The Meaning of Success

| January 13, 2014

In Western societies we tend to associate the word “successful” with people who accomplished fame and fortune. By doing so we may be sabotaging our own efforts at finding other kinds of success, which may ultimately be more rewarding. I define success as having accomplished a lifestyle that is both satisfying and sustainable. What one finds satisfying is entirely subjective. Attempting to define success in an objective way that leaves no room for adaptation to a person’s own temperament and goals is more likely to lead them down a path of discontentment, regardless of accomplishment.

In recent years it became a tradition of sorts to celebrate my birthdays camping in solitude in remote beautiful surroundings. The ritual consists of spending the day hiking and exploring off the trails, followed by a quiet evening at camp, a small camp fire, cooking a good dinner, alternating my gaze between the dancing flames and the star-studded sky above, and thinking about the years that passed and the amazing and improbable journey that had been my life to date.  I have spent such birthdays in alpine meadows, on lofty granite perches in remote mountain ranges, in the far depths of desert canyons, beneath the half domes of steep stone alcoves, at the edges of high mesas, surrounded by the relics and mysteries of ancient people, among the hushed shivering of aspen trees, in the depths of old growth forests, listening to the silence or the quiet gurgle of mountain streams, and so many more of the places I cherish and that play such an important role in my life. Something happens in such settings that I never experience in any other. Distractions disappear, thoughts of the mundane peter away, the mind settles into peaceful clarity; bold and profound musings arise and everything seems more real than in other settings. It is hard to characterize such a state in simple terms of happiness or contentment. It is a delicate blend of emotions, at times euphoric, at times sad, sometimes intensely beautiful and sometimes tinged with fear. There is, however, one thing that looms large in every aspect of the experience: a deep sense of gratitude.

Tracing my path over the expanses of geography, experiences, relationships, careers, yearnings and loves and doubts and hopes and what-ifs; makes me realize how incredibly fortunate I am to be right here, right now, doing what I do, knowing what I know and feeling what I feel. It is the culmination of an epic journey driven by the simple stubborn conviction to never stop so long as I was not happy, and finding my happiness where I could never have predicted. It is pure happiness, not in the shallow sense of momentary gratification, but in the penetrating way expressed by existentialist Albert Camus: “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”

Though I experience other kinds of happiness in other times, in these places happiness takes on a unique flavor – a delirious elation tinged with a bit of sadness, a sense of quiet pride mixed with sweet melancholy that permeates every cell in my body like warm liquid bliss, accompanied by the immutable knowledge that no matter where things go from here, it was all worth it – a complete lack of any doubt or regret; a reassuring certainty that, even if it all ends at this very moment, I had truly lived.

It may seem a hyperbole to mention art and photography in such a lofty context, but I must acknowledge the role they played in getting me to where I am, to the point where I can have such experiences with some regularity. In itself, art is meaningless. We assign our own meanings to it, whether as creators or consumers. The greatest value of pursuing art as I have was not in gaining what little fame I have, but in prompting me to open my eyes and my heart to the astounding beauty of existence. It helped me realize that anything resulting from human creativity – be it writing or photography or meditation or music – ultimately is never about the thing itself. When driven by passion, works of creative art become paths to something else – a reverence for grandeur and subtlety and beauty, empathy for life and land, and the humility to be thankful for the great privilege of playing a part, however small, in the stories of others – people and canyons, buildings and rocks, distant places and cultures – to have the privilege of consciously weaving my own small thread into the grand tapestry of everything.

I succeeded in finding something I could never define until I experienced it. I succeeded in proving that my intuition about its existence was not naïve, foolish or misguided. I succeeded in finding a meaningful life.

I’ve been fortunate to see a lot and do a lot. I’ve been a soldier; I have seen war and depravity; I witnessed social and political upheaval in the making – lives changed in an instant, dreams formed and shattered, great fortunes and great tragedies. I’ve been in the academy, as a student and as a teacher. I’ve been a pioneer of technology when the Internet came about. I owned my own business. I’ve been an executive in a large company. For most of my life, I have been successful by a lot of different measures, but not always by my own. And I can say now that my proudest and most satisfying achievement to date is finding my way to becoming an artist.

Despite what career counselors will tell you, it was not something I could ever have predicted or planned for. It was not driven by financial stability, social status, childhood dreams or other objective measures of success. For most of my life if you asked me what I would do if I had unlimited money, “artist” would not have been on my list. For most of my life, I did not even know what it truly meant. My definition of success evolved and morphed over time, and I am grateful for the perseverance to keep moving until I knew what it was.

What I learned is that success cannot be fully defined until you attain it.  When you are successful, you will know – without the slightest doubt – what it means, to you. There is no need to define success to find it. All it takes is the courage to keep moving, searching and questioning until you do. You may not always know what success is, but you will always know what it is not, and that knowledge will guide you just as surely as any beacon. There are no certain ways to achieve it, but there are certain ways to not. If you are not happy, you are not successful.

