Why “Success” is an Unhelpful Idea and How to Really Flourish as a Multipotentialite
Photo courtesy of Julie Missbutterflies.

Why “Success” is an Unhelpful Idea and How to Really Flourish as a Multipotentialite

Written by Emilie

Topics: Goals

Words like “success” and “failure” have never meant much to me. Other people seem to care a great deal about these words, but I don’t really know what they mean. They seem so abstract and subjective.

There are examples you can point to and say: “that person’s clearly a success!” Someone who’s career has taken off, someone with multiple bestsellers or a fancy job at Google or whatever. But you have no idea how that person feels inside. They might feel unsatisfied, sad, anxious.

And then there are people who look like “failures” from the outside because they make very little money, but they might be gloriously happy, have meaningful relationships, and spend their days doing what they love.

My point isn’t that we should all strive for inner happiness in lieu of financial satisfaction, it’s that you can’t tell how happy someone is by the size of their paycheck or their influence in the world.

As I write in How to Be Everything, money is just one ingredient in a happy life. It matters, but it isn’t everything. And other conventional markers of success–prestige, accreditations, power–matter more to some people than others. We all have different values and different goals.

Replacing “Success” with Something Else

If I think about the times in my life when I’ve felt happiest, they’ve all been times of inner movement, times when I could feel myself flourishing. Often, at these times, I’m involved in one or more meaningful projects. Often, I’m stretching myself. Often, I’m working alongside friends and allies and we’re working for something bigger.

These are some of the components that make me feel like I have everything I need in my life right now. And that is probably the closest thing I can think of to “success.”

Sometimes this feeling of inner flourishing coincides with financial and professional accomplishments, sometimes it doesn’t.

You Can’t Flourish Continuously

The tricky thing is that, as multipotentialites, we sometimes find a set of circumstances (work, activities, hobbies, passion projects, friends, environment, etc.) that work SO well…for a time. But once the project ends or we stop feeling challenged or life gets too monotonous, we no longer feel that same sense of movement inside.

Is that failure? I doubt it. Failure’s a heavy word.

It actually sounds kind of natural to me.

Maybe it’s a sign that we need to mix things up and seek out new adventures. Or maybe it means we need some down time.

In fact, remaining stuck in an environment that is no longer inspiring or giving you what you need, sounds a lot more like “failure” to me.

I think my point is that terms like “success” and “failure” are utterly unhelpful. What are your goals? What makes you feel like you’re making good use of your time on this earth? Seek those things out. And when they change, seek them out anew.

Emilie Wapnick is the Founder and Creative Director at Puttylike, where she helps multipotentialites build lives and careers around ALL their interests. Unable to settle on one path herself, Emilie studied music, art, film production and law, graduating from the Law Faculty at McGill University. She is the author of How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. Learn more about Emilie here.

20 Comments

  1. Aarti says:

    Hey Emilie,
    This post reminded me of speech competitions that we used to have in schools. I remember participating in one with the same topic – success and failure, in grade 5! A bunch of 10 year old kids coming up with generic success and failure quotes by Thomas Alva Edison, or stories of ants climbing over walls again and again despite falling, this was a common script for all of us. Except that now it seems so silly! I wish we didn’t fill children’s heads with these expectations of being a success or a failure, let alone ask them to give speeches for yet another competition where they’ll declare just one “winner” among the remaining “losers”.

  2. Harald says:

    This whole talk about success and failure is tightly entangled with the notion of being a winner or loser. This makes an object out of something so extremely subjective. People look on that object (objectively, they think) from the outside and judge a person’s efforts and activities as “successful” or “failing”.

    To me, this looks like the difference between the play that is typically observed in very young children as opposed to the play of older children. The former play to explore, have fun and pass the time. The latter may do this as well but, more and more, they play to win the game.

    If a multipotentialite’s life is all about exploring and learning, maybe we can identify more with a mentality of just playing instead of striving for victory. For us, there is not even one game but many.

    To put it in a term that is often said of extremely successful people: We are game-changers. Not by any special effort. We are game-changers by nature. And we don’t necessarily change the game of an industry or even the entire world since, first and foremost, we are simply game-changers for ourselves.

    And if sometimes our games change as rapidly as those of small children do then we are well advised to do the same as they do: Don’t try to win, explore, have fun – just play! Or put another way: Becoming a specialist means to play along the rules of a field (i.e. a certain kind of game) and to win this game (and a lot of expertise) according to its rules.

    As a multipotentialite, I am the antithesis of that. Unless it interferes with my life’s necessitites, I will neither aim for victory nor embrace what is commonly called “success”. Where I have my way, all I want is play.

