Success versus Happiness

Alex Honnold is one of the most accomplished rock climbers ever.

He’s famous for outrageous free solo ascents, including El Capitan a monstrous 3,000 feet rock face in Yosemite National Park.

He’s an idol to rock climbers and an inspiration to everyone.

But, in his words, Alex is driven by a ‘bottomless pit of self-loathing’. He was able to become the best because he had no fear, no attachments, and nothing to distract him. He was totally focused on climbing.

Honnold often reminds himself ‘nobody achieved anything great by being happy and cozy’.

The Cost of Success is Happiness

I remember periods of my life when I would push myself hard, eat poorly and get little sleep. I didn’t make time for life outside of work. As a result, my happiness suffered.

But I also remember rationalizing my lack of happiness as the cost of success. I was working. I was improving. This is what it takes to be successful. This is my struggle on the way to the top.

In many ways, I felt the same as Tim Ferriss.  He writes:

“For the vast majority of my adolescence I came to the conclusion that I was not designed to be happy. And that was OK – I would be an instrument of competition and learn to be very good at things that were valued at college and in the business world.

I would focus on being the best competitor possible.”

Tim admits he was unhappy but extremely successful all through his 20s and 30s.

I read a tweet from Naval Ravikant: «Happiness is being satisfied with what you have. Success comes from dissatisfaction. Choose.»

But is that the choice we have to make? Success or happiness?

I began to think there was something I was missing.

What’s Your Definition of Success?

If your definition of success is external, to have a life that looks incredible from the outside, unhappiness is your friend.

Dissatisfaction drives action. Unhappiness is an incredibly effective engine to get you to work harder. It reminds you you’re not enough and need to be doing more.

The problem is that basing your life around external measures (money, status, influence) can be an endless and miserable game. Endless because there will always be someone ahead of you to chase after. Miserable because these measures are relative. They coerce you to compare yourself to everyone you meet.

There are tons of people with high-status jobs and millions in the bank but are miserable. That’s definitely not who I want to be.

Yet I don’t think the answer, either, is to never feel the need to do anything. We’re humans who want to seek connection, learn, and work on meaningful things.

It can be confusing. Philosophers and masters tell us that we should be mindful, focused on the present, and content with our lives. Coaches and influencers tell us that successful people outwork everyone else and that we must never be satisfied.

How do we balance the pursuit of success with happiness? How do we get where we want to go but enjoy the journey?

The Journey of a Rose

I came across a quote that made me pause and rethink the “happiness vs success” question.

“When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed.

When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development.

The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.”

—Timothy Gallwey

Ambition and contentment are not opposites, but it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking they are incompatible.

The rose seed, however, is both content and ambitious.

There’s no point where we are dissatisfied with the current state of the seed. It is perfectly all right as it is.

Yet, it is also incredibly ambitious. The rose seed never stops growing. Every day it is moving forward, and yet, every day it is just as it should be.

The rose seed, during its growth, is never failing. It is simply in the process of succeeding.

Maybe the key to finding a balance lies in being more like a rose seed. Endlessly ambitious to do amazing things, but perfectly content in each moment.

Loving yourself as you are, yet always thirsty to be better.


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