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What is your definition of a “successful” life?

It’s a question worth thinking about—and continually trying to answer.

We are constantly bombarded with false—and unsatisfying—measures of success.

So if we don’t take the time to consciously define it for ourselves, it will be unconsciously defined for us.

Even highly intentional people, with a wealth of knowledge about what leads to authentic happiness, can easily be sucked into the prevailing cultural Jetstream.

In my experience, it takes a constant discipline of re-setting my compass to true North.

Years ago, I came across this definition, which has been enormously instructive for me …

 “Success means having those closest to me love and respect me the most.” –John Maxwell

 I don’t always hit the mark, but this definition has been extremely helpful for me to re-orient myself whenever I feel I have gotten off track.

A real life example

Last week I had the honor of attending a retirement party for my good friend, Joe Stewart.

The celebration was a huge inspiration to me as a leader, but more importantly—as a human.

Joe retired as an Associate Warden after 26 years in one of the harshest environments someone can ever work in, the California prison system.

He served for 18 years at New Folsom Prison being exposed to some of the worst things humans can do to each other.

I know this from personal experience after working there for 10 years, most of my time in solitary confinement settings.

I don’t want to be too gruesome, but I want to paint the picture for you. Things like murder, rape, indecent exposure, staff assault, gassings (inmates throwing bodily fluid on staff members) and even officers shooting inmates to stop a riot or stabbing—were all things that happened there frequently.

And that doesn’t begin to describe the intense litigation and legal pressure facing most of the leaders.

It was a dark and pressurized environment indeed.

But everywhere he went, Joe was a light in the darkness.

His character, courage, and fiercely positive attitude were recognized, consistently, by all.

The highest-ranking members of the organization were in attendance, and spoke on Joe’s behalf.

A former Warden commended Joe for his unflinching integrity at great potential cost to his career.

Another colleague spoke about how meaningful it was when Joe offered to pray for her before her mission trip to Africa.

But beyond the professional accolades Joe received, by far the most impactful were the words shared by his wife and daughters.

They said things like “he worked extremely hard, but he was always there for us 100%.”

One of his daughters shared a particularly powerful memory.

She recalled a time when a homeless person approached them asking for help, and Joe readily handed the person blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags from the back of their truck.

The moment was so poignant for her, that she is now an adult working as a social worker with homeless populations.

This is the kind of person that Joe is—at work and at home.

I feel deeply challenged and inspired and can only hope my family will say the same for me.

Joe—you have modeled the way and given us all something to aim for. Well done my friend.

Mistaking success for satisfaction

In a recent HBR article entitled “Why Success Doesn’t Lead to Satisfaction” author Ron Carucci exposes an all-to-common problem that many successful leaders face.

Carucci was coaching a highly successful executive who had achieved enormous success that year. But he was shocked when the executive shared that he was deeply dissatisfied at partially failing at just one of his annual goals.

I don’t know about you, but as a compulsive achiever and goal-setter, I can unnervingly relate to his story.

In fact, research at UC Berkley has shown that 72% of successful entrepreneurs suffer from depression and other mental health issues. And CEOs may be twice as depressed as the general public.

With what certainly looks like worldly success, what is going on here?

There are important psychological phenomena at play. Understanding them—and changing your habits—will help you to avoid a similar fate.

Carucci suggests that we have inadvertently trained ourselves to be dissatisfied.

Most of us seem to have fallen prey to the foolish but seemingly inescapable association between achievement, wealth, status—and lasting satisfaction.

Harvard professor Arthur Brooks is an expert researcher on this topic and claims that our insatiable goals to succeed or acquire more has thrown off our “enoughness” barometer.

Social media has dumped rocket fuel on this predicament with many people measuring their lives through the currency of clicks, likes, or number of “friends.”

We’ve gotten stuck in an endless, addictive, and empty cycle of chasing dopamine—the brain pleasure chemical released when we achieve the next goal.

The executive in the story above began the year telling himself that he would not be satisfied unless he achieved all his goals, thus setting himself up for dissatisfaction.

The Buddha pointed this out when he said that the mind was the primary cause of suffering.

Jesus pointed to this when he warned that “life does not consist in the abundance of things.”

Apparently, we as humans haven’t changed that much in several thousand years!

The good news is that what is learned can also be unlearned.

We can learn to be satisfied again—but it will take training and practice. It takes serious commitment to mental fitness to reach escape velocity from cultural gravity.

So what can you do about it?

Turn information into action

If you find yourself disturbingly identifying with the executive in the story above, there are proven steps you can take to retrain your brain (and soul) to be satisfied:

  1. Take time to define what a successful life looks like for you. Keep refining your definition and review it often. Use it to re-orient yourself when you’ve gotten off track. There are numerous core value exercises that can help you make decisions in line with your values instead of needing a certain end result to be happy.
  2. Acknowledge the emptiness of achievement and be careful not to define your success by the next goal you reach. Author Josh Becker has an amazing chapter in his recent book Things That Matter about “living for applause.”
  3. Focus on what you already have. Your brain will always be tempted to point out what you don’t have so making lists of things you are grateful for is a great way to refocus your brain on contentment. The research on gratitude practices is enormous.
  4. Examine your relationship with achievement. Take time to ask yourself tough questions about whether you have sacrificed important relationships or your health for achievement. Any regrets here? Do you find yourself comparing your achievements to others or being resentful? Do you question your worth when you fail?
  5. Focus on input instead of outcome. As we discussed in last weeks article, focus on how your goals shape you instead of the end result, which you have less control over. Focus on putting forth your best effort and how it causes you to develop grit and skill. Research has shown this to produce much more lasting satisfaction. You are in process of becoming the person you desire to be instead of hanging your self esteem on any one achievement.
  6. Focus on your circle of influence instead of becoming an influencer. Life will put people in your orbit that only you can help. Focusing on this will be much more gratifying.
  7. Give credit away. Recognizing and lifting others up usually brings much deeper satisfaction than personal achievement. It helps break the addiction of self-focus.
  8. Experiment with setting less goals and notice the fruit that comes from it. Last year I started an experiment. I cut tons of goals. I now have more mental bandwidth to be present and less hurried time with my children than ever. What is that worth? I find “experiments” to be easier to do because it’s not as overwhelming as trying to change a lifelong habit all at once.
  9. Practice compassion and generosity. There is nothing like supporting people that are suffering and giving your money away to feel satisfied. It’s a powerful antivenom to the cultural poison of dopamine chasing.
  10. Try to define enough possessions and achievement. This is a tough one but worth wrestling with. You may find defining enough achievement even harder.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed articles, check out The Next Peak Podcast where Parker co-hosts every other episode.

Want more? Suggested Resources

  1. HBR Why Success Doesn’t Lead to Satisfaction
  2. Things That Matter by Josh Becker



Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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