It’s that time of the year when we’re prone to ponder the direction of our life. We reflect on the past year and look forward to the coming year and resolve (or hope) to make this year our best one ever.
And so I find myself thinking about what it means to be successful. How will I define success?
What goals and resolutions should I be setting for the coming 12 months?
As a society, we tend to define success materialistically. By its outward appearance. We’ve ‘made it’ when we have the right house, decorated to reveal our unique tastes and personality. We define it by the car we drive, the shining career, the perfect body, the holiday destination, the school our kids attend.
Deep down, we know these things don’t really matter. Deep down we know the suburb we live in or the label on our clothes don’t define us. And they certainly aren’t a measure of a good life lived.
And yet, we can still feel compelled to keep up appearances… or long to, if these outward symbols of success are out of reach.
And our goals are a reflection of that.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting goals. It’s a good thing to get out of debt or to be healthier – both goals will go a long way to living well!
But if we want to live the good life, there has to be something more than how am I going to to make MY life better?
My thoughts on the subject have been influenced by my rereading of Hugh Mackay’s book The Good Life.
This is a wonderful book to read at the start of the year to put life into a little perspective. He argues that the ‘good life’ isn’t about feeling good (or happy) but about being good or doing good. It’s a moral argument.
It turns the idea of success around. Instead of what will I get out of life this year, the question becomes what will I give to make life better?
What Will Your Legacy be this Year?
Imagine, for a moment you’re at your own funeral.
(A little depressing, but stick with me.)
Someone, maybe your spouse or a close friend, is giving your eulogy.
What will they say?
Would they talk about the house you own? Your career?
Or would they talk about your kindness and compassion? Your willingness to listen. Your inner strength? How you were there for them through the bad times, celebrated with them in the good times, encouraged them, inspired them, loved them?
The truth is, we write our own eulogy. Every day our legacy is woven into the story of our lives through our actions and our interactions.
When you’re thinking about your goals for the year, think about what legacy you want to leave, the memories you want to create, the type of success that will define you.
“The greatest monument to any of our lives will not be in stone, but in our living legacy – the influence we have had on other people at every point of connection with the human family. You don’t have to be rich to leave a positive legacy; you don’t have to be intelligent, famous, powerful or even particularly well organised, let alone happy. You need only to treat people with kindness, compassion and respect, knowing they will have been enriched by their encounters with you.” – Hugh Mackay, The Good Life.
Alternate New Year’s Goals For Living The Good Life
I’m all for setting personal goals that improve your life. But this year I am slipping in a few goals that aren’t just about me but are about nurturing relationships.
Listening attentively is a gift to the speaker; it tells them that you care enough and take them seriously enough to give them your attention.
It’s easy for our attention to be fractured, for us to be self-absorbed in our own counter-arguments or ‘me too’ story or private judgements, so to truly listen takes intentional practice.
I’m not as good a listener as I would like to be – this is something I strive to improve. My favourite ‘old-time’ quote (I think I read it in an Enid Blyton book) is: ‘we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak’. I often tell my kids that, but I try to remind myself too.
Show greater empathy and less judgement
If one of our greatest desires is to be taken seriously, then empathy (trying to see the world from the other person’s perspective) is an essential skill in order to take other people seriously.
This can be a really difficult skill to master, especially if we believe strongly that the other person is wrong in their opinion or belief. It doesn’t matter. Empathy isn’t about proving someone right or wrong; it’s about understanding why they hold the opinions and beliefs that they do. It’s possible to listen with empathy and disagree at the same time.
“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” ― Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays
Show more kindness and compassion
Of course, it’s one thing to empathise and quite another to do something about it. Which leads us to compassion and kindness.
We can’t fix other people’s problems, but we can help – even if help means listening with compassion.
There’s a strong victim-blaming mentality that runs through our culture at the moment. The Positive Psychology movement is like a runaway train and we hopped on the ride because it promised glittery feel-good awesomeness.
It’s convinced us that we have full control over our own destiny (we don’t – shit happens) and that if we aren’t successful, it’s because we haven’t tried hard enough (that’s often rubbish – see faecal reference above).
We all love rags-to-riches stories but focusing on them clouds the fact that they are an anomaly, not the rule, and it reduces our compassion for the people around us who are genuinely struggling.
So how will you define success this year?
There’s nothing wrong with striving to improve your life and your circumstances (go forth and work towards a happier, healthier, wealthier you!), but if we all sprinkle in a bit more empathy and a little more kindness and compassion, and the world will be a better place for it.