Redefining Success.

Photo by Mukuko Studio on Unsplash

Three questions you need to ask yourself for a happier life.

If you have read my first article you might know already, that I recently quit my 6-figure-job as anesthetist to pursue a different path of life.

I grew up like most young people: thinking I had the world figured out. You need to work smart, you need to work hard, you need to earn a lot, buy a house, buy fancy cars and then all of a sudden, after digging a trench through a huge pile of shit that is your life at that time, then, all of a sudden, you will be happy. Therefor, if you’ve got all that stuff, then you are successful and then you will be happy one day.

I grew up knowing everything I needed to have to be happy, never asking what I needed to do to be happy.

So on I went to University, studying medicine, getting a ‘good’ job, getting paid a lot of money. I had life figured out.

Until it turned out: I didn’t.

Working way too much in a stressful job I started to feel out of balance and more and more I asked myself the question Why?”. And into my mind popped the same answer over and over again: “Because when you’ve done what you need to do, you can afford anything you want to have and then you’ll be happy”. But after a while this answer didn’t satisfy me anymore.

And the question began to change from

‘What do I need to HAVE, to be happy?’ to

‘What do I REALLY NEED to have, to be happy?’

And then I added two other questions.

Question #1:

“What do I need to have to be happy?”

I came up with a list of things that was important to me. Yours might be completely different and that’s great. Mine goes like this:

  • Happy relationship
  • Great home
  • Perfect car
  • A good job and a meaningful way to spend my day

So I went through the list:

  • Happy relationship: Check ✔

I met Judith three years ago and not only is she stunningly beautiful, she is probably twice as smart as me (PhD in technical mathematics… do I need to say more?). So “happy relationship” is more than covered.

Together we found a flat that is perfect for us, when we moved to Zurich. Therefor:

  • Perfect home: Check ✔

We recently bought a VW T6 van after our 18 year-old T4 was close to giving up. It was expensive, but it’s like a second home for us. We travel with it (vanlife, baby!!), we go on weekend trips with it and it brings us joy every time we snuggle up on the mattress in the back and read a good book before waking up the following morning with an amazing view over the mountain scenery, making coffee and then going for a hike. While many people buy fancy cars to impress others when they sit in it in the traffic jam to their work, we bought ours because it actually adds value to our lives. So…

  • Perfect car: Check ✔

Travelling Norway with our ‘Carl’.

So far so good. So now we have a healthy relationship, a good home, a nice car. What else is on the list? Correct. A job. Something to get some money in, to be able to afford that fancier car, the big house and all the goods one needs in order to be happy, right?

At least that was what I thought most of my life when that first question was stated differently.

A job was always primarily the source of income to afford stuff, but joy, although nice to have, was second to it. So the plan was: Work your ass off for a few years, then retire early and do what you want to do for the rest of your life.

But then I realized: Hang on a second. I already have everything that’s on this ‘need-to-have’-list checked off.

“Wait a minute… But you don’t own that house, do you?”, you might say. And you would be perfectly correct.

Over time my opinion on what the perfect home was had shifted.

Growing up, the idea of owning your own house was the ultimate definition of success. Of course I needed to have one myself one day. With a big garage for all the cars and the pool, and and and.

Until I realized: It’s not actually what I wanted.

I don’t want a big garden, because then I have to take care of it. And I absolutely hate gardening. Yes, owning a big garden is nice. But if you don’t love gardening, it will always be more trouble than it will bring you joy. So all in all, a garden can be a net negative aspect to your life, if you don’t like the work that it brings along with it.

I realized that owning a big house wasn’t my own dream. It was the dream of other people.

I used to be very interested in financial education, making money that makes money. Passive income was the ultimate goal. If I didn’t have to work anymore, because my passive income kept my expenses covered, then I was free.

Then I could finally do whatever I wanted.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still looking to build passive income over the time, but my time frame shifted quite a lot.

I am no longer willing to sacrifice ten or twenty years of my life to finally be free then, because thinking about it, breaking it down to what I need in my life that money can buy, I already have everything.

Therefor the plan was changed. If I did NOW what I wanted to do when I retired and managed to save some money on the side to build that passive income, what difference does it make if I reach financial freedom aged 40 or aged 60? If the goal is doing what I wanted to do, why wait?

“Life is suffering” — Not Buddha

Often misquoted to be by Buddha this quote has probably crossed your path somewhere before.

Although it derives from Buddha’s ideas, he didn’t state it directly. Nonetheless, it’s correct. It’s in our own responsibility to decide which suffering we chose.

In my example: I chose the ‘suffering’ that may come from my reduced income as a writer over the suffering that I experienced working on the verge of a breakdown.