  3. Anna W. says:

    I whole heartedly agree with all of this! I have been fascinated by semantics recently and this is a great example. The use of the word success is fairly vague and translates differently for everyone. Something to ponder…

  4. Anna says:

    How interesting that children came up in both of the previous comments! Our notions about the world develop quite early.

    For me, it’s been a struggle to transition from the external rubrics of success we experience in public schools and universities (GPA, rankings, scores, etc.) towards some internal metric, because I was never taught how to set goals for myself. I think success is a useful concept insofar as it relates to the joy of achieving your own goals, but failure… maybe not so much? A shift in priorities that results in a redefinition of goals would constitute a “failure” at achieving the first goal, but if that goal is no longer useful to you, forget it! I suppose this relates to Harald’s notion of play and exploration, which seems like a much more useful objective. Now to play around with THAT idea!

  5. Greg says:

    “If I think about the times in my life when I’ve felt happiest, they’ve all been times of inner movement, times when I could feel myself flourishing. Often, at these times, I’m involved in one or more meaningful projects.”

    I think workplace studies and psychologists refer to this feeling as “Flow” or “Being In The Zone”- the Happy Documentary (on Netflix) talks about this more in depth.It is something actually intrinsic to human happiness. “Flow” can be something you do at work, school, a hobby, whatever, but it’s when you zone out doing an activity that really lights your fire, the time you spend becomes irrelevant, continuing to 3am seems like “fun”.

    For me, simply coming home to cook an elaborate dinner puts me “in the zone”, time and space melt away etc etc. I think most of us can probably think of 2-3 activities we like to do that put us in this state.

    “Success” to me would definitely be finding a career that channels my passions and routes me into the Flow!

  6. Jeremy Brien says:

    Emilie, Thank you so much for your blog and your book. I first saw your Ted Talk about 3 months ago and I connected with it so much. It prompted me to learn more about my potentiality and I ended up changing my career focus based on the things you described above… I’m always up for an adventure and I’m lucky to work for a great organization that indulges me that way.

  7. The problem with using simplistic labels such as success and failure, is that it is (and they are) so utterly judgemental and inaccurate.

    In our digital world, we need to step back and realize that us, as humankind, we are much, much, much more than connecting to and referencing short adjectives that conveniently are captured by electronic devices.

    Our challenge, is to wisely filter out garbage and keep our meaningful identities, and true natures in perspective.

  8. Evan says:

    Thank you for posting this Emilie. I agree with you 100%. I have tried to really look at my definitions of success and failure in my life, and I have come to a place where neither really make sense to me anymore.

    I can relate also to the lull in project energy, as I am going through a slower period at work at the moment. I try to fill my time with other learning activities and such, but being patient for the next project can be hard!

    Thanks again and take care!
    Evan

  9. Stella says:

    “In fact, remaining stuck in an environment that is no longer inspiring or giving you what you need, sounds a lot more like “failure” to me.”

    This.

    I just started studying at one of the best universities in the world and realised on the first day that despite all the work I’d put in to get here, I hated the subject I’d chosen. In the process of changing course I felt like I was a failure, that after all that work I’d fallen at the last hurdle. Sadly, certain members of university staff helped fuel that anxiety, one even suggesting that maybe this place isn’t for me if I couldn’t stick it out.

    But I changed course anyway – staying at my uni, just studying a different subject. And even though I’m really behind on work now, I feel so much happier. As you say, the failure is in staying somewhere, or doing something that you hate without doing anything about it. My goals have changed, but I’m excited to follow them through and not let being behind stop me.

  10. Luisa says:

    I like your post. I feel, like now, that I did not accomplish anything worth :( I have had many jobs ( a short time, because I got stressed when I think that I have to stay in a place forever), but no one fulfilled my self :( I am communicator, it is a versatile career, however, something happens to me, but I do not know. The problem is that I want money to travel and discover new things, but if I do not work I cannot get that money. I read read read. Evento to undertake something you need money. I do not what to do, I only know that I love read, travel, and that i am a multipod :P

  11. Erin says:

    A great reminder that learning who we are and what makes us tick is an ongoing, lifelong project. And I love how you define ‘failure’ as a natural part of the process. Thank you!

  12. Paco Hadley says:

    This is a great topic, and something I think about a lot. I work as an academic advisor at a community college, and I have worked both in a Hispanic-serving campus and now with international students.

    “Success” is very much culturally constructed. For some students, being successful means having a steady job that puts food on the table. For others, fulfilling their parents’ wishes means they’re successful. I had a student come into my office yesterday, and her dream, after traveling across the world, learning English, and spending two years in college, is to work retail.

