Defining Success as Enjoying the Journey

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Don't miss what's happening on your way to your goals. Mark Nepo offers a new way to define success that takes into account what we learn along the way.

By Mark Nepo

We all want to be successful and we all struggle with what that means. Someone tells a young man running track that he’d be good at jumping hurdles. So he trains and finds himself in the blocks, nervous, wondering if this is right for him.

When the gun goes off, he’s running as fast as he can to beat the others, to stay in his lane, to clear every hurdle. Legs burning, he pushes harder and strains to cross the finish line. Out of breath, hands on his knees, he wonders briefly, how did I get here? Is this where I need to be? 

Often, our struggle with success is like that of a young hurdler. We find ourselves on a track we may or may not have chosen, working to stay in our lane, straining to clear every obstacle, and lunging to beat others to the finish line. It’s all very confusing and hard to unravel when the gun keeps going off and we feel an urgency to keep racing.

But let’s go back to the beginning. The word success derives from the Latin verb meaning, “to come close after.” What success really means for each of us depends on what we’re after and what we come close to.

The soul of success centers on our very individual journey as we struggle to come close to what we want or aim for. But the success of the soul centers on the part finding its place in the unity of things.

This deeper journey is revealed through the life of experience as we humbly come close to the very pulse of life and how all things are connected, no matter what we start out wanting or aiming for.

Working toward our dreams and through them enables us to inhabit our truth. —Mark Nepo

Wanting influences and empowers the typical notion of effort: We work toward something we want, and we get it or we don’t.

But along the way, we discover that working with what we’re given is a deeper journey, because that allows us to experience our connection to all life. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want or work toward things, for wanting and working help us reach for our better selves. 

But we often confuse our wants as needs, and in doing so we elevate or deify our wants as requirements to be happy. We often install or enshrine our dreams, goals, and ambitions as end points: I’m going to do everything to make this dream come true, to arrive at my goal. While dreams, goals, and ambitions are wonderful tools, they’re not destinations.

I now consider dreaming a process, not an end point. The dream is kindling used up in the fire of aliveness. The goal disappears or leads us to an unexpected goal. Our ambition dissolves when we encounter realness on the journey.

I like to tell a story about how our understanding of success can change. A bicyclist had trained long and hard to race in an event similar to the Tour de France. He was very disciplined and focused; he even shaved the hair off his legs to streamline his body and trim seconds off his time. At the beginning of the race, he pulled so far ahead that he couldn’t see the other cyclists.

Then, just as he was descending a long hill, a huge heron, with its magnificent wings fully spread, swooped down in front of his handlebars.

The cyclist was stunned and stopped in the road. The encounter with the heron opened something in him that he’d been chasing. He stood there, straddling his bike as the others caught up and passed him. He lost the race.

Years later, on the porch of his home, someone asked him, “What cost you the race?” He stared off and said, “I didn’t lose the race. I left it.”

A pragmatist can say, “That’s nice, but he did lose after all.”

But I see it differently. I think all his training and effort were done so he could meet the heron. If he’d known that was the goal, he probably wouldn’t have trained the way he did.

We often work toward things, not knowing what we’re really working toward. Isn’t that a blessing? We can trust our effort more than what we’re working for.

So what really constitutes success or failure? Are we open to where our effort, if we trust it, will bring us? We’re the cyclist who would finish the race and not be touched by the heron and the one whose life will change because of the heron.

Often our dreams don’t come true, but sometimes we do. And working toward our dreams and through them enables us to inhabit our truth, which is much more important and life-giving than whether we get what we want or not.