Character – Achieving Authentic Success
“Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny. It is the light that guides your way.” – Heracleitus
In my lifetime I’ve done a great deal of reflecting on the question, “How do you define success?” Now that I’m entering my sixth decade, I am coming to realize there is success, and then there is, what Fred Kofman (author of Conscious Business) would describe as, “success beyond success.” The first is outer success. The second is authentic or inner success: success beyond success.
If you set a goal (e.g. to win a game, get a promotion, make a certain amount of money) and you achieve that goal, you are successful. This is outer success.
Inner success is something quite different. Inner success is the kind of person you became and the contribution you made to the world in pursuit of your goal. Inner success is independent of whether you actually achieve your goal.
Outer success is what you put in your résumé. Inner success goes in your eulogy. Outer success is fleeting. It lasts only until the next record is broken or the next gold medal is won or the next headlines are written. Inner success on the other hand, is far more sustainable and lasting. Inner success can last a lifetime or longer when it leaves a legacy. Outer success might make you happy, but inner success brings you joy. Inner success is ultimately what fills you up and gives you self-worth, self-respect, and sustained confidence.
In workshops, I often use an exercise where I have participants think of three people they admire. They could be people who have made a positive difference in the world, like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, or people who have made a personal contribution to their life such as a grandmother or teacher. My choices would be my wife, my parents, and Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist.
There’s a second part to the exercise. They are to think of the character traits that make each of their chosen people admirable to them. In my case, I admire Val for her capacity to unconditionally love and accept me with all my flaws, which has helped shape the person I am today. I admire my mother for her wisdom and my father for his compassion, and I admire Viktor Frankl for his courage, resilience, and perseverance. From his harrowing survival story emerged a philosophy of living that is centered on the pursuit of purpose, and of finding meaning amidst deep anguish.
Finally, I ask the workshop participants to compare these fine and admirable traits with the typical success markers in our culture, the kind of character traits featured, say, in People magazine. After using this exercise with literally thousands of people, I have yet to observe anyone choose a person for the character qualities most frequently popularized in magazines and online such as as fame, beauty, power, youth, or wealth. It’s fascinating that, culturally, we gravitate unconsciously to things that ultimately mean so little to us. There is a difference between success that is defined by the world’s standards, and real, inner success that is defined by the strength of our character.
It is fine to have a goal of outer success, but from an inner perspective, the purpose of having that goal is not to achieve the goal. The purpose of a goal of outer success is to inspire yourself to become the kind of person it takes to achieve it. Then, whether you achieve outer success or not, you can still have inner success, or success beyond success. This is authentic success: living your life in accord with your values – in the service of others.
I’ve noticed that the most successful leaders I’ve met in organizations aren’t necessarily pursuing success, yet success comes to them. They aren’t after the next promotion or to get ahead in the organization because they are too busy bringing value and serving the people around them. While they undoubtedly have goals and intentions for their future, their focus is developing and using their strengths and unique talents to bring value to the organization today.
Take a few minutes and be inspired by two female softball players who demonstrate inner success. It speaks to the adults in their lives, their family and the coaches and mentors along the way who instilled a strong sense of character, compassion and a moral compass.