In the days before we had rules, the strong and powerful could do what they wished and the not so strong and not so powerful could do little about it. This left little scope for fairness, equality, dignity and other such key values. While some people rail against rules and see them as an unnecessary restriction on human freedom, a civilised social order would not be possible without some set of rules that the vast majority of people are prepared to abide by.
In a democratic society, the rules are based largely on the law and the legal system surrounding it, with official sanctions in place for those who transgress those rules. So, while such rules can be a problem at times, they are basically a good thing and an important ‘glue’ for binding society together.
Those are the ‘official’ rules, but there are also all sorts of unofficial rules that derive from cultural norms – sets of expectations that can bring sanctions if they are not abided by (social disapproval, laughter or even ridicule and so on). Despite being unofficial and not rooted in any formal body of law, these rules can still be very powerful influences on not only our behaviour, but also our thoughts and feelings.
For example, these rules can play a part in defining success. For a significant proportion of people success in life means material wealth – property ownership, money in the bank, and so on. This can be linked to success in the form of fame and celebrity status, even though most people will not achieve this. However, these definitions of success will often be a source of misery for many people – for those who feel a failure because they cannot achieve what their culture is telling them they should aim for, but also for those who do achieve these goals, but feel empty and unfulfilled once they do so. Monetary success is no guarantee of happiness. Material wealth is very different from spiritual wealth. The former does not guarantee the latter.
Focusing on material wealth as a means of defining success in life is likely to close off other opportunities for achieving different types of success. It is therefore important to have our own definition of success and not just adopt the dominant cultural norms. Being a passive victim of other people’s expectations is not a helpful or positive position to be in. We can achieve much more than this if we find the strength and courage to think for ourselves.
Imagine yourself in the latter stages of your life looking back over what you have achieved. What is it that is likely to matter most to you then? Will it be having been a decent, kind and considerate human being? An effective parent? A positive contributor to other people’s well-being? Or perhaps just to have survived the difficult circumstances that you have found yourself in?
There is no right answer to these questions. They are just ‘triggers’ to get you thinking about what the important things in your life are and thereby giving you a sense of perspective and focus, something to guide you in the important choices you make in life.
It can also be important to think about how what matters to you fits with what matters to the people who are an important part of your life. How can you be supportive of one another in finding definitions of success that work for you and for them?
So, in a nutshell, don’t be constrained by other people’s definitions of success. Decide for yourself what you want out of life and don’t let other people decide for you or stand in your way just because their idea of success differs from yours. After all, it’s your life, not theirs.