top of page
  • Brittany

Changing Your Definition of Success

Here's a psychology test for you. Below are pictures of two different guys. One is sitting in a downtown high-rise, working on his laptop, wearing expensive shoes and just about ready to pop open a waiting bottle of champagne. The other is strolling through a field of wildflowers cuddling his young daughter, casually dressed and just enjoying life. Which one do you think is most successful?

Well, this is a trick question. The correct answer is: we don't know. We can't tell who is successful because we can't see inside their minds and we don't know their character. It's possible that neither or both of these men have an admirable character--we can't tell just by looking at a picture of them, and we should refrain from judging unless it's absolutely necessary. But one thing I can tell you for certain: their external characteristics (such as appearance, wealth, or occupation) have nothing to do with their success in life. A Stoic definition of success relates to your inner disposition, the quality of your judgments, and your ability to make the best of your situation. It has almost nothing to do with external items and everything to do with the use you make of external items.

The ancient Stoics tell us consistently, repeatedly--ad nauseum, actually--that we will become happy only if we become virtuous. The trappings of material success will never make us happy. We are deceived by the false promise of wealth, fame, and climbing the social ladder. As Seneca reminds us, quoting Epicurus:

If you want to make Pythocles rich, what you must do is not add to his money but subtract from his desires. This saying is too clear to need interpretation, and too well phrased to need improvement. My only addition is to remind you not to refer it only to wealth: its import will be the same wherever it is applied. If you want to make Pythocles honorable, what you must do is not add to his accolades but subtract from his desires. If you wish to make Pythocles live a long and complete life, what you must do is not add to his years but subtract from his desires.

- Letters on Ethics, 21.8

Seneca's perspective is especially valuable, I think, because he lived through some of the worst excesses of the Roman imperial period and saw firsthand that great wealth and power never make anyone happy. In fact, wealth, power, and their attendant pleasures very often have detrimental effects on those who possess them.

Everyone you see is in pursuit of joy, but they do not know where great and lasting joy is to be had. One tries to get it from dinner parties and self-indulgence; another from elections and crowds of supporters,; another from his girlfriend; another from pointless display of education and literary studies that do not heal what is amiss. All of them are deceived by specious and short-lived enticements, like drunkenness, that pays for a single hour's cheery insanity with a long-lasting hangover, or like the applause and acclamation of a large following, that costs you great anxiety both to get and to retain.

- Letters on Ethics, 59.15

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Two thousand years later, many people still seek satisfaction from the same sources: parties, luxurious living, political power, crowds of supporters (or Twitter followers), intellectual or social snobbery. But now, as then, these external "goods" don't make us any happier and are in reality causes of pain. Rather than luxury and fame, Seneca says, we should seek the steady and consistent joy that comes from wisdom:

The wise person is filled with joy, cheerful and calm, unalarmed; he lives on equal terms with the gods. Now look at yourself. If you are never downcast; if your mind is not bothered by any hopes concerning the future; if your mental state is even and consistent night and day, upright and content with itself, then you have indeed attained the fullness of the human good. But if you seek pleasure in every direction and of every kind, then be aware that you are as far removed from wisdom as you are from joy.

- Letters on Ethics, 59.14

This is powerful stuff. Seneca is telling us that the conventional "goods" that most people spend their whole lives pursuing will bring us unhappiness, while the inner goods that most people ignore will bring us lasting happiness. It's one of those Stoic paradoxes that flies in the face of conventional morality, but once you understand it, it has the power to revolutionize your life. You will be a successful person when you "attain the fullness of the human good." In other words, by living as an excellent human should, you will find the rich satisfaction that comes with fulfilling your purpose in the world. Arete, or inner excellence, is the secret to success.

Of course, it's all well and good to understand this in theory. But what about when we're living our lives out in the real world and we see all the externally successful people around us? What if we do the right thing and are barely making ends meet, while unscrupulous financiers and politicians are living in luxury? Don't they seem to be living better and happier lives than we are?

Epictetus has an answer for that one. During a class discussion one day, one of his students pointed out that lots of dishonest people get ahead in the world and are rewarded for their pernicious actions with fame and fortune. Here's how the conversation goes:

Student: Yes, but someone who is unjust comes off better.

Epictetus: In what? In money. For in that regard he has the better of you because he flatters people, because he has no shame, because he stays awake at night. Is there anything surprising in that? But look to see whether he is better than you in being trustworthy and honest. Because you'll find that not to be the case; but rather, in those things in which you're superior to him, you'll find that you're the one who's better off. I said one day to someone who was indignant at the prosperity of Philostorgus: Would you have been willing to go to bed with Sura?

Student: Heaven forbid.

Epictetus: Why are you indignant, then, if he gets some reward for what he sells? Or how can you account a man happy if he acquires his prosperity through means that you abhor? What wrong is providence committing if it gives better things to better people? Or isn't it better to be honorable than rich? So why are you indignant, man, if you have what is of greater worth.

Discourses, 3.17, 4-6

As Epictetus makes clear, internal success is far more valuable than the external success. We have no reason to envy people of bad character, no matter how rich they might be, because what they have is worthless. It's not that externals like wealth and power are bad in themselves, but neither are they good; they are simply indifferent. If life offers us influence and riches, we can graciously accept, without becoming attached to them or thinking we're better than others. It does sometimes happen that people of good character also have wealth and power, and they are able to make good use of their position. But we must never make the mistake of seeking externals as a means to happiness or thinking they are good in and of themselves.

And we should never make the mistake of envying someone who appears to have more external prosperity than we do. We become successful not by cultivating power or prosperity but by cultivating honesty, wisdom, and a good character. So the next time you feel a twinge of envy at someone who seems to have it all, remember that external things are not markers of success.

Which is why, going back to our original trick question, we shouldn't judge other people by external criteria. People in positions of influence may or may not be successful (depending on their character), and conversely people who have been given a difficult lot in life could be among the most successful (depending on their character). Don't automatically emulate people who are in prominent positions. For role models of true success, we should look to those people who have made excellent use of the lot they've been given. Look for those who are strong and steady in adversity, who are consistently charitable and generous, and who don't depend on the opinions of other people. And look to those who do not have an inflated sense of their own importance in the world, who are willing to listen to others and question their own assumptions.

Applying the Stoic standard of success, to both yourself and others, will radically shift your mindset and help jumpstart your journey to eudaimonic joy. It may not be an easy path, but all the hard work is worth it. As Seneca reminds us, the person who reaches the end of the road will live on equal terms with the gods. We may not ever reach the end of the road, but there is still plenty of happiness along the way.

bottom of page