word is a nominalization: a process (ongoing action) that has been transformed into a noun (a fixed thing) by the addition of –ion. Success then becomes binary: you either are one or you aren’t. Note how your thinking changes when you tell yourself that you “are succeeding” at some goal or set of actions. The -ing form turns the word back into a living process. All processes we can experience such as aging, learning, illness, and recovery are not static, not fixed in one moment in time. They are story-telling movies, not snapshots.
Consider that all natural processes around us—the changing of the seasons, the turning of the planets—are in motion at all times. Can you imagine the universe waking up one day and saying, “I only produced 100 billion galaxies, not 500. I’m not a success!”
What did you do successfully this week? What were you successful at this morning? What will you have successfully completed by the time you go to bed tonight?
You can define success in the smallest of ways, the most creative of ways, the most ephemeral of ways. You can let yourself move—or sell off—some of your psychological furniture. You can know what it feels like to gather some unrealistic or outdated beliefs about what success truly means to you and toss them on the fire.
Lori Stephens, pNLP, CCP is a writer, editor, publisher, Certified NLP Practitioner, Whole Person Life Coach, and the founder of ROAR Life Coaching. She specializes in Exit Strategy Coaching—helping people who are ready to quit a soul-crushing job, walk away from a toxic relationship, exit a repressive social or religious group, come out as their true sexual or gender orientation, or in some other way claim their true path. She can be reached at email@example.com.