The Personal Success Equation

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” – Jim Carrey

Tim Ferriss always asks his podcast guests who the first person is that comes to mind when they hear the word ‘success.’ Derek Sivers gave a deeper answer than most.

He said that person for him is serial entrepreneur Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Group, which is responsible for Virgin Atlantic airlines and Virgin Records, among other ventures. But he gave a caveat on this definition of success:

We can’t know [about success] without knowing a person’s aims. Like what if Richard Branson set out to live a quiet life, but like a compulsive gambler he just can’t stop creating companies. Well then that changes everything and we can’t really call him successful anymore.

Despite outward appearances you can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life.

It seems like it’s harder than ever to be happy with what you have these days because social media and technology make it so easy to compare what you have with what others have. For some this can be inspirational but for many it’s merely depressing to see others succeed where you aren’t.

Having people to look up to can be helpful, up to a point, but you never really know what a person’s motives are or what their true level of happiness is. Some of the richest, most successful-looking people are also the most miserable.

People can get so consumed with what success looks like for someone else that they rarely bother to figure out what it should look like for themselves. I’m just as guilty as anyone on this, so I’m constantly reminding myself that the grass isn’t always greener. This is easier said than done.

The sweet spot is knowing when enough is enough in terms of contentment and happiness in your own life and accomplishments.

Success in life should be very personal, yet it seems that our society is dead set on using other people’s definitions of success. That’s a game you can never win.

Trying to measure yourself against other people’s career, job title, salary, investment portfolio, house, car or anything else tends to cause more problems than solutions.

Tools of Titans: Derek Sivers Distilled (The Tim Ferriss Show)

Further Reading:
Perception Matters


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  • Kien Choong

    Hi, thanks for your marvelous blog.

    Good post about success being personal. That said, would u also say that success should be defined objectively? To take an extreme example, if Hitler had succeeded in wiping out Jews, that would not be success? Similarly, if a man succeeds in pursuing a hedonistic life and neglects to help the weak and poor, would that be success?

    Whatever the goals are, objectively evaluated, those goals should be internalised. They should be your own goals.

    Best wishes for 2017!


    • Ben

      Of course. Rule #1 – be nice to people.

  • Ben Shearon


    True story, Word of Honor:
    Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
    now dead,
    and I were at a party given by a billionaire
    on Shelter Island.

    I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
    to know that our host only yesterday
    may have made more money
    than your novel ‘Catch-22’
    has earned in its entire history?”
    And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
    And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
    And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
    Not bad! Rest in peace!”

    -Kurt Vonnegut

    • Ben

      Bogle mentioned that one in one of his books. Love that story

  • Matt W


    Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him:
    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean favored, and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;
    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    “Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked, and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet through his head.

  • My favorite, courtesy Winston Churchill: “Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”

    Nick de Peyster

  • Stef

    I have spent very little time in my life thinking about finance (I do now because it’s necessary for my independence), and most of it trying to figure out where to find happiness and what success is. I like Ajahn Brahm’s sentence ‘success does not lead to happiness; in fact, happiness IS success’. In my opinion happiness come from a very deep contentment and is really quite independent of your achievements. The aim is not to fulfill all your wishes, beacause if you set out in this way you’ll find that there is no end to them – for every goal you achieve and wish you fulfill, there will be ten new ones that immediately arise so you will never be satisfied. The aim is to develop enough contentment with what you have that in the end you will not want for anything more. In pursuing this path, I personally find my happiness gets a big boost in the contemplation of beauty (I have just spent a few days in Madrid visitng the Prado museum and I can garantee that can give you a huge amount of happiness, provided you have enough aesthetic sensibility) and in the practice of meditation (which in the end comes to the experience of great internal beauty and bliss). Think about two people in history that have been considered amongst the happiest and wisest, the Buddha and the Greek philosopher Socrates: they owned nothing, they taught for free, they led highly ethical lives and considered beauty as one of the supreme values. And, to move from the soaring peaks of humanity to contemporary politics; I recently saw an interview by US President Elect Donald Trump in which he said that he had given great thought to what success is, and realised that it is not to be found in external achievements, but in happiness. So it would appear that Mr Trump agrees on this with Socrates or the Buddha – and as for who truly found happiness between them, each of us can make up their mind.

    • Ben

      Thanks for sharing. I like the idea of contentment here and good quote. I’ll have to remember that one.