[OPINION] Realism and success: there’s a third side to the coin – happiness

the pursuit of happiness, can you be successful and happy, the price of success

“When I grow up, I want to be a salesman” – said no five-year-old ever! In the ‘90s, career day at primary school used to be about dreams. It used to be about those aspirational adverts that painted pictures of society’s heroes and heroines as firemen, teachers, doctors and nurses. It used to be about encouraging children to dream and engage with a deeper essence that allowed them to believe that anything was possible.


Enter adulting…


“What am I going to do with my life?” We all asked at 18. I’m not sure about you, but at 18, I had no idea where I’d be at 19, let alone 33. For most people, the decisions we make at 18 is still aligned in some way with our aspirations, idealist as they may be. That is until we enter the so-called real world where we discover this thing called bills and we realise that we’re suddenly immersed in a context that requires us to attain certain levels of wealth, status and power in order to become an acceptable and respectable member of society.


If you’re lucky, that little voice that keeps reminding you to travel, write a book, join the circus, try judo, fall in love, start that business or wear that Hawaiian shirt to work stays with you. For a lot of people though, the little voice has died. Life is structured and routine, ordered and controlled, revolves around traffic, meetings, emails, deadlines, responsibility, office politics, the need to succeed and be the best, make more money and have more things.


The living culture we’ve created requires us to do more in order to have more and the more we have, the more we have to do in order to keep what we have. It is in effect an endless cycle of striving. Striving for success, reward, a better car, a bigger house, a longer title, a more expensive power suit, and an infinite bank balance. This is the real-world after all, isn’t that what is required of us? Essentially, if I have not attained, I am of no value in the world.


With the fourth industrial revolution speedily on its way, it may require us to ask if the human value and substance of life that existed within us as children is slowly fading away? Have we jumped onto the advancement wagon as a tradeoff for our aspirational values? Have we become so stuck in realism and in a one-dimensional view that the only measurement of success is wealth and material expression that we have forgotten that happiness is an option too? Are we adding to the cycle by teaching our children that “this is the real world” and in the real world, there is no time for dreams and possibility? Have we become our worst fears? The boss I hated as an intern? The person in the office no one wants to deal with because they’re always angry? The dream crusher who tells everyone on the team, they need to be realistic because life is not a game? The bitter one who secretly envies those courageous enough to have fought for their dreams and succeeded? The regretful one who has now realised that life is a limited time and with only a few years left on the job, it may be too late to live the life you once dreamed of?

Add to this, the timeline pressure. PhD by 25, married by 27, house by 30, Bentley by 32 and retire by 35. That’s what the world is doing. The faster you get there, the more successful you are by the standards some elusive “they” have set. The more you have, the more you are.


What it has created is a culture of perpetual misery because no one’s life means anything without those external accolades. We refuse to acknowledge our collective and common fears of failure, being poor, living with nothing, losing what we have and yet ironically those are the very issues, that if we spoke about openly, would allow us to see that they are what unite us. We ultimately, as this human family on this single planet, all want the same thing: To be happy.


This pursuit of happiness just expresses itself for each of us individually in different ways. The problem we have created is the systemic view that that expression of individual happiness needs to be the same for all of us and if it’s not, we’re not a part of the family. We, therefore, ostracise social outliers and judge the dreamers who choose to be beach bums, artists, philosophers, idealists and mariachi band players because they don’t fit. They don’t fit the suits and ties world, the rigid education system or the globally-accepted concept that success is about status and wealth. They are the people in the world who subscribe to the philosophy that the true measurement of success is happiness. It is not wrong. It’s just different, and something that, maybe, more of us should be asking on this ambitious trajectory to the top.


We learn to value things differently and while the path of self-discovery can be treacherous, societal pressures and outward expectations can be even more dangerous. We may discover that we’ve been running someone else’s race when it’s too late. It ultimately boils down to really asking if what you’re doing is who you are or have you, somewhere along the line, bought into the real world and the success you were told you need to have.


Do you remember what happy feels like? Has it occurred to you that success and happiness are not the same thing and that one does not define the other? Have you discovered the third side of the coin?



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