Success can be measured in many ways, but ultimately this is the only measure that really matters.
There’s a small wooden plaque that hangs on the door of my study at home. It reads, “There’s only one success; to live your life in your own way.” It was given to me by a college girlfriend. She knew me well, perhaps better than I knew myself at the time.
So, I have a question for you, what does it mean to you to live your life in your own way, and are you, right now?
Give it some thought because the first answer may not always be the best one. For the past 40 years, while that plaque hung in various apartments and homes, I thought I was living life in my own way; looking back I realize that for much of that time I was kidding myself.
What I had missed in my haste to achieve success was asking a much more fundamental question about my life than, “was I successful?”– one which had less to do with what I was achieving than it did with what my life actually felt like while I was achieving.
That’s a pretty subtle distinction. Let me explain.
How’s it Feel?
Most of us have heard or read the Maya Angelou quote,”I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I like to think about achievement in the same way. All too often we chase after fleeting goals because they have some easily measured societal, professional, academic, or monetary value; prestige, a job title, a degree, or that first million. Nothing at all wrong with any of that as long as those goals are in service of something else–something much greater–that reflects and supports the way in which you want to live your life.
Does that sound soft and fuzzy? It’s not. In fact, I’d suggest that the greatest success–perhaps the only success–is precisely that; living life on your own terms, expressing integrity for your values, and feeling fulfilled in having built a life that is authentic.
I’ve seen far too many people who appear to be ridiculously successful by external metrics and yet are woefully dissatisfied with how their lives feel. In fact, I don’t have to look far, I was almost one of them.
It was a lesson I learned long after I sold my own business, but oddly not while I was running it; it’s an experience all too many entrepreneurs share.
Being the founder and CEO of a fast growth company would seem to be entrepreneurial nirvana. What could possibly be a better example of living life on your own terms? It’s your business, you made the rules, you have near infinite latitude with which to do as you want, when you want, how you want.
The only problem is, you don’t, because it’s not all about you.
“It took me finally selling my business to realize that while I had thought about how the business felt to everyone else I had never stopped to think about how I wanted it to feel for me.”
Any entrepreneur will tell you that one of the greatest myths of running your own business is that when you work for yourself you have nobody to account to but yourself. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are accountable to everyone; customers, investors, banks, landlords, the government, the IRS, employees, business partners, and let’s not forget your family. Everyone wants a piece of you, and they all want the biggest piece. Your life can quickly become everyone’s except your own.
It looks and feels successful at the time, and you justify the fact that the entirety of your life is dedicated to your business by convincing yourself that you’re indispensable to the business and to your employees. Health, vacations, relationships, even family takes a back seat to the insatiable need to prove that you can succeed and to jump the many hurdles that are testimonials to your success; revenues, profits, headcount, customers, valuations, personal wealth.
Don’t get me wrong. Each of these is critically important. You can’t ignore hard metrics and create a successful business. And there’s no success without some sacrifice. But those aren’t the reasons you chose to become an entrepreneur, are they?
I’ll bet that the reason you chose this journey was so that you could live your life in your own way, enjoy your passions, spend time with your family, and have the latitude to decide how you live your life.
It took me finally selling my business to realize that while I had thought about how the business felt to everyone else I had never stopped to think about how I wanted it to feel for me.
Although I felt I was successful, based on the business, I also suffered from debilitating headaches, perpetual lack of sleep, and a bevy of health issues that were just waiting to derail my quality of life.
In speaking with hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years I’ve come to realize that I was far from alone.
Just look at these statistics from research sanctioned by the UC Berkeley Institutional Review Board and published in the journal Small Business Economics comparing entrepreneurs to the greater population studied.
- Depression affected 30% compared to 15% (APA)
- ADHD affected 29% compared to 5% (NIMH)
- Addiction affected 12% compared to 4% (SAMHSA)
- Bipolar diagnosis: 11% compared to 1% (NIMH)
The truth is that for a good two decades my life really wasn’t my own. I’d like to say that during that time I had some sort of master plan to turn it all around. I didn’t. I was incredibly lucky. After selling my business I was forced to get out of business-build mode and to finally get into life-build mode.
I’m loath to say that I’d go back and change anything. That’s a foolish exercise that implies regret and remorse. Neither applies.
The Most Important Question
What I would suggest is that the most important question you can ask of yourself is the one I didn’t ask; “Is what you’re doing in service of building a life that in your eyes is worth living?”
And I’ll give you a ridiculously simple exercise to help you arrive at an irrefutable answer to that question
Image that you’ve just been given a diagnosis of having just 24 hours left to live. There’s no option for a second opinion here; 24 hours and it’s over.
“All the success in the world is worth very little if you’ve mortgaged what’s most important for what’s easily measured.”
Now think of the three things that you would most regret not having done in your life. Got them? Good. So, here’s the ultimate test of success. If what you are doing right now in building your success and that of your business isn’t directly in service of each of those three things then you’re doing something desperately wrong. Either you need to pick another three things or change what you’re doing to support the ones you already chose.
By the way, don’t let yourself off the hook by pushing the realization of those three life priorities into the distant future to “someday” when you have the time. The whole point here is to take a hard look at what trade-offs you’re making today, and why. Only you can decide if these trade-offs are worthwhile. And only you will have yourself to hold accountable if they aren’t. All the success in the world is worth very little if you’ve mortgaged what’s most important for what’s easily measured.
I’m not saying that your journey is anything like mine. Every entrepreneur’s journey is unique. Yet each one is driven by the same desire, to achieve success.
In my book, however, in the end, there is only one success; to live your life in your own way.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.