Three Things I have Learnt About Success

1) Worldly success is about how others perceive our performance, not about us.

Winning or worldly success, like wealth, title or fame is dependent on how the community perceives your performance and how, eventually, it acknowledges and rewards you for it.

For instance, Van Gogh is one of the most popular painters in our modern age, yet he was never famous and constantly struggled with poverty when he was alive.

Similarly, In his book, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success, network scientist Albert-László Barabási tells the story of the differing outcomes of two equally skilled pilots in the First World War.

Manfred von Richtofen, also known as the Red Baron, was considered the ace-of-aces and the best fighter pilot. He gained widespread fame for his distinctive red airplanes he flew and his ruthless efficiency in destroying the allied planes.

But if you looked closely at the records, Rene Fonck, another fighter pilot on the Allied side, was probably even better than the Red Baron. So why do we tell stories about the Red Baron and forget who Rene Fonck is?

The Red Baron was a very effective propaganda tool for Germany and was used by the media to boost the nation’s morale. He was useful to his community.

As for Fonck, he achieved temporarily fame and was even elected to the French Parliament. But he was eventually spurned by the public when they suspected him of being close to the Nazi during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.

Sometimes, we can be technically skilled, but to be rewarded, it has to reach the target audience and meet the audience’s needs.


2) You can’t always win but you can choose to succeed.

John Wooden, the famous American basketball coach and player once shared the following in his TED talk:

“Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable…

That’s what really matters: if you make an effort to do the best you can regularly, the results will be about what they should be. Not necessarily what you’d want them to be but they’ll be about what they should; only you will know whether you can do that.”

Personal success thus depends on whether we make the effort to do our best which we can control. Winning, on the other hand, depends on our environment such as whether the opponents are good or bad, whether society values certain skills or not.

Interestingly, this is also what the Stoic philosophers would encourage us to do.


3) But we often fail to see it that way.

This idea that we should want to be rich is so deep-rooted it’s sometimes hard to comprehend otherwise.

Morgan Housel once shared this interesting story:

Daniel Kahneman once told his financial advisor that he had no desire to become richer; he just wanted maintain a lifestyle he was satisfied with. She told him, “I can’t work with you.” Kahneman told me in an interview:

“She was very puzzled in the context of somebody coming to get financial advice and not trying to get richer. And I’m not sure that I’m all that unusual. Many people retired on pensions and are perfectly satisfied with it and they are not desperate to have more.”

The difference between worldly success and personal success is like a house and a home. We can strive to have a home in a fancy house but it’s having a home that counts.

And research backs this up.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest study till date that follows people through their lives to find out what makes us happy. While the study initially focused on tracking Harvard graduates, it has now expanded to their children as well as people growing up in troubled families and disadvantageous neighborhoods. To date, it spans 85 years and has recorded the experiences of three generations and more than 1300 of the descendants of its original 724 participants. Data from childhood troubles to first love to final days has been collected using a variety of measurements from brain scans to blood tests and video-recording.

And the result?

“That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

In fact, relationship satisfaction at age 50 was even a stronger predictor of mental and physical health at age 80, than their middle aged cholesterol levels.

So why do most of us not realize it?

We are bad at predicting what will make us happy in life.

People often think that winning the lottery will bring immense joy. But when researchers actually study the happiness levels of lottery winners, they find that it is quite short-lived and people return to the same level as before they won the lottery.


The ability to see clearly what really matters to us and focus on it is perhaps the key to achieving happiness and personal satisfaction.