Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Success In Life

"The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself."

How is one to define a ‘successful’ life nowadays? Many young people with whom I talk have a straightforward response to the question. They take for granted one particular definition of ‘success’ given in the dictionary: namely… ‘the gaining of wealth, fame, rank, etc.’

However, if you turn to a Latin dictionary, the word ‘successus’ – from which the English term springs – is defined as ‘an advance, uphill, approach…’ without specifying the specific nature of the goal one is striving to reach. Yet I think that in our contemporary culture – when it comes to determining success in life – we automatically combine English and Latin definitions, and assume that it is to be judged by the level the individual attains on his or her ‘uphill advance’ to achieve a measure of ‘ wealth, fame, rank…

Now I’m not ‘preaching’ here against making money or achieving fame: such benefits may simply result from effectively pursuing one’s job or vocation – accomplishments which can not only work to benefit the individual, but also contribute to the general good of society as a whole through generous charitable giving. What I want to stress is that as we look back over the history of human thought and behavior, we see that the pursuit of material success for its own sake, has generally been considered less important than psychological success, which is seen as the acquiring of the self-knowledge that comes with time and experience. For this is the way by which one’s own most inborn character and innate disposition is revealed: in the manner by which one responds to life’s ups and downs - pleasures and pains. It is the self-knowledge that brings with it the mental and emotional conundrum…. just ‘Who’ is this thinking, feeling, person…. developing attitudes and responding behaviorally in the most personal kind of way; ‘Who’ is this human entity one thinks of as ‘I’. And ‘why ’ should you be so ‘destined’ to become the individual ‘You’?

These three lines from the English poet Walter de la Mare suggest where the true road to success in life is to be found:

Go far; come near

You must still be

The center of your own small mystery.

Do you ever spend a little time becoming sufficiently introverted to ponder the ‘mystery’ of the complex consciousness that makes You peculiarly ‘You!’ Because the purpose of the ‘journey’ of life, has long been seen as a passage from one stage of experience to another, culminating in the ultimate recognition of one’s unique psychological identity - which is to say in terms of one’s character, values, and behavior. Sometimes called the ‘rites of passage’, the journey produces the kind of self-enlightenment that can ultimately yield ‘some light at the end of the tunnel…. at the same time bringing one to become aware of the inner drive or psychical force that compels one along one’s own individual way. The ‘force’ often referred to as ‘the human spirit’. (No conventional ‘religious overtones here.)

‘Success’ in this direction may be measured by the degree of purpose and meaning, the sense of a personal destiny, you intuitively glimpse for yourself on life’s journey, together with the rise of some kind of moral awareness concerning right and wrong.

In the book ‘What the Hell Are the Neurons Up To?’ – writing in the Chapter headed ‘A Sense of the Holy: Music of the Spheres’ – I pointed out that the great Greek philosophers and dramatists of the Classical period who shaped the philosophical and psychological attitudes still pertaining in Western culture, were seemingly disinterested in whether or not the population as a whole lived any kind of internal life. They took the view that the life and consciousness of the individual constituted the ultimate reality – each person forging his or her fate on a most personal journey, down a most private road; in the course of which the three major forces of destiny, tragedy, and nemesis (retributive justice) were encountered in order to forge and test strength of character.

Consequently, it is worth remembering that the famed Oracle of Delphi, when consulted by those in need of guidance in order to help them succeed in life, would constantly utter ther same advice: ‘Know thyself: know thy soul.”

The well-known French essayist Montaigne wrote: ‘The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself… To which I would add, ‘in order to recognize both the best and the worst in one’s character.’

More from Graham Collier
More from Psychology Today