What does it mean to be successful?

  • Our needs form a hierarchy - biological needs come first
  • A career should ideally satisfy our psychological needs, but not if it cannot sustain us physically
  • Our core "Being Values" can guide us on a search for what is important to spend time and effort on
  • A Need is really a Want if it is not aligned with one of our Being Values
Never miss an article!
Follow Treerock Therapy on:
Sign up for the newsletter:
"Do you consider yourself a success?" asks an excited reporter while the crowd roars in the background. James Hetfield, frontman of the band Metallica, thinks for a while and then he says, grinning: "Well, we do what we love doing and get paid for it. So yeah, I'd say we are successful."

This simple statement gave me a pause. Is that really it? Measuring success based on how our day-to-day feels like, rather than on how much money we make or how far up the management ladder we are certainly sounds less stressful. It is no secret that high-achieving individuals are often depressed, anxious and unsatisfied.

Should we then prefer our internal well-being over external quantification of success and wealth? Who defines these external standards, anyway? Is there any value in them? And, finally, can we be both successful on the outside, and truly feel successful when the clapping stops, the chatter dies down and we are left alone with our own thoughts?

There are two issues to consider when answering these questions.

The hierarchy of human needs

First, if we simply did "what we love doing", we could go into the extreme of sitting on the beach and sipping cocktails whole day, spending our days hiking, playing with kids, immersing ourselves within the art world, or whatever else feels good. However, our biological needs, as well as needs for shelter and safety keep us back.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs - physiological, psychological and self-actualization needs A. Maslow, a humanist psychologist, organized human needs into a pyramid hierarchy - we find needs such as sleep, food and shelter on the lower tiers and needs such as friendship and self-esteem on the upper tiers [1]. We can say that the lower tiers correspond to our physiological needs, and we move up the hierarchy towards psychological and self-actualization needs.

Maslow argued that higher-tier needs only become the focus once lower-tier needs have more or less been satisfied. In other words, if you are hungry, your top priority is looking for food, not having a family. Conversely, one often remains unsatisfied even when they receive a lot of recognition at work, but have no friends to share their success with.

This poses a dilemma to anyone who wants to have a personally fulfilling profession - will they be actually able to afford the more basic things in their life? Will they be relaxed and happy? Over-prioritizing psychological needs can lead to financial strain. On the other hand, focusing too much on financial security (essentially, satisfying lower-tier needs) may lead to burnout and depression.

Needs, Wants and Being Values

The second issue to consider then is the distinction between what a Want and what Need is. We may, by a honest mistake, find ourselves trying to navigate our pyramid by doing things that distract us from finding meaning in life and that even do harm to us and others.

Let's consider Mary, who likes to go to expensive restaurants with her friends when she feels down. Her need for food and company could certainly be satisfied in more economic ways, such as cooking at home and inviting her friends over. Nevertheless, going to expensive restaurants feels good to Mary and she is not struggling financially because of it. However, immediately on the next day after spending time with friends, Mary still feels like something is missing.

Upon closer examination, Mary realizes that being in an expensive restaurant fulfills her need for status - something that Maslow puts higher on the hierarchy. Given that her lower and upper-tier needs are satisfied, why does Mary often feel unfulfilled and low on energy?

Another interesting concept that Maslow put forward are the Being Values of Aliveness, Beauty, Completion, Effortlessness, Goodness, Justice, Perfection, Playfulness, Richness, Self-Sufficiency, Simplicity, Truth, Uniqueness and Wholeness [2]. Each individual finds some of these values very important and core to them. The Being Values feel, in a sense, more innate and tied to one's being than other values. I propose that satisfying a certain need is only fulfilling if doing so pursues a person's Being Value. To take the argument further, I propose that a Need is really a Want if it is not aligned with a Being Value.

Mary can choose to go deeper and examine whether what she perceives as her psychological need for status aligns with her Being Values. If the alignment is not there, it is possible that her need is really a hidden defense mechanism against something that clashes with her Being Values. For example, in deeper psychoanalysis, Mary may realize that indeed, her family had little money and had to rely on welfare cheques, which clashed with Mary's Being Value of Self-Sufficiency. She is now overcompensating by displaying her wealth to her friends. Interestingly though, spending money in a restaurant does not make Mary more self-sufficient. It may even be putting a slight financial strain on her, threatening her self-sufficiency.

Having gained greater self-awareness, there are a number of ways in which Mary can proceed. She may choose to have friends over for dinners and put some of her money on a savings account each month, thus increasing her sense of being self-sufficient. She can also decide to instead pursue her Being Value of Playfulness and spend money that she would normally spend in restaurants on paying for dance lessons. Or, she may decide to pursue Goodness by cutting down on overtime work that funds her restaurant-going and spending the saved time volunteering for a local charity.

Finding the balance

It seems that before we can feel truly satisfied, we need to dive deeper into what makes us unique individuals and what deeply matters to us. One often finds themselves making commitments based on what they incorrectly perceive as their needs, leaving little space for what is actually meaningful and truly needed. At the same time, life is rarely ideal and worries such as having enough money for food and rent, or having enough time to spend with family, can steal our attention away from our internal well-being.

Perhaps then, being successful means successfully managing the balance between the constraints of physical reality and our innate drive towards our Being Values.
In my practice, I help clients explore what truly matters to them at and outside of work. Learn more if you need support.

  • [1] Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-96.
  • [2] Maslow, A. H. (1993). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Arkana.

Share this article with friends and colleagues: