January 16

The Toxic Impact of Our Unreasonable Standards for Success

One academic definitions of perfectionism is somebody that has unusually high expectations for success and repeatedly fails to hit those markers, so they continually think that they are are a loser and a failure. This is what our culture does these days. We set unusually high markers for success. We are presented with this perfect self on TV, on radio, on the internet, and social media, and are told that if you're not this perfect person, you have failed. So if you're not Beyonce, if you're not Steve Jobs, you're doing something wrong. This really is incredibly toxic because it's not true. - Will Storr, The Unmistakable Creative Podcast

When you put the word “success” into the title of an article, it increases the likelihood that people will read it. One of my most popular articles is about 5 things I had to give up to be successful. Every day the internet is littered with success porn.

While I've singled out my friend Ben Hardy who wrote one of the articles listed above, this list goes on and on. Hundreds of people, myself included, add to it every day.

If you browse articles on a site like Medium for an hour, you'll feel like a lazy piece of shit who isn't optimizing your productivity or crushing it. Combine that with the parade of accomplishments you see on social media and it's no surprise we feel inadequate. We're made to feel like failures if we don't become the next Steve Jobs, Oprah or Beyonce.

We place our heroes and role models on pedestals, hang on their every word as if it's gospel instead of guidance, and emulate them in the hopes that we might become successful like them. And often we do so to our detriment

The Danger of Defining Ourselves by Our Accomplishments

In the months leading up to the launch of An Audience of One, I became addicted to achievement. I measured my self esteem in book sales, podcast downloads, and other tangible metrics. But when you measure your self esteem with metrics that fluctuate, your well being will as well. "When we link who we are with what we do, we are hanging our self-esteem and self-worth on a precarious ledge" says Rahaf Harfoush.

Accomplishments and moments in the limelight are all fleeting. Even if there was such thing as an “I've made it” moment, by definition, it's temporary. It's a small fraction of your total time on this earth and it's insane to measure the quality of your life by a fraction of it.

Individualism and Envy

Our standards for success have become so unreasonable that we think our lives are shit if we aren't validated by a million strangers on the internet, don't have our pictures on the covers of magazines, aren't writing best-selling books, or building the next billion dollar unicorn.

Social media and internet celebrities amplify this with their inspiring blog posts, best-selling books and quotable Instagram memes. The inevitable result is envy, comparison, anxiety, confusing attention with accomplishment, and a perpetual sense of inadequacy. We've become self obsessed with no idea what it's doing to us.

But this is nothing new. This has been happening long before social media. If you go to a school like Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, or MIT, there's an implicit message that your standards for success should be a high GPA and the most prestigious job you can find when you graduate. Social media was just a way to quantify it with metrics and pour gasoline on the fire of our individualism.

Self Image Issues

The false sense of celebrity made possible by social media, while giving us amazing tools to express our creativity has also done great harm to our culture by amplifying our unreasonable standards for success 

  • When teenage girls scroll through their Instagram feed and see nothing but sexy selfies, the inevitable result is body image issues. This is why the work that people like Elizabeth Dialto are doing is so important. It's something she and I discussed extensively in her interview on the Unmistakable Creative.
  • When those of us who scroll through our Instagram feeds yet aren't best-selling authors who are hanging out with celebrities or jet-setting around the world, the inevitable result is envy and comparison
  • For those who do live up to these unreasonable standards for success, they have to keep feeding an insatiable dopamine hit machine to inflate meaningless metrics.

Social media has turned all of our lives into a reality show. But as anybody who has been on reality TV or produced it will tell you, that reality TVs heavily edited. We don't see the parts of people's lives they choose to leave out. What you're seeing is not the truth. Someone could look like they're crushing it on Instagram, when in reality they are having the most difficult year of their life.

Values Driven Lives or Metrics Driven Lives

We can either live a values driven life or a metrics driven life. We can measure our lives with the money in our bank account, our popularity on the internet, and the size of our house.

Or we can measure it based on character, integrity, eulogy values instead of resume values. There's a diminishing return to a metrics driven life. Even if you get the thing you want more than anything in the world, the best-selling book, the breathtaking super model girlfriend, or the billion dollar unicorn, eventually it will just be your new normal. You will become a victim of the disease more.

You're probably not going to become great like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Elon Musk. When put our heroes and role models on pedestals and attempt to replicate what they've done, at best we'll become pale imitations and at worst we'll be completely ignored.

Our unreasonable standards for success cause us to measure our lives with someone else's yardstick. We let society's life plan, advertising, and social programming determine the value of our lives. We inherit our goals from the world around us instead of basing them on our lived experience.

How you define success and how you measure your life might be one of the biggest sources of your suffering and unhappiness. What are the metrics you use to measure your life? It's worth considering whether your definition is based on unreasonable standards that are having a toxic impact on the quality of your life.

As a part of the research of my next book, I'm trying to get an understand the ways in which people measure their life. I'd love you feedback on this short survey.


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