Life is suffering, because there is no point in time where we let go of the steering wheel and magically everything is working out as we planned and we just enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Life is keeping your hands on the steering wheel, directing it where to go. The moment you let go, you give up control and lose track.

It’s the same things with relationships. You don’t wake up one day and all of the sudden you magically have the perfect, everlasting relationship.

It’s taking control of the steering wheel and constantly doing the small corrections needed to proceed and advance together. That’s what it is all about.

Question #2:

“What do I need to DO to be happy?”

And this is the much tougher question. If life was that easy, why would people ask themselves this age old question over and over again. Even in ancient Greece people asked themselves what made a good life. Aristotle came to the conclusion that the good life is a happy life.

Duh. Thanks bro.

But wait, there’s more: He also stated that “in order to be happy, you need to enjoy a positive state of mind”. And “you live a happy life when this is true most of the time”.

We can work our way from here now: We now know that in order to live a happy life, we need to be in a positive state of mind most of the time. Even if you don’t know how to be in a positive state of mind most of the time, you can reverse this idea and work it up from the the other side. So I asked myself:

What are the things I do that put me in a negative state of mind and how do I get rid of them?

And it became clear to me that my job was bringing me a net negativity in my life that I didn’t want anymore.

The sum of all my experiences there, the stress I had working this job, the fulfillment of helping people, the joy of seeing your account balance go up, the things I couldn’t do because I worked so many hours… When I drew a line below all these things positive as well as negative, the sum turned up negative. So I quit my job.

I had read Alan Watts’ work a few years back and there is one quote that stuck with me ever since:

“If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid.” — Alan Watts (1915–1973)

Damn I love that man.

While having had this quote in my head for many years, being impressed by the profoundness in this simplicity, I never really had the courage to actually follow it until recently.

Question #3:

So what can we learn from that now? We know that in order to be happy we need to have and do certain things. Have + Do = Be. What those are, varies from person to person. Some are happier with having less, some are happier with having more. The final question you need to ask yourself though is:

“Is what I want to have and do MY dream, or someone else’s?”

Many people want to own a house and that is completely fair. If you want to own a house with a big garden and you find value in taking care of those two things, then by all means: Go for it.

If you only want to have it, because you think you need it to be successful, or to impress someone else, you’ll be spending your hard earned money on something that doesn’t add value to your life. Worse even, if you ask the bank for a loan and repay it for the rest of your days by working a job you hate.

Loans are great, but only if you take the right ones. There are vast differences and you need to ask yourself if you are spending your money on your own dream, or someone else’s.

People buy shit they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they hate.

So if it’s your parents dream that you become a lawyer, a doctor or *insert any other prestigious job here* and not your own, then you won’t find fulfillment in doing it. And if it’s your best friends dream to own a house, ask yourself if it’s truly yours as well. So this last question is of vital importance.

So now that we have the three questions there’s one more thing left to do:

Redefining success.

Meet Jack. Jack is 53 years old. He has spend is life climbing up the corporate ladder and is making tons of money. He has a huge home with 5 guest bedrooms and a garage full of sports cars.

Is Jack successful?

To society? Yes, definitely. From what we now know about Jack, we’d probably all think yes.

Let me give you some more detail about his life:

He spends his time stuck in a traffic jam to work in one of his fancy sports cars (which others find amazing, but he is used to it by now so it’s not amazing but normal to him). Then he spends 12 hours there to later take the traffic jam back home in the afternoon to find a huge, empty home. His wife has already left him because he never had time for her anymore and they slowly drifted apart. His 5 guest bedrooms stay empty because he had had no time to meet friends anymore. He hates taking care of the garden, so he pays someone to do it. Just as he pays someone to clean. So he drives to work, to a job he isn’t passionate about anymore, to afford the maid, the gardener and the tax for the other 4 cars that stay in his garage while he drives with one of them to work, where he does something that doesn’t bring him any joy, to come home to a life of hollow possessions. So all he can do is work, because he has to, in order to afford his ‘successful’ life.

So knowing that, would you say that Jack is successful now?

Of course not. Because Jack’s life consists of doing things he doesn’t like to sustain a life that doesn’t bring him any joy. Therefor we need to redefine success from what we as a society see as successful (= rich) to an individual view of success.

Success is not how much you own, but how happy with your life you truly are.

We need to step away from thinking someone is successful because he/she owns a lot of nice things. They MIGHT be successful, but we can’t be sure if we don’t know how they feel.

We often fall for the illusion that society can define what success is. But by accepting society’s definition we often overlook that it’s not our own. In order to live a happy life we therefor need a definition of success that is in line with our own values. That’s the only way we can truly be successful.

Success is happiness. Happiness is success.

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