Campfire: What is Success?

When you move, you seem to find things you forgot you had. This was true for me in 2015 when I found my CPA certificates during the move to our current house. I was two years into a career change, and these relics reminded me how much I had accomplished and achieved as a CPA. They also reminded me that despite all my success, I had been miserable. I wondered how I could have achieved so much yet felt so empty. In searching for the answer, I rediscovered what success means to me.

Our society loves to measure and compare things. We love to judge. Accomplishment and achievement many times imply a comparison or a competition. To graduate best in your class, to get that promotion before a peer, to win the salesperson of the year award—these are competitions indicating success. They’re supposed to bring us joy. For me, success was passing all four parts of the CPA exam on my first attempt, which I did in 2009. I heard only 10-20% of all CPAs accomplish this. I should have been thrilled. But I wasn’t.

The longer I was as an accountant, the more miserable I became. I measured only numbers—tests passed, hours worked, dollars made, years until making partner. Being a CPA at most firms is a death match to see which loser can work the most hours during tax season. This is how you measure success, I was told. We must be wary of just adopting what this world tells us success should mean. Success means something different to each of us, and I began to understand I was measuring the wrong things. My pursuit of success was leading me away from who I was.

I listened to an Adventure Sports podcast recently featuring a guest who attempted an Everest climb. He encountered another climber overcome by exhaustion on his way down after summiting the day before. This climber asked for help from other climbers on their way up. They ignored him, and some just stepped over him. In their quest for the top, they intended to leave this other climber to die. But the podcast’s guest abandoned his summit attempt and helped the other climber down. His words resonated with me. “On your death bed, you want to be surrounded by friends, not trophies.”

Trophies are nice. They look good on a shelf and they’re great conversation starters. But for me, a life decorated with purpose and meaning, true to its values and principles, and packed with joy from the journey is far more fulfilling than one defined by a shelf of trophies.

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