Success is a concept we need to define for ourselves. To do so, we need to know what our goals are and how we will measure them. It’s always good to set objectives related to your career and other external factors. Yet, it’s more important to be able to determine what you view as a successful life. The goals we set regarding money, possessions, or even family, aren’t the ones we will be focusing on. We need to look at the bigger picture and find out who we are. Only then can we determine what success means to us. This all falls under our control, it is up to us to decide this, because it is our own opinion. One that needs to be formed using reason and logic based on who we are and what our nature is.

The word ‘success’ has been thrown around forever. The idea of what success is has been funneled into a certain direction. And is often geared towards externals. There is a lot of pressure on people to try to reach the levels that society has deemed successful. We measure ourselves by the outward image that we perceive from those around us, in our nearby circles as well as those far removed. However, this picture is never complete. People tend to show their good fortune while keeping their struggles behind the curtains. How are we then ever able to create an idea of what a successful life should look like? Let’s dive into this question. Cicero once shared the story of the Sword of Damocles, which shows us at what price riches can come. I covered this in my post here.

A successful life

“For you will find that it is in reality true, that these things which are eagerly pursued and admired are of no use to those who have gained them; while those who have not yet gained them imagine that, once these things are theirs, they will possess all that is good, and then, when they are theirs, there is the same scorching heat, the same agitation, the same nausea and the same desire of what they do not have. For freedom is not secured by the fulfilment of people’s desires, but by the suppression of desire.”

Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 4.1, 174, 175

Preluding this passage, Epictetus used a common saying by Cleanthes. And it is good to remember and reflect upon this when we look at common opinions, like the one most prevalent on success.

“Philosophers do, perhaps, say what is contrary to common opinion, but not what is contrary to reason.”

Cleanthes, by Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 4.1, 173

As we dive further into this topic, take the words of Cleanthes with you as you make the distinction between common opinion and reason. But what was Epictetus saying himself? He gave us a glimpse of what a successful life could look like. When we ask the Stoics, they would tell us that it is one lived in accordance with Nature and Virtue. Only then can we achieve true peace and tranquillity. But most people don’t seem to be after these goals. Their desires are leading them to more and more. Always chasing the next level. This was as true over 2000 years ago, as we can see from what Epictetus said, as it is now. Their idea of success always lies beyond the next shiny object.

Define success

There are reasons why we need to define what success means to us. If we wish to achieve something, we first need to know what that is. In this post, I’m trying to steer us away from external items. Let’s not set success up with clout, status, a fancy career, but with what a good life should be. This is, if we embark on a philosophical journey, what we should aim at. But why not think about such things. They are part of life, aren’t they?

Well, they are, but what priority do they have to live a successful life? To make that distinction, we need to look at what they are. They all fall outside of our control. It’s inspiring to read the multitude of quotes and see all the examples of people who have made it. But if it was a matter of true perseverance and will, then the world would be packed with people who had reached their goals. Unfortunately, factors beyond our control play a role as well.

The externals are moments

Someone climbing the ladder of success to nowhere.
Photo by Jason Wong on Unsplash

These objectives, the externals, are moments. There are enough examples to be found of people who made it, as they say, and later fell all the way down. That could be because they climbed their way up using unethical methods or ways that didn’t fit their nature. If it was by unethical ways then they either can’t find peace because they’re always looking over their shoulder. Or they got caught and lost it all. If we pursue these goals by means that are not within our nature, then we eventually hit the wall. The fancy office turns into an expensive prison from which it is difficult to break free.

And yet, we label those who seem to have it all, as successful. While those hard-working people who serve society more directly are often shoved under the rug and looked down upon. This is something that I experienced during my days as a teacher. While I thought of my work as noble and vital to help children find their ways in society, others didn’t see me as worthy of their time.

Strong minds are needed

But we don’t make it easy on ourselves either. The images of what the supposed good life looks like are flung at us from all angles. And at all times of the day. It takes a strong mind to resist these ideas and this is where philosophy comes in to help us. These concepts of what we should strive for don’t only deal with our careers or money. They also show us how we should look and what our social circle should be like. They tell us the way we need to act and what we need to do to fit in.

While we need to have a family, we also need to go out and party. Enjoy our lives during the few moments of free time we have. During those rare moments, we need to go all out and live it up. These are the parts of our life that we show the rest of the world. We don’t share the moment when we drag ourselves to the office on a Monday morning after a fun-packed weekend.

The idea of success

It is thus important to create a more solid idea of what success is. When we are all the time whisked away by the next new trend, it will be impossible for us to live a consistent and coherent life. The only place where we can find that steady foundation to build on is within ourselves. A philosophy like Stoicism can help you set some parameters and use them as a guide during moments of temptation. The Stoic idea of a successful life is one of Virtue and one that is lived in accordance with Nature. To achieve this we need to ask ourselves what this means to us. We can examine different parts of our lives to see whether they align with our values and with our nature.

Success is something we need to define for ourselves. But we need to be talking in terms of what we want from life. Think about the kind of person you wish to be. Look at the qualities you need as a person to deal with the situations life throws at you. Find out how you can best serve the people around you while exploiting your own qualities. When we examine these parts of life, then bring that back to the externals. How important are they when you look at them from this angle? Take stock of your externals and then see if they add something to your idea of who you are. What is key, however, is to see what keeps you from being yourself. Those are the real dangers. They could be behaviors, goals, or people. Then it’s time to eliminate those aspects of your life.

Don’t chase others

Make sure you’re not chasing someone else’s success. Take a moment to look at what it is that you are after at the moment. Find a way to define your goals in an easy-to-remember way. If you can make it into one sentence, that would be great. But make sure you have that at the top of your mind. Remind yourself of it daily and soon it will guide you in your decisions. The road to your personal success will lead you to make difficult decisions. It also brings us back to the quote from Cleanthes at the beginning. Following your own path will make you do things that go against common opinion. But this is your life and chasing the herd won’t lead you to your true self. Your Nature and reason will bring you to your success, listen to it.

“Don’t pay attention to other people’s minds. Look straight ahead, where nature is leading you – nature in general, through the things that happen to you; and your own nature, through your own actions.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 7.55
What is Success: A Stoic View
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4 thoughts on “What is Success: A Stoic View

  • 14 March 2023 at 20:11

    I was talking about success today. I’m in a leadership development program where I’m in the minority because I’m not a people manager. I gave feedback to the people running the program that we need to be careful about presenting the skills development and training with the message that success looks like a people manager. For me, I’d be very unhappy as a people manager and I wouldn’t be good at it. For me, success is getting the right initiatives up and running, delivering better stuff to customers and having a happy, productive team. It’s not about position and power, it’s about achievements and improvements.

    • 5 June 2023 at 09:04

      Thank you for sharing your take on succcess and how it is relevant to you in your life at the moment. It’s great to see how defining this concept can help you determine what path is the best to take.

  • 24 March 2023 at 10:28

    Love this post Benny, and what I needed to hear at the right time, I do bookmark many blogs my dear bloggers and read them when I have time to really read them. I’ve been in a quandary the last week or so about my direction, and this probably aided my recent stay in hospital as I was feeling stressed. However, having had a couple of days to calm and refocus, and now reading this, I feel I need to create my own personal plan, not a business plan born from the minds of the ‘experts’, but my own plan of what I would like my life to look at. That is going to be the colourful framework I will use. You are, as always, a considered and thoughtful inspiration. A true Stoic Philosopher for today. Thank you.

    • 5 June 2023 at 09:08

      It’s always great to read your kind words and to see that it gives you some support during some difficult moments. I’m happy to hear that you are creating your personal plan and that you are looking at life through your view.


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