Learning How to Measure Success in Life

by | May 12, 2015 | Our Happiness Project | 4 comments

When I was 14 years old I already had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do as a career. I also had a clear idea of how I should measure my own success in life. It took the entire second 14 years of my life to realise I was completely wrong.

Before we left New Zealand back in 2012, I was going through and clearing out some of the huge boxes of my old stuff that I had littered my Mum’s house with and found some pretty funny old school notes. One piece of paper I found was from a career counselling class back in High School (from 4th form when I was 14). It had some career/life goals that I had set for myself including some absolute pearls considering how old I was.

14 year-old Matt’s Goals

  1. get a job at a big 5 accounting firm (the big 4 by the time I graduated)
  2. become a chartered accountant
  3. earn $40,000 a year
  4. move to London and get a job at a big bank
  5. Own my own house

Yep.

Some 14 year old kids want to go off and cure cancer, some want to become football stars but there you go, apparently I’ve always been practical and realistic.

I stuck remarkably close to those goals and managed to tick off number 1 & 3 straight out of university and number 2 followed after three years of further study.

Shortly after that we were off and moving to London and I settled for a Hedge Fund instead of a big bank but I would hope my 14 year old self would let me off on that slight deviation from “the Plan”. So there was number 4 ticked off.

Boo wearing a suit.

Sad at being back in a suit for interviews in London in 2012 after a few months of travelling around South East Asia

After a bit of time working in London we had a deposit saved up and were looking at buying a house. We even had pre-approval for a scarily large mortgage from our bank. Thankfully we hit pause on “the Plan” before we offered on a house. Something didn’t feel right about it (not to mention the fact that the London property market is insane and I don’t think anybody should pay £300,000 for a tiny one bedroom shack with no garden).

I know outside that career counselling class I had one other big dream which was to run my own business and also a huge desire to travel and see the world. Hopefully I had even more that I just didn’t happen to write down at the time.

Sadly I think if someone asked me what I would consider to be success in life back then I would have answered:

  1. having a secure, well paying job
  2. owning my own home with a big TV and flash car
  3. having a lot of money in my savings account

There would have been a few other items there but financial security would have been the core part of it. I think a similar version of these three items are still what a lot of people are pushed in to thinking is a good measure of success. Family, friends and society in general all push us towards some version of a life that is focused on financial security above all else. You could probably add in finding a suitable partner and having 2.2 kids as well.

Looking back at those old goals now just makes me laugh but even up until relatively recently, I still had similar, financial based goals. I was measuring my success by how much money I earned, how much money we had saved, how many flash toys we had and how close we were to owning our own home. This drive to build a large savings account and accumulate material possessions thankfully has never got in the way of one of our real passions: travel.

I have never felt bad about spending money on travel. Even as a broke recent graduate travelling across the US I put $350 on my credit card to max it out on a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. It was worth it and always has been. Not once have I regretted spending a penny on travel. After all, travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.

So what made me change my mind on what success meant?

The tipping point for me was when I was in the midst of working 80+ hour weeks at work last year. My whole life was focused on work including the weekends. I was well paid and saving plenty of money (because I didn’t have any free time to do anything with it) and I was completely miserable. It was after a few months of this that I first started focusing on why I wasn’t happy and what would change that.

The first realisation I had was that we needed to be more like Bhutan. Instead of focusing every decision on what will make more sense financially, we should look at what will make us happiest. Just like Bhutan focuses on improving the nation’s happiness rather than increasing their GDP.

Bhutan even has a Minister of Happiness. That is how important they think it is and it flows through to how they make decisions. If someone wants to build a dam that will create a huge boost to their GDP, they instead focus on all the villages that could be flooded and whether the dam will actually improve their citizens lives.

Having worked with and met plenty of people that earn seven figure incomes, I know that earning a lot of money doesn’t necessarily lead to a happier life. Sometimes people are rich and also really happy but this is usually when they have still found a way of measuring their success through their passions rather than their bank account. Richard Branson is a great example of someone who seems so grounded and happy and I have a feeling he would be the same way even if he was struggling away on minimum wage.

Often large incomes can have the opposite impact on happiness when the quest for more money cannibalises any other smaller dreams people might have had.

There is definitely a balancing point where income and financial security do have an impact on happiness (most studies put that level at about $70,000 USD per annum). The problem is that there are a lot of people who earn more than this and still focus all their energy on further increasing their income instead of focusing on other areas that could make them much happier.

How we measure our success now

Are we happy? Will this make us happier or not?

Happiness isn’t a simple thing to measure or achieve but for any choice we make now, we are focusing on which option makes us happier rather than what makes us more money or what helps us keep up with the rest of society.

We are by no means perfect at applying this yet but we’ve come pretty far in the last six months and we’re both excited for what the next few years hold for us as we get better at making our happiness our biggest priority. It sounds sort of selfish in a way focusing on just your happiness but luckily it’s hard to be happy without having a positive impact on others.

What actually makes each person in the world happy is different from person to person but I think there are a few consistent things:

  • helping others & doing good deeds;
  • spending time with people you love;
  • doing the things you’re passionate about; and
  • doing things that allow you to be creative.

Happiness is a beautiful, complicated thing that deserves more than a paragraph so maybe we’ll share more once we’ve figured out more for ourselves.

I’ve made one big step towards a happier life already this year. I’m moving away from the safety of a well paid, secure job (that I’m not very passionate about). I’m still happy I spent years studying to become an accountant as I do enjoy a lot of the work (YAY spreadsheets!) but I need to find a role that I’m more passionate about to apply my skills to. I’m taking a slow and gradual approach to the move (this works well for both me and my employer) so from September I’ll be moving to part time (two or three days a week) then finishing up completely in November.

It’s a little scary not knowing what I’m going to do. I don’t know if I’ll be able to follow my dream of starting my own business or whether I’ll just use the spare time to recharge and take a break for a bit but I won’t find out if I don’t try.

Life is short after all!

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