How Do You Measure Success?

I am better than you.

I am better than you.

Most of us can agree the consumerism of developed countries has gone a little mad. There has to be a better score card for life than the quantity of possessions you buy. And yet, we keep consuming.

This really is a difficult issue because consumption is not necessarily bad. Possessions make our lives easier and often better. There is that imaginary line that is presumably too much but demarcating that line is extremely difficult.

Extreme excess is easy to point out. Automobile industry executives flying in their corporate jets to ask for billion dollar government bailouts after years of mismanagement comes to mind. However, most of us do not make multi-million dollar salaries and have extravagant lifestyles.

How much is too much for the little guy on the street? Even the most ardent environmentalists have to fly sometimes, purchase clothes, drive cars and consume. Is it decadent for a concert musician to own a million dollar violin when that instrument is so integral to their art? Am I a lessor person because I bought the new 17″ MacBookPro when my old computer was still chugging along?

It is easy for backpackers to shun possessions and live a minimalist lifestyle, because it is impossible to do anything else. You can’t carry a leather sofa around the world with you. However, the vast majority of us live more stationary lifestyles, which tends to facilitate the accumulation of things. Lots and lots of things. A little consumption is unavoidable, we just have to be careful not to get too carried away.

Consumption can’t be a rational metric for judging our success on this planet. It is just too debased. So what else is there. Is tracking how many countries you have visited better? Perhaps success can be measured by how much you contribute to charities? That would leave the wealth titans like Bill Gates at the top of the heap by any measure.

Perhaps the more noble minded of us will suggest that we are judged by the company we keep. Our connections to family and friends are really the only path to happiness and a quality life. Perhaps we should evaluate the quality of our lives by how many followers we have on Twitter or how many friends on we keep on Facebook?

What about contribution and leaving the world in a better place? Are people who volunteer better than people that don’t? Maybe the cumulative number of hours spent helping others should be tallied so that history can compare our impact on this tiny planet?

The problem with most measures of personal value is that they are relative. It is not the total that is important, it is how much better you are than your peers.  Whether you have a more expensive car or recycle more than me doesn’t make you a better person. So what does make you a better person? Most of us can see the problems of competing to have a better car or bigger house, but what about competing to consume less or contribute more?  Maybe competition isn’t so bad after all?

Personally, I feel that the greatest contribution an individual can make regardless of their station in life is to consume less and give more. Of course, I am talking about wealthier people living in advanced nations. Lasting happiness can only come from breaking free of one-up-man-ship, and living our lives in ways that we are comfortable with as individuals. The problem is that I personally find it hard not to compare myself with others. It is not good enough to be personally satisfied, I want to be better than others. What change in thinking is required to give up those attachments?

How do you measure success? I would love to hear your ideas.

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

3 Responses to How Do You Measure Success?

  1. Moleskine Notebooks are for Pretentious White People | says:

    […] probably says more about a person’s ‘wannabe’ status and the prevalent culture of consumerism than it does about race, this article is well-written and not without […]

  2. Peter Ryder says:

    Hi John,

    Another thought provoking article.

    I think naturally we always want to be better than other people. It’s built in us as it is in every other creature on the planet. Being better is survival and it’s in our instincts. Having an expensive car is just a modern form of ‘survival of the fittest’. Subconciously we think it makes us better than our peers and therefore more attractive, helping us reproduce and survive as a species. Having said that, some people are able to remove themselves from wanting to be better… but I think these people also remove themselves from the modern world like practising monks.

    Maybe success is as simple as ‘being good at what you do’. Whether that’s being a good parent, a good artist, businessman, it doesn’t really matter. If what you’re good at means you also contribute a lot then all the better. But in all honesty whether someone contributes or not rarely has an impact on how successful I think someone is. That should probably change!

    • John says:

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for the detailed comment.

      I agree, the things we buy are signals to impress others. Just as male birds have bright feathers and gorillas thump their chests. However, I don’t think the things we buy make us “better.” They may buy some fleeting envy in our peer groups, but now that consumer goods are so readily available, they aren’t so special anymore. (i.e. Children take iPhones and iPads to school, so who cares if you bought the latest one.)

      In fact, I think we are starting to see a shift where hyper-consumption is actually starting to be perceived as a weakness. For example, buying a stupidly over-sized vehicle doesn’t elevate status, it’s becoming evidence of a social deficiency. It’s mindless status seeking consumption with a blatant disregard for the planet, your wallet and even basic practicality.

      When consumer goods and experiences are so accessible, they are no longer an important signal to impress others. That means we shift to other means like non-profit work, social media followers, education, adventurous experiences, etc. A lot of that is also overly competitive and not much different than physical consumption, but at least it potentially leads to something more productive.

      We are always going to consume. Things make our lives better, but it is also important to understand that our time and money spent on excessive consumer items is actually keeping us from the most valuable activities in life. Working all the time to pay for expensive mortgages, car payments and consumer debt keeps us away from our families, friends, communities, hobbies and personal passions. Advertising works because it says we get security, love, intelligence, etc. through material possessions. Of course, that is all a lie playing on our fears and insecurities.

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