Succeeding at things that don’t really matter


What is success? Really, what does it mean to succeed at something? The dictionary definition talks about accomplishing a target or purpose. Some define success as attaining a personal achievement, such as a promotion or financial goal. Others would define success in more general terms, such as contentment, happiness, or a sense of fulfillment.

Today, I would like to talk about misconceptions about success. During my 40 plus years in the workplace, I saw countless individuals that achieved a lifelong goal, yet they felt unfulfilled, disappointed, or empty. They believed that life would magically get better when they achieved the goal or target they had relentlessly pursued. In fact, many individuals actually felt LESS fulfilled when an important “life target” was achieved. It seems that it was the journey that brought the motivation and fulfillment more than actually achieving the target.

William Carey spoke of the true meaning of success early in the 19th century when he said

“I’m not afraid of failure; I’m afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.”

Carey’s insight dating back nearly 200 years is still meaningful for us today. Success has more to do with achieving a purpose than a target. I have worked with many individuals in my life and career that did not understand this difference. I recall many times at year-end reviews when an individual argued for a higher rating because they achieved all their goals without realizing that goals alone might not equal success.

When I mentor individuals, I often say to them, “If I would ask you to bring everything of value that you have produced for the company in the last year, or five years – in other words, your work product – and place it on the table, how big would the pile be? What would you bring? And, how can you be certain that it was really achieving the purpose you are intended to achieve?” Some individuals would answer in terms of reports written, projects completed, or a checklist of things directly associated with their jobs. It is the rare individual that would answer in terms of value provided to the company, its customers, or the ultimate user. Too few of us think of our work, or our efforts, in terms of what is really important.

Carey’s quote recognized that individuals need to be occupied with activities. We need to feel some sense of accomplishment. However, we should all routinely ask ourselves, “Would I rather fail doing something truly significant and meaningful than to succeed at something that has no meaningful impact. Is it more important that I achieve 10% of things that truly make a difference in the lives of those I love, or to achieve 100% of things that are meaningless.” Yet, how much of our time is spend on the trivial or meaningless? Then, we beat ourselves up over things that won’t even be remembered a year from now.

So, to sum this up, let’s ponder a few questions today that can help us drive toward true success:

  1. Will the things I do today truly make life better for anyone else? Will it make my own life better?
  2. Do I know my real purpose? Are my activities today helping to fulfill that purpose?
  3. Am I looking at the bigger, broader picture or just focusing on the trivial matters of today?
  4. What do I need to change that can help me, or someone else, achieve true success?
  5. What is the most important thing I need to do today? How can I make sure that I get this done?

Finally, I believe that achieve success, or fulfilling our purpose, is not an endpoint, but a process. There should never be a time when we say, “I’m done. Mission accomplished.” No matter how old we get or what we accomplish in life, we can still impact others. We may not even see the impact of our life’s work during our lifetime. So, keep going and keep looking for ways to pour your life and your efforts into others. Our ultimate purpose may have been the impact we had on someone else.


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