Friday, July 01, 2016

The Nature of Success

One challenge of modern living is that we do not really know for sure whether we have really succeeded in life. To many people, this is a difficult philosophical question with no concrete answer.

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything by Neil Pasricha offered a pretty novel model of success which I have attempted to extend in this article.

Neil proposes three dimensions of success in his book :

a) Measurable success

One dimension of success is that it has to be measurable. Accumulating $1,000,000 is measurable. So is making partner in a consulting firm. Measurable success has a certain degree of visibility and is, generally, what modern societies like Singapore cherish the most.

b) Social success

The second dimension of success is social in nature. It means that people respect you because of certain deeds you performed. If friends and acquaintances consider you a successful person, you would have attained this dimension of success.

c) Private success

The last dimension of success is personal in nature. This means a degree of personal satisfaction and self-respect. You have private success if you feel that you have succeeded internally.

The book proposes that it is often very rare to succeed in all three dimensions, more often you can, at best, attain 2 out of 3 dimensions of success. 

I took the liberty of extending the model to consider what happens when one dimension is absent.

a) Absence of private success - The Super Manager

The successful executive or manager embodies the lack of private success. You have measurable results and the admiration of others but you are constantly trying to do better and end up living an anxious and neurotic lifestyle. 

b) Absence of measurable success - The Hipster

Someone who creates a critically acclaimed piece of art is said to lack measurable success. Your peers and critics laud your creation and you have an internal feeling of satisfaction for creating this work but the art-work may not result in a measurable pay-off and does not result in tangible benefits for society.

c) Absence of social success - The Rentier  

The greatest insight for me is that rentiers or financially independent folks who do not do useful work are deemed not to be respectable by their peers and thus lack social success. 

It answers a nagging problem I have when I spoke to some younger female SMU classmates and half-jokingly asked whether they would marry a guy who have have a cash stream but does not seem to do anything useful as part of work. I was very surprised at such a huge negative reaction even though I  disclaimed that such a person will not be a financial burden to them. They overwhelmingly preferred the guy to have some respectable job. ( Maybe even transfer the financial independence to them so they can become tai-tais ! )

While this model is more philosophical than empirical, one possible insight we can learn from this model is that we can try to experience different kinds of success throughout our lives. 

At some stage of our life, we can be a busy executive and throw ourselves into the rat-race. At some other stage of our life, we can try to produce a great work of art/software/product and make a positive qualitative difference to the world. And finally, we can also experience what it's also like to be financially independent and use the numbers to sustain ourselves to our personal satisfaction.

It's OK to be limited to two dimensions of success at any point of time. 

There exists an opportunity to be successful in different ways throughout our lives.


  1. Hi Chris,

    I read the book and posted something related to the theme of your article too here. It's interesting to see your three extremes of success!

  2. Yeah ! I should have linked to your article as you read the book quite a while ago.

    An excellent read !