Earl Nightingale once said that "success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal." With this simple definition great possibilities are made manifest. Unfortunately, many people don't ever take the time to develop a worthy goal or ideal for which to strive - they default to wanting what those around them have achieved. As such, their "success" in life is limited to what they observe others having, doing or being. This is true of individuals as well as organizations. Success for these individuals and organizations is externally not internally defined.
If we find ourselves striving for goals that others have decided are important we lose ourselves...we lose our dreams...and we lose the ideals that would have made our life an extraordinarily meaningful experience.
With all due respect to Mr. Nightingale I would like add to his definition by saying that success in life is based on developing the capacity to continuously start over. What is it that I need to let go of? What would be valuable to hold on to? What do I need to learn?
Letting go is extremely difficult for most people and almost all organizations. For many, the way success is thought of is that it's about discovering the "right way" to achieve and then repeating versions of that "right way" over and over again. Letting go of what we have come to believe is the "right way" to do or achieve is truly difficult. Our identities are tied up in these behaviors and deliberately letting go leaves us with the experience of having nothing to count on. That's an experience that most will avoid at all costs.
Let's take a look at a real life example...our modern capitalist economic model. There is no denying that capitalism has been successful.
- wealth has been created
- standards of living uplifted
- education has been provided
- technology has flourished
- levels of violence are at historic lows
It would seem foolish to let go of what has made all of this progress possible. However, there is a toxic and ugly underbelly that is becoming increasingly more visible.
- the environment is being despoiled at an alarming and possibly irreversable rate
- climate change is more and more obvious and destructive
- wealth disparity is creating social unrest
- the ever increasing consumption needed to fuel economic growth is not sustainable
- short term economic objectives are creating increasingly dangerous long term results
In his recent Encyclical Laudato Si' Pope Francis says: "It is not enough to balance the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress."
We need to redefine a "worthy goal or ideal" for which to strive in ways that include all life on this planet. We need to exercise our capacity to "start over" by letting go of what's not working and learning new ways of conducting ourselves as a species. Success has always been ours to achieve. Unfortunately, for many it's not what we thought it would be. We need to be intelligent and mindful in our defining of what success is.