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This chapter is from the book

Betrayed by Success and Searching for Meaning

Considering this mismatch between the dictionary definition of success and what you as an individual and your organization might actually care about, it shouldn’t be a surprise that you might yearn to “make something of yourself,” only to find that you’re strangely dissatisfied along the way because what you are working so hard for doesn’t really matter to you. Indeed, too many people at some point in their lives set goals and go on to achieve them, often brilliantly, only to find that they are mysteriously disappointed, empty, and unhappy.

Could this be why, despite acquiring material luxuries undreamed of even a few decades ago, there is a rising epidemic of clinical depression and suicide among the wealthiest citizens in America, China, and other rapidly growing economies? The World Health Organization predicts that depression will be the second leading cause of disability by 2020—a prediction that is, well, depressing.

How is it possible to achieve the very definition of success and yet find happiness so fleeting? Builders say it’s a simple matter of being cheated by the absence of knowing what really matters to you in your life, not just for today, but for today and for the long term. This is why the people who win the lottery have such a terrible track record of staying happy or sober two years later. It’s one of the many reasons why nine out of ten start-up companies fail to sustain themselves for the long term and why it’s tough to keep a career on track for decades.

It’s why most governments are fraught with needless acrimony and inefficiency, said Vaira Vike-Frieberga, president of Latvia. A former psychology professor at the University of Montreal, she noted that, “All too often, legislators launch their grand plans before making sure there is a shared sense of what success means or whether it matters when we get there.”

This also may be a reason why many partnerships, including marriages, don’t have happy endings. And it may be why Hollywood celebrity becomes synonymous with short-term relationships and long-term addictions.

You read about these folks all the time in People Magazine and the Wall Street Journal—the lifestyles of the rich, the famous, and the unbelievably disappointed. These are the people who so many of us aspire to be, and yet even these idols find themselves incomplete, feeling much less excited than when they had nothing but the promise of their imagined future.

You either know a person like this, or you are one.

To avoid this poignant dilemma, be careful what you wish for. When achievement for you or your organization comes without meaning, then it doesn’t last. Builders experience a success that does not leave them half full, as can often be the case for those who pursue only material treasures or other short-term measures instead of their own internal definition of lasting fulfillment.

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