Lifestyle 101: Does Success Scare You?

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Recently a group of Millennials was asked the question: What do you want to achieve in life to be successful? The two top answers were: I want to be rich and/or famous. Money and/or fame, that was their definition of a successful life. In other words celebrity outranked substance. I suppose we could blame social media for this modern mindset but I think social media is more a reflection of society than a moulder of the human psyche. And yet a part of me suspects the opposite is true.

I’ve always been a very competitive person: as a kid, in the military, in the corporate mayhem we call business and even in my creative endeavours. This competitive nature has caused me no end of angst, stress and unhappiness. Because you can never achieve too much, be rich enough or famous enough. You are always left wanting. The Buddhists call these sufferers Hungry Ghosts. Buddhist iconography depict these unfortunate souls with large empty stomaches, pencil-thin necks and small mouths. They can never consume enough to satisfy their hunger.

Hungry Ghost – Buddhist Iconography

American consumerism equates personal success with financial wealth (and by extension the accumulation of stuff). But the stuff never satisfies—you’re always left wanting more: a bigger house, a nicer car, fancier clothes and more and better stuff. The more stuff we have, and the nicer that stuff is, somehow makes us important (and accomplished) in our mind’s eye. The accumulation of stuff shouts success to everyone around us—but in actual point of fact just promotes envy, jealously and hatred. In the past I’ve been viewed as successful by others but I no longer crave success (although like a recovering alcoholic the temptation is always there). Success (in a material sense) does not bring happiness or even contentment. The thought of success now scares me.

The most valuable commodity in my life is time. The most pleasurable thing in my life is how I choose to spend my time. Often as not that involves doing nothing when viewed from the outside (although the act of doing nothing is actually doing something—a discussion for another time). Six years ago (2011) I lost what I thought of as success: the thirty-year corporate banking job, the big house, the nice cars, the boat and even my wife. Almost overnight I went from being a minor somebody to a major nobody. As it turned out it was the best thing that ever happened to me—it forced me to reevaluate my life and allowed me the freedom to become the person I was meant to be. In losing everything (materially) I gained the world and control over my time.

My life is simple now: I live simple, I live cheap and I live free. I take my pictures, I write my articles and I travel the world. I am free to spend my time the way I want to spend it. I never want to go back to my old life but I know the possibility is always there. That’s why success scares me—because I suspect that if I had real money again I would (like a recovering alcoholic) fall back on old habits. That’s the ugly side of my personality—that competitiveness—that still calls my name like the Sirens of Ulysses to dash me against the rocks of misfortune. I was forced to live this new life (or maybe I subconsciously chose it for myself) and recreate myself—but now that I am living it I love it and am reluctant to give it up. I think, in ways that truly matter, I am more successful now than I ever was in corporate America.


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