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The #1 Misconception about Success

How to Avoid this Common Trap

Denise Jones/Unsplash
Source: Denise Jones/Unsplash

We seek happiness.

Consider the following statements:

“I won’t be happy until I get that job promotion” or “Making more money will make me happy” or “When I meet someone, I will finally be happy.”

I often hear such statements. They are predictions about how one will feel in the future. This is known as affective forecasting.

Naturally, we pursue endeavors that we believe will make us happy. We presume that achieving milestones such as a job promotion, getting married or earning a higher salary will make us happier.

It is important to make a distinction about how we predict our future emotions. Even though we can accurately predict how we will feel about a future event, we have difficulty predicting the intensity and duration of our future feelings. We tend to overestimate the enduring impact that future events will have on our emotions; a phenomenon termed the impact bias. Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, found that both positive and negative events had a briefer and less intense impact on test participants than they had predicted.

I can attest to this. When I was in college I had naively believed that becoming a physician would be the key to permanent happiness. I was willing to endure 8 years of training after college and accumulate six figures in student loans for my slice of success.

It did not take long to discover the error in my way of thinking. Practicing medicine comes with its own set of stressors. There is pressure to meet productivity expectations and quality measures set by the hospital. Documentation requirements are time-consuming and cumbersome. Many physicians practice under the fear of litigation as they worry about being sued for an unexpected adverse treatment outcome. There is frustration dealing with mountains of ancillary paperwork such as prior authorizations to ensure that health insurances will cover prescribed treatments.

A 2020 survey of more than 15,000 physicians only supported my observations. It showed that 42% of physicians suffer from burnout which is characterized by emotional exhaustion, feeling detached from one’s job responsibilities and a lack of personal accomplishment. This survey took place before the COVID pandemic which has only placed further pressure on physicians and other healthcare workers.

This is the great misconception about success. We predict that becoming successful will make us happy and we make sacrifices to become successful. However, success does not lead to sustained happiness. Pick any other arbitrary goal such as becoming wealthy, getting married, or running a profitable business. The satisfaction from tasting the sweet nectar of success is short-lived. You are left craving more as it fades away. If you are not mindful, you will have no other choice but join an endless hamster wheel and constantly chase future achievements with no end in sight.

It is also worth noting that being successful comes with its own unique set of challenges. There is an increase in stress and responsibility. People hold you to a higher standard and expect more out of you. You are under closer scrutiny and have more to lose. After all, the fall is greater from the top.

Comedian Jim Carrey said it best: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.”

No, it is not always sunny with clear blue skies when you arrive at your desired destination. There will be plenty of rainy days with blustering winds.

Accepting this painful truth is not an invitation to complacency. I am not suggesting you abandon your dreams. There is great value in setting and reaching goals. However, it is important to be mindful as you embark on your endeavors and maintain a healthy relationship with success.

It starts by appreciating the journey leading to your desired destination. Do not fixate so much on future goals that you fail to appreciate “the here and now." That would be the equivalent of focusing exclusively on completing a hike in the woods and failing to appreciate the scenery along the path.

There are many opportunities to learn about yourself on your life's journey. You can discover how resilient you are every time you get knocked down, dust yourself off, and get back up. You can observe your personal growth as you overcome obstacles and inch closer to your goals. If you fail to be present along your journey, you will miss valuable insights.

We are so anxious about reaching future goals that we lose perspective and forget to be present. Anxiety is the thief that deprives us of the present moment. When we are anxious we are either looking too far into the future or ruminating on the past.

To be more present, practice meditation. There are many types. Mindfulness meditation encourages us to maintain awareness in the present moment as we focus on the flow of our breath. This exercise may sound simple but it is difficult to practice. Spend ten minutes in a quiet room with no distractions and simply focus on your breath. Our mind has a tendency to wander in a million directions. When your mind wanders away, take note of it and gently guide it back to your breath.

If focusing on your breath is too hard, try gratitude meditation. The practice of gratitude is a powerful tool that grounds us in our present reality. Gratitude provides perspective by allowing us to balance the pursuit of future goals with a healthy appreciation of our current life.

The pursuit of success is not necessarily a bad thing. There are many benefits to setting and reaching goals. The problem occurs when we overestimate such benefits and fail to appreciate the journey towards the destination.