Any definition you attempt to impose on success ultimately will be arbitrary and may even distract you from what it may truly be, for you. Instead, have the tenacity to persist, to keep seeking it until it reveals itself to you. When you find it, it may be very different from anything you could ever have predicted.

No Destination

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (14)

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  1. That may be my favourite of all the journal entries you have ever written Guy. Thank you.

  2. Jimmy Gekas says:

    What a great entry, Guy. So simple, yet so deep….all so true. Love your quote “If you are not happy, you are not successful.”

  3. Jared Warren says:

    Guy, this was a delight to read, and resonates strongly with me. My sincerest congratulations to you for finding your path of meaningful living. I’m also very appreciative that “writer” and “philosopher” appear to be part of that path, so that I and others can be positively impacted by your work in those domains.

    I was curious about the way you phrased something, about “finding” a meaningful life. I do think people can sometimes get lost in that search, thinking that they’ll feel successful when they’ve “found” the right job, relationship, house, recognition, etc. I believe that feeling of profound contentment and success comes from living in accordance with one’s most cherished/defining values. I think that’s central to the Albert Camus quote, more so than an occupational role. Maybe we’re on the same page with this, as there may be some searching/finding necessary for a person to identify those values, and a role change may be necessary to better live those values.

    But I think many of us are closer to that contentment than we realize. We already are successful if we’re living the life we value; evidence of that success (including some of what society calls success) will follow as a natural consequence.

    Love your work – thanks for the great thoughts!

    Jared Warren

  4. What a great read, thank you Guy. I’m not sure what success is but I sure do enjoy the journey of seeking it. One further point to your thoughts may be able to influence others. Success doesn’t necessarily have to be for you only. If it makes any difference to you, I know of many you’ve influenced creatively (including myself) and for that reason alone, I’d deem you successful. So thank you and keep living and sharing your beautiful view of the world. EE

  5. Jack Johnson says:

    Insightful and eloquent as always, Guy! It’s a shame we don’t have career counselors who offer such guidance…

    I greatly enjoy your essays – they always offer inspiration and a nudge away from my place of complacency.

    If / when you do your next website design iteration, please keep in mind that some of us with aging eyes(by which I mean, me) wouldn’t mind a somewhat larger and darker font… 🙂

    – Jack

  6. Phil Hemsley says:

    What a grand piece of reflective writing and philosophy. It’s depth and questioning is emotive, powerful and resonating 🙂


  7. Rafael Rojas says:

    Great words Guy. Finding success starts by finding out who you are and which is your place in this world… and as a consequence, you do not know it until you discover it. Being open to discovery, uncertainty and exploration is however, and unfortunately, something the system does not want… since that renders people incontrollable in a way. Maybe that is the reason why “success” has been coined in Western societies with very clear formulas for everyone to follow. Really inspiring words Guy, thanks for sharing them.

  8. Mark says:

    As usual Guy, I am again impressed by your abilities to express yourself so eloquently. You convert what many may be searching for, or feel within without the words, into something people can connect with.

  9. Richard Wong says:

    Beautiful words of wisdom, Guy. I see so many unhappy people that I can’t help but think they have little concept of how to define success on their own terms. It is true that some people have little choice in their situation but most people do and it is a shame to see something in them that they can’t see for themselves.

  10. Mark VanDyke says:

    I appreciate your ability and willingness to be reflective and to share your thoughts with others. It is rare to find photography writing that fearlessly goes outside of the technical realm and touches the entirety of the journey and experience. I’m somewhat new to the career ladder of landscape photography and success is constantly a topic of thought for me; the differences between my own definitions and those of others around me and if I should amend accordingly. From another guy who passes his birthday’s camping and hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is comforting to hear some similar veins of thought in your writings and I appreciate your willingness to share them. Thank you for your efforts and may you enjoy many more moments of happiness in 2014!

  11. Soul searching makes life more worthwhile, but it does not necessarily lead to success either without prioritizing and working smart. Ultimately human beings have a need to produce something in life or we get discouraged, but how that takes shape is up to the individual’s definition of what makes life worthwhile. If we have passion for what we’re doing, that’s the first step, but success can still prove elusive, without certain other factors put into practice.

  12. Marylynne says:

    Great essay, Guy. This pushes me to consider how happy I am as a teacher in my 26th year of teaching. How many years can I do this with the current level of fulfillment it provides? Lots for me to ponder here.

  13. Denny Jump says:

    Hi Guy – Your name and website were recommended to me by a fellow and friend of mine on Aminus3 Photoblog: Jack Larson. I am so very glad that Jack did this. I had indeed heard your name, but had not had the occasion to visit your page. I am so grateful that I finally did..

    Your essay, “The Meaning of Success” absolutely struck me! It is the very first of your essay’s that I have read, but it certainly will not be the last. Just as you were guided to thought and contemplation and grattitude and clarity and resolve on your Birthday journeys, so did your essay regarding those experiences pull me into the same kind of contemplation. Perhaps not as deeply…but a start – I Thank You so much, and I hope you don’t mind if I visit a great deal more. All the Best – Denny (Dennis) Jump.

  14. Tomek says:

    You are very wise man, Guy!