What's the point of success?

While most people attending college are technically “adults”, the real world doesn’t really hit until post-graduation.

Towards the end of the fall semester of my senior year, I had to start applying for jobs. For most of college, I was pretty set on the idea of a software engineering job somewhere out west, hoping to work for one of the tech giants based out there. However as the reality of being an “adult” started to hit during my senior year I became less and less sure of this plan. I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to be a software engineer anymore or even work in tech at all. I also wasn’t sure that I wanted to live on the west coast anymore; New York city was starting to look a lot more appealing. At the same time, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to work in the US or work a traditional 9-5 job anymore. Basically any certainty that I thought I had entering my senior year of college was completely gone.

Applying to jobs can be pretty tricky when you don’t know :

  • Where you want to live
  • What you want to do
  • What type of company you want to work for
  • How much money you want to make

The issue is that your options are narrowed down by literally nothing, leaving all possible jobs in the pool. While I was grateful that I even had the opportunity to question such things, I was pretty overwhelmed and confused about what I wanted to do with my life. At this point I called my dad and told him I was thinking about applying for remote jobs. Both my mom and dad were pretty set on the idea that I would take a job somewhere in SF working in tech, so I was nervous about telling them I wasn’t so sure anymore. Since my dad was the easier target I called him first. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Hi dad, I’m thinking about applying to remote jobs”

Dad: “Are you sure? I don’t think that’s a good idea for your career.”

Me: “Why do I care about my career?”

Dad: “I don’t know, so you can make more money?”

Me: “Then what? I won’t be able to do anything with my money; I’ll be trapped.”

Dad: “Ok apply then I guess.”

The entire conversation was less than three minutes. Ultimately, I didn’t end up applying to any remote jobs, but this conversation really got me thinking about the meaning of success. Prior to graduation, one can find success in many different ways: sports, clubs, school, work, or whatever else one is interested in. However after graduation it seems like most of success is based around one’s career path. And what does that look like? Usually climbing whatever corporate ladder you start off on. But why? That’s where I got stuck. Why do we want to climb the corporate ladder? I’m guessing most people would say money, but I don’t think this answer is very legitimate. Happiness and income is a pretty well-researched area and the conclusion is that over a basic level of income, money doesn’t really contribute to happiness at all. Furthermore, usually whenever we reach some goal, monetary or not, we immediately start looking to the next one. Always wanting what we don’t have and waiting to get there. And what do we do when we get there? Look to the next thing we don’t have, duh.

So what’s the point? What’s the point of climbing the corporate ladder for our entire lives, if each step ends up meaning nothing. And what does this mean for our definitions of success.

I found that in the weeks following this conversation with my dad the word success became practically meaningless to me. I could not come up with a good definition of the word. But forgoing traditional definitions of the word success and traditional career goals based around this word left me with a new void to fill. If career success isn’t what I’m working towards my entire life then what am I working towards?

This got me thinking. If career success is (usually) inextricably tied to futuristic waiting and wanting then the opposite of career success would be happiness and satisfaction with everything that we have in the present moment. One of my favorite phrases for the past year or so has been “amor fati”, or literally “love of fate”. This phrase originates in stoicism, but essentially focuses on loving everything that happens to us, the good and the bad.

Friedrich Nietzsche called amor fati the formula for human greatness. He described it as a state wherein “one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.” This might seem weird because well… why should we love all the bad things that happen to us?

For starters, merely wanting things to happen differently does not actually change what happens. Instead, we might as well accept what is happening, believe that it is happening for a reason, and do everything in our power to make that reason something productive and positive. Epictetus said, “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather wish that what happens happens the way it happens: then you will be happy.” Side note that is an awesome sentence: “wish that what happens happens the way it happens”, thanks Epictetus.

Now you might be thinking that this sounds a lot like determinism and if we’re just accepting everything as it happens, we don’t ever need to take action right? Wrong. Just because we aren’t wishing for things to happen differently doesn’t mean that we can’t work hard and have goals. In fact, amor fati is the most efficient mindset we can have because we don’t waste any time wishing things were different or dwelling on the future or the past. Instead, we can use that energy to work hard and take action.

The following quote shows another perspective on the productivity of this mindset:

“Yes it’s a little unnatural to love things we never wanted to happen in the first place. But what other, worse adversities might this one be saving us from? What might we learn from this unchosen experience? What good equally unexpected events might result from it? We know that in retrospect we often look back at difficult times fondly, it so we might as well feel that now.” -Daily Stoic

So instead of striving towards success, I work to live “amor fati”. I work to live in day-tight compartments, so that I actually live every day I am alive. I work to love and appreciate the life I have, exactly as it is today.

So what does it all come down to? Gratitude and presence. Are you really surprised?