Success Vs. Satisfaction

I recently saw a quote that was attributed to the Buddha that said a “satisfied life is better than a successful life, because success is measured by other people. Satisfaction is measured by our own soul, mind, and heart.” As someone who was raised in the United States, I’ve always been taught to value success over any sense of personal satisfaction. In fact, I was taught to work hard, be successful, and delay any personal gratification until I was in my 60’s and ready to retire. Retirement was pitched as some magical time in my life when I was finally allowed to do what I really wanted to do.

As I sip fresh milk from a coconut shell on the island of Oahu after surfing, I chuckle at the notion that satisfaction is less important than success. I’ve often observed in myself how I delayed my gratification until I have finished my projects. At times, I’ve even thought of success as a requirement for me to feel satisfied with my life. I’m not looking for some absolute truth about the definition of satisfaction or success, rather I’m exploring where the balance may be between these two driving forces in my life.

In my book Healing Our Bloodlines, I talk about the concept of having an Inner World and an Outer World. I define the Inner World as our relationships to ourselves that is heightened in our solitude, nature walks, meditation sessions, and yogic moments. Concentrating on our Inner World brings us closer to our essence, that special inner shine that makes us unique. The Outer World can be seen as the larger domain that our essence and personality interact with in our daily lives. It includes our relationships, our work life, our birthday parties and sporting events. It even includes our interactions on social media, which is a remarkable social innovation because now we can snap waist up selfies in our underwear and no one would even know the difference. Introverts are so overjoyed that they even smile for those selfies. Truly incredible. We used to have to get dressed up for all our Outer World events. Can you believe that we used to wear formal dresses and suits just to fly on an airplane? My yoga pants are offended by this very notion.

Our Inner World is the domain of personal satisfaction. What gives us a sense of personal satisfaction is different for everyone. You might feel a sense of deep fulfillment from doing a spring cleaning of your home. Writers feel a sense of personal gratification from completing a piece that makes them smile, regardless of what others will think about it later. You may feel satisfied that you kept your hands off the chocolates and cinnamon buns for the first 2 weeks of 2020, even though no one else would know the difference. I often feel a sense of a satisfaction during my Friday morning cup of coffee when I realize most of my weekly tasks are done and I can reflect on the life that I have built for myself. The key difference is that personal satisfaction is a sense of fulfillment that doesn’t depend on what others think. It’s the favorite book that you’ve read, and no one else knows that you’ve read it.

Our Outer World is where our sense of success resides. By nature, success ties into our contributions to the world at large, taking into account the response from our communities. Financial success comes from offering our services to others in exchange for financial compensation. Promotions in job titles and prestigious awards are prevalent indicators of success that are celebratory responses to our efforts. I often think about the author Cormac McCarthy in his interview with Oprah, sharing about how he was evicted from his meager hotel room because he was working on his novel fulltime and didn’t want to work a secondary job to pay the bills. He found the life of a writer to be very personally fulfilling, yet the world hadn’t yet discovered his writing prowess. How you define success is up to you, and it might not conform to the world of dollar signs and bronze plaques. But becoming clear on how you define success can pave the path for your future.

It’s possible to have both personal satisfaction and success in your life. However, because personal satisfaction is experienced so internally and success has some bearing in the outside world, finding a practical balance between them is often a challenge. Perhaps this is why we don’t see many enlightened monks posting selfies on Instagram saying “liberation is off the chains!” after they achieve nirvana. A more common example is the writer who may feel satisfied with a book that they have written without showing it to anyone. Finishing a book to personal satisfaction is an accomplishment. However, without publishing the book, the full Outer World response will be incomplete. Conversely, the workaholic stockbroker may have accumulated a fortune over a number of years, but may have never slowed down enough to appreciate their family, a romantic vacation without checking their email, or the smell of wood burning in their crackling fireplace.

Take my Best of Both Worlds challenge:

  1. Write down 3 things that make you personally satisfied with your life. This is about you and your relationship with your life. It can involve things you put out into the world, but look for that feeling of personal gratification that’s outside of the feedback from others.
  2. Write down three achievements that make you feel successful. If possible, put only one achievement that is financially based to help you broaden perspective on success.
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