    I’m not going to tell anyone that their definition of success isn’t valid because it doesn’t match up to my white, cis-male, straight, able-bodied, middle-class, educated, American worldview. What I can do is help them recognize their definition and help them decide if that definition works for them.

  13. Paul Ricken says:

    Dear Emily and other Puttypeep, because we seem to live in a dual world, we can never escape the duality of success and failure. And following it; the definition of those subjects and the discussion about it. It also divides us. We start doing that the moment we become self aware at the age of about 2 years young. We learn to discern. We know we are a separate identity. We learn the difference between good and bad and so on. And that’s fine of course. We need discernment to live in this dual world. The essence however of our being is being boundless energy. That energy does not divide, that energy does not know success or failure, it does not have an identity, a past, a future, opinions, personality, ego, selfawareness, discernment. It just is. That’s what we are as well. As we become self aware of that knowing we might become at ease with what we are. We become receptive, open, spontaneous, light, direct and respond immediately to what is presented to us. This freedom, this liberating feeling is what we truly are. Multipotentialite included. All of mankind know the feeling. We were born with it. It is wellbeing combined with resilience. This is what powers us to move on, whether we experience success or failure. We just move on no matter what even in a dual world.

  14. Sandrine G. says:

    Hey Emilie,

    At first, after reading only the title, I was thinking “wait a minute… I don’t agree to that. I’m a Success Instigator! I help my clients reach their successes… big and small.” Once I read the article, yes. I agree with you.

    Success is defined differently by every single person. What I consider a success may make you indifferent. As for failures, I don’t think they even exist. Each challenge or difficulty is a teaching, something we can learn from to continue down our very own path.

    Thanks for giving us so much content that makes us reflect and grow.

    Your fellow multipod,
    Sandrine.

  15. lulu says:

    A very timely post for me – maybe ALWAYS a timely topic for me, as I can’t seem to shake this notion that I’ve got to strive to be successful. I have in the past defined this for myself, and by that youthful standard, I have achieved success many times over. But now in full middle-age mode, I feel I have not achieved what I ought to have achieved. It is a constant inner stumbling block. It could well be that I don’t really want the success I claim to want, because then others will have expectations of me. As things are now, I can play in any direction I want to. Maybe I can learn to be happiest with that!

  16. Tara says:

    This is music to my ear, and it’s nice to see other think similar too.

    I have not paid much attention to the word success. I would not ask myself the question am I successful without having a clear definition of my objective. For example I was successful in getting my high school degree as the goal was to get it, I couldn’t care less about the grade I had as long as I got it and could get out of there! it had a defined goal.

    As for failure, I read something and I tried to name the failures in my life. I couldn’t come up with any at all. Then I ask close ones. They named a couple but I didn’t see them as failures. Times where things happen when they are not planned are not failures to me, they are a stepping stone. I look at some and think if that had not happen then this neither. The second being something really awesome. I just from then decided not to use the word anymore as it doesn’t mean anything to me.

    Thanks for sharing Emily. : )

  17. “If I think about the times in my life when I’ve felt happiest, they’ve all been times of inner movement, times when I could feel myself flourishing. Often, at these times, I’m involved in one or more meaningful projects. Often, I’m stretching myself. Often, I’m working alongside friends and allies and we’re working for something bigger.”

    I completely agree we need to widen up and diversify our definition of “success” and how we teach it to forward. We need space for different people to define it differently, and as long as you are happy and fulfilled, you are not wrong or unsuccessful or less than.

    I agree with your description of feeling a flourishing – an energy, a brightness when I’m plugged in and balanced in the right places. It feels wonderful! I would love to continue blowing up the traditional, confined and stale stencil of success to make room for something amorphous, wild, free, shape-shifty, juicy, and exciting.

  18. Zen Dexter says:

    Great post Emilie, and love the idea of flourishing over success.

    I learned recently the word “eudaimonia”, which comes from ancient Greek ethics and philosophy. Eudaimonia translates to “human flourishing”, and essentially refers to prioritising our wellbeing and sense of fulfillment in our lives. Very interesting Wikipedia article on the topic.

  19. tanaz says:

    aw that was really great Emilie.i agree.we can be happy with do whatever we like.so we can be happy.its not important what the other people think about us.we should just do that we hear from our inside.just positive things

  20. Helen says:

    Hi, all
    I really appreciate this post as resently the Startup I was working for for 2 years closed down. During this time I’ve tried myself on almost every sphere which was useful for the business. This isy driver: doing smth that really helps the bigger picture. Now I’m seeking for new adventures, as you said, although I already have the option, it feels like it’s a shortcut. Doing the same things.
    I hope to find my own sence in this opportunity. Or maybe look around for some other things. The main idea is not to treat it as a failure, but to be open for new options:)