Zach’s Blog

The 5 Lies You Believe About Success

The lies we believe about success are holding us back.

Just a few months ago, I was being interviewed for a documentary film by a college student in a film studies class. During the small talk before the shoot I asked, “Hey, why are you making this documentary?” She responded, “Well, I want to be a documentary filmmaker.”

Amazing, I thought. “That’s awesome,” I said. “So, are you majoring in film studies?”

“No,” she said. “I’m going to be switching to accounting.”

What the…?

I either almost threw up or was laughing so hard at the irony of the situation that I was left choking on my water. As I looked around at the sound and light equipment being carefully set up, I shook my head.

“You already ARE a documentary filmmaker,” I said.

This small moment with a confused college student is filled with lessons (or lies) we’ve all believed about success at one time. In working with college students, professionals, and organizations seeking to find and deliver purpose in their lives and work, most of the excuses I’ve heard for not pursuing why they feel they exist are based on lies they’ve been fed by others about what “success” is or isn’t.

Here are five of the most prevalent lies people believe about success, and how they hold us back.

1. Someday, you’ll be ready for “success.” 

No you won’t. If you just spend your whole life trying to be ready for something, you’ll never be ready. This is just a symptom of the “if, then” excuse. “If I get my degree, then I can do what I love.” “If I go to medical school for eight years, then I can help people.” “If I get enough money, then I can start my business.”

The difference between people who do things and people who don’t: The people who do things, do them.

The problem with the ridiculous “if, then” argument is the ego involved in thinking that you are guaranteed even one more day of the future.

I once was talking to a woman who told me that all she wanted to do since she was little was write and travel. She loved writing and was good at it. “What would your dream job be?” I asked. “I want to be a travel blogger,” she replied. “So, why don’t you do it?” I asked. “I can’t – it’s too hard of an industry to break into,” she said.

“Have you even tried?” I said.

I told her to go on WordPress (for free) to set-up a blog, travel around town (for free), and write about the places she visited (for free). Boom. You’re a travel blogger. She didn’t say she wanted to be a “rich travel blogger.”

“Really!?” she exclaimed.

Yes, really. She was so caught up in that fact that money, a title, or a status had to be attached to her dream of traveling and writing that she wasn’t doing it and hadn’t even considered how to do it.

People get so wrapped up in statuses, compensation, and titles and don’t realize that most of the time they can do what they want to do right now, today. Sure, you may have to do it on the side for awhile, but if its truly what you’re called to do, you’ll become so good at it that someone will pay you to do it.

You’ll never know if you never try.

2. Pleasing or impressing other people (including your parents) is “success.”

Steve Jobs once said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” Look, I understand the temptation to live by someone else’s affirmation – like people who’ve given you money, or raised you – but if you build your life because of someone else’s dreams, you’re building a sandcastle at high tide.

Eventually, someday, your true purpose will show through the meticulously designed exterior you’ve polished for the pleasure of someone else. It may be in a mid-life kayak-buying crisis or in a sudden feeling of emptiness – but the world will, someday, see it and feel it.

Why do you think that studies have found that parental involvement in a student’s college education is directly correlated to depression? When people are so tied to the opinions of others they become smothered by them.

3. You can follow a plan for “success.”

Any plan that’s out there to be “successful” was built by someone who never met you and who just wants you to do what they did. If success is as simple as following a bunch of check-boxes on a curriculum sheet or following the lines up an organizational chart, then no one would even be reading this blog about “success.”

The problem with plans is that they often lead somewhere definite. Do this, that, this, and presto, you’ll be successful. So then what? You got into that prestigious graduate school. You got your dream job. And then?

If you’re driven by a step-by-step plan, you may want to ask the sobering question: What happens after I get there? What do I strive for then?

The problem with superficial definitions of success is that they can be achieved.

However, when a life’s purpose is your success, it becomes, as poet Stephen Dunn wrote, “…like a good book you’ll be finishing for the rest of your life.”

4. Your earning potential is your “success.”

I’d like to go back in time and meet the person who decided that money equals success and let them know how poorly it turned out.  This one idea, in my opinion, is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history and it has resulted in more trauma than almost any other philosophy.

The problem? Money doesn’t ever buy fulfillment. Money doesn’t buy purpose. Money, as Simon Sinek says in Start with Why is a mere result.

When we live by results, we die by them. Purpose endures. What do you live for?

5. You can’t choose what “success” means. 

Yes, you can. Only you determines what success means in your life and it starts with uncovering and delivering your authentic purpose. Take the name synonymous with intelligence and success: Albert Einstein. After he graduated college, not one person would hire him at a university and he had to take a job as a third class patent clerk.

Imagine if he believed the above lies about success?

It was not as a wealthy and famous scientist or professor or researcher that he wrote his famous theory of special relativity – it was as an hourly patent clerk. In fact, he couldn’t even find a job in academia after he published his paper on the special theory of relativity.

Now, imagine if Einstein attached “success” to a job, a salary, or what someone else thought. He would have considered himself a failure and our understanding of physics would be forever stalled.

Your purpose is waiting for you to start acting on it today. You define your own success.

– Zach

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