The Odd Way We Define Success

By Calvin Harris, H.W., M.

Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, and Gary Merrill in All About Eve (1950)

Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, and Gary Merrill in All About Eve (1950)


How often do we hear about successful people, then imagine we fall short by comparison?

In my coaching practice, when Clients ask me how they can become successful? I reach for one of several canned questions to create a dialogue to an answer:

  • Short and sweet: “Do you work for yourself?”
  • Ambitious: “If you did not have worries about obligations or money what would you do?”
  • Mysterious: “Is there a difference in focus in a man of success. Compared to becoming a person of value?” 
  • Awkward: "Your focus is it chasing the money or chasing the passion?"

If I’m lucky, the conversation moves the other person to return to their inner dialogue of themselves, to uncover more of the root cause for the question, and to help them frame an answer to their vague subjective question or at least see the underpinning or gauge to their unsatisfied state of being.

Tesla car

Tesla car

I half joking say to them, Oh I can understand your feeling, because on the one hand, I am a successful entrepreneurial mentor, life coach, writer, and more. But on the other hand, I’m none of them, if I used your gauge, because based on your gauge, then shouldn’t a writer have a large following of loyal fans? Shouldn’t a life coach have only high paying clients? Isn’t an entrepreneur supposed to make deals while whipping along in his Tesla through the fashionable sections of SoCal’s Coast Highway?

That’s success, right? And if not, why do you seem to think it is?

Here’s the thing. I’ve noticed that everyone I read, listen to, or follow on social media is unusually accomplished, if only in hype. This is bound to happen. The most prolific people, even if not talented, will get the most attention.

I mean, they’re the best at getting promotion. It’s no surprise they have a large following.

But what then happens to most of us? We hear about these promoted “successful” people, then imagine we fall short by comparison. I call this the Comparing Mind.

How do you respond to others' lives? Have you felt compelled to look over your shoulder and compare yourself to family members, best buds, classmates, neighbors, or someone you've read about, and believe that you have to equal whatever they did in their lives?

The first thing to understand is to know that to some degree the Comparing Mind switches on in all of us. Like it or not, our comparison software will always be running in the background. Now to mediate the absurdity of the Comparing Mind, we want to be mindful and with a lightness of humor, that our lives require a rigorous discernment of which voices to listen to: those coming from our own depths of purpose, or those which are received from the promotional blast of the world around us.

I recall a conversation that took place during a business meeting, that you might find interesting, it was said: In the business world, this phenomenon, of the Comparing Mind doesn’t care about the size of a raise. It only cares if it’s bigger than their co-worker’s raise. For instance, when a CEO’s pay was made public in 1992, it triggered the Comparing Mind in thousands of executives across America. “Wait, she’s making what??” As a result, CEO pay spiraled upwards like a whirlybird.

The takeaway is that the Comparing Mind thinks in terms of relative or equivalent achievement, not in significant or absolute achievement. In other words, if we are not conscious of the other person, we don’t even make the comparison.

Model Jimmy Flint-Smith Photo by Juan Coronado

Model Jimmy Flint-Smith Photo by Juan Coronado

The point is when confronted with Comparing Mind, it is helpful to put things in perspective. The Comparing Mind is blind. It’s blind to the fact that “successful people” are just people. Beneath all their outward success, they’re as flawed as the rest of us.

Tim Ferriss, for example, author of the “4-hour Workweek”: in 2016 his The Tim Ferriss Show was considered the #1 business podcast on all of iTunes and was ranked #1 out of 300,000+ podcasts, so when you talk about social media success, his name is one that would come to mind.  

Interestingly enough, Tim Ferriss, is purported to have written a revealing blog a few years ago. In the article, Ferriss purportedly wrote that he often struggles to get out of bed in the morning and that he was seeing a therapist. Therefore successful superstar or not, we don’t always have it easy. None of us have it easy all the time.

But, one thing we can do to keep down the stress, is to become conscious of when the Comparing Mind is in action and to develop a sense of examined mindfulness about it.

And when you catch the Comparing Mind doing its thing, remember to flip your focus, stop and check, is your attention on the relative or the significant efforts to your achievement success? It doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It does matter what you are doing, and how you feel about doing it.