Being successful isn’t enough. Success in most areas of life simply means you have one less distraction. You have financial freedom when you can stop worrying about money. You are fit when you can stop worrying about your health or how you look in a bathing suit. Social success means you are comfortable in a crowd or in isolation.
Success on its own doesn’t make you happy, it makes you bored. Winning in most areas of life means you have fewer distractions. If you’re rich, you don’t need to worry about paying the bills. Success only scoops out the negative parts of life, it can’t fill them back up with something positive.
Improvement is Only a Half-Solution
I was thinking about this imbalance recently, and how it has affected my own life. Since I started focusing on self-improvement about 4-5 years ago, I’ve made a lot of changes. I’ve improved my health, started a business, boosted my social life and learned many new skills. Although I still have a long way to go, I’m happy with what I’ve done in the last few years.
But one of the surprising things was how becoming better at something doesn’t help. When I went from being out of shape to above average fitness, my day to day life didn’t change dramatically. Sure, I had more energy, a better self-image and fewer sick days. But I still got up each morning, ate, worked, breathed and went back to bed.
Getting better just removed a few negative parts of my life, it didn’t automatically fill them back up with something better. Unfortunately, that is hard to see from the beginning. When you’re out of shape, broke and alone, it is easy to fantasize how being muscular, rich and attractive will solve all your problems. But when you start getting closer to those goals, you often aren’t any further than when you started.
Two Types of Success
The problem isn’t that self-improvement is a sham, but that it isn’t complete. Self-improvement is just one form of success, and unless you can succeed in the other half, it won’t help you. That other half is the intangible, mental success that doesn’t come from winning but from proper living.
By proper living I don’t mean anything puritanical or religious. I simply mean living in a way where the problems you solve and distractions you eliminate get filled back with something good. When you’ve scooped out the negative parts of life, you have something good to put back in their place.
It’s easy to see this problem from the perspective of time management. You start using to-do lists, outsourcing and overcoming your procrastination. As a result you have several extra hours in spare time each week. Unless you have proper living, the other half of success, that extra time will just be wasted on unfulfilling garbage. You haven’t moved an inch from when you were an unproductive slob.
I suppose this website is really about proper living. I’m hijacking the term to mean living in the best way for you possible. That could mean skydiving, going to all-night concerts or learning new languages from a hut in South America. I’ve been writing articles for two years trying to see if there are any generalizations that can be made about a better way to live.
Proper living is the substance that needs to fill the hole success gouges out. If your entire focus is on self-improvement, without any thought to how you’re going to fill it, that work is wasted. I remember hearing once that most people who win the lottery are back to their former standard of living only a few years after the windfall. Success without a strategy to handle it is squandered.
Recently I bumped into a problem of this type. After several years of consistently needing to do several things at once, for the first time I had four uninterrupted months of time. I wasn’t working or taking classes. Just this website and a few side activities. With the revenue from this website to pay the bills, I went from forced productivity to an abundance of time.
For my first week off, you know what happened? I was bored. I had achieved the time-management dream (at least temporarily) and I didn’t know what to do with it.
Since that point I’ve brainstormed a lot of ideas for how to add back high quality activities into my time. But without filling something back, success doesn’t make you happy, it leaves you bored.
Even if You Don’t Feel Successful, You Need Both Halves
While having near unlimited free time might be an extreme example, everyone faces this problem. Without the “something else” to fill up the mental space freed by self-improvement, you wind up bored and depressed. For most people, it’s easier to stay trapped inside problems than to face a hollow success.
What is the other half? That’s a topic too big for one article, but I’m sure you already have a few ideas. Learning, doing something your passionate about, having meaningful projects, trying new things and finding new challenges are all parts. Unless you have these things as a driving factor, anything you scoop out will be filled with more garbage.
The other way of looking at this is to examine your motivation. If you’ve been hitting a plateau in your life, perhaps the reason is that you don’t know what to do when you find success. If you don’t have that other half driving you forward, you might be sabotaging your own success to avoid an empty victory.