Success is only a word

It might seem strange given my profession—being an executive and life coach and running a coaching school—that I don’t believe in success as a worthy or useful pursuit. To tell the truth, I don’t believe in it at all.

Success always depends upon our surety about beginning places, and ending places and they both change as life goes along. How often do we misjudge our current state and, consequently, our plans? Shifting to something we consider better is based upon a false premise and so often leads to needlessly painful action.

For example, consider someone who thinks they are financially unstable because, compared to his friends, he doesn’t have nearly enough square footage in his house and doesn’t travel frequently enough to Europe. Such a person might concoct a plan to make twice as much money, considering that as what is necessary to be “successful.” A life full of stress, disrupted relationships and discontent could—and often does—follow from enacting that plan. Like you, I’ve seen this many times.

And of course, that which was considered a success an turn into the beginning of a unfortunate failure the following week: moving into our large dream home in September 2008 looked good at first, but then might have turned into a colossal calamity.

Besides that, all lives end in death, and that which we considered to be an important accomplishment can readily be covered over, forgotten, disappear entirely.

And as Zen teacher Norman Fischer constantly reminds us, success is only a word and not something to carve our life into pieces for.

But then if our life is not to be guided by success criteria (which usually have a huge component of competition built into them, which invariably leads to trouble) then what can we use as guiding principles? Looking around at what others are doing for guidance easily catches us up into the success game and the soul-scarring activity of comparison.

I don’t know where you come out in all of this, but for me, some foundational clarity has arisen over the years. What has emerged as centrally important, true, worthwhile is attending to the kind of person I am, which is inseparable from who others have the chance to be and from the beauty and safety of the world in which all of this occurs.

With this as a project there’s the chance to turn aside, turn upside down our cultural common sense and, instead of carving myself into someone who can succeed in a given business or other pursuit, I can employ business and all other activities as a chance to cultivate the kind of person I am—the whole world becomes a practice field instead of being a measuring stick.

But haven’t I simply substituted one definition of success for another, you may ask? Well, that depends on what is meant by cultivating oneself. If it means declaring standards and continually assessing oneself according to those, then yes, it’s the same activity as going for any other type of success, and it will bring about same types of suffering and exploitation of others, the world, and even one’s self.

Since long ago, wise people have seen all of this and offered us an alternative. Be it Lao Tzu, Buddha, Jesus, Teresa of Avila, or Francis of Assisi, we have been invited to tune to the world, attend to our hearts and look deeply into the eyes of others to see what is really being asked of us, and then to act, to open, to undo ourselves and renew ourselves and forget ourselves and to re-find ourselves again and again, to crumble, reassemble, acclimate then fall fully into mystery.

New Ventures West