“Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it, for success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue and it only does so at the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run I say! – success will follow precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

So wrote Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor and respected author and founder of logotherapy.  If you haven’t read his book: “Man’s Search for Meaning”, it serves as a great testament for the resilience and possibility for wellbeing that exists within us all, even within the most extreme circumstances.

I actually found this quote whilst mulling over my thoughts for the simplicity session podcast that I just recorded on global change.  And I like the sentiment of the quote around the idea of success and happiness, even if I don’t quite agree with implication that we have to decide to “dedicate ourselves to a cause greater than oneself” to connect with these things.  As I see it, this is not so much something that we do, as something that happens organically once we have a deeper understanding about life and our true spiritual nature.

You see for me, one of the things I have learned is that success and happiness are our ‘default’ positions.  They are the starting point.  But we lose track of this.  We get lost in the illusions and troubles of our minds, and not understanding that the mind is where our experience of life comes from, we get stuck in a merry go round of seeking.  As we do we begin a relentless pursuit for the magic strategies and tactics to try and fake ourselves into being happy, and develop laundry lists of stuff that we think we need to try and control in our lives in a vain effort to be okay.  Whilst life looks like this to us, there’s so much less dedication to a cause greater than ourselves.  Life seems so much more complicated and the main focus is on me, myself and I.

And the irony is, that as a strategy for happiness and success, it looks to me like it doesn’t really work.

I remember some years ago meeting my coach, Michael Neill, with my laundry list of stuff.  As I reflect back most of the stuff on this laundry list had been there for a long time (probably most of my adult life).  I really thought he was going to help me to get these things sorted because I really thought that was the key to my happiness and