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The Truth About What It Takes to Be Successful -- and Happy

If I could, I would single-handedly eliminate a big chunk of the how-to-be-successful business book genre. There. I said it. (And this coming from a business book ghostwriter.)

No one has a secret success formula that applies to everyone. Success, both in business and in life, completely depends on how you define it -- and on the tradeoffs you are willing not just to accept but also embrace as you pursue your definition of success.

Why? You can have a lot -- but you can't have everything.

Here are a couple of examples.

One: I was sitting in a New York restaurant with twelve people whose combined net worth equals the GDP of a small country. (Don't ask me how I was included; I felt like a bottle of MD 20/20 in the wine cellar of La Tour d'Argent.) Some of my table mates were instantly recognizable, and at one point a man came over to ask what it takes to be "incredibly successful."

They tossed out a few platitudes. After he drifted away one of the women at the table spoke up. "We should have told him what it really takes to be successful," she said. "One: Be divorced -- typically multiple times," she said.

Others chimed in:

"Decide business meetings are a reasonable substitute for a social life."

"Work 20 hours a day for five years and still be told you're an overnight success."

"Have all your old friends say you've changed."

"Burn through your employees like they're candles."

"Walk around knowing plenty of people think you screwed them over."

"Wait so long to spend enough time with your kids that they no longer want to spend time with you."

They laughed, but their laughter carried a definite edge. When the table grew quiet I said, "If you consider where you are today in business terms, could you have done anything differently along the way and still had the same success?"

A few looked away, and a few looked down. Most of them slowly shook their heads. One spoke, seemingly for the rest of them. "You can't have it all," she said. "I tried. You have to decide. Try to be everything and you end up nothing."

Two: A friend of mine complains constantly about his salary. He feels his pay doesn't reflect his education and experience and in no way recognizes his true value to society. While I agree in principle, there's a problem. He's a teacher.

He knows what teachers earn. He knew before he went to college what the average teacher earns. Still, it drives him crazy... and he spends a ton of emotional energy on the subject. So occasionally I say, "If it bugs you that much, you owe it to yourself to do something else."

"But I love teaching," he always replies. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

My friend works as a teacher... hold on, my friend is a teacher. Teaching isn't just his job. Teaching is how he views himself.

Great, but just like my dinner companions, there are unavoidable tradeoffs. Teaching is personally rewarding but teachers don't earn a lot; aside from going into administration the career path is limited. Hugely successful businesspeople work impossibly long hours while focusing exclusively on building their business; personal and family lives are almost always casualties.

Are the tradeoffs fair? Fair or unfair is beside the point. Tradeoffs are unavoidable. If my teacher friend is unhappy, he hasn't embraced the fact -- and it is a fact -- that what he has chosen to do will not make him wealthy. If my business friends are unhappy, they haven't embraced the fact that incredible business success carries a heavy personal price.

Family, friends, personal pursuits, business success -- no aspect of your life can be separated from the others. Each is a permanent part of a whole. Focusing on one area automatically reduces the focus on another area. Want to make more money? You can... but something else has to give. Want more time with family? Want to help others? Want to pursue a hobby? Something else has to give.

What do you value most, either spiritually, emotionally, or in material terms? What motivates you? What do you want to achieve, for yourself and your family?

The answer is your personal definition of success.

Then take a clear-eyed look at the impact of your definition. If helping others through social work is your definition of success, you may make a decent living but you won't get rich... and you must embrace that fact. If building a $500 million company is your definition of success, you can have a family but it will be almost impossible to have a rich, engaged family life... and you must embrace that fact.

We can't have it all. We shouldn't want to have it all, because that is the surest way to wind up unfulfilled and unhappy.

Define success, pursue it, and put a lot less importance on the other stuff. That's how to succeed on the only terms that matter: Yours.

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Photo courtesy flickr user bayasaa, CC 2.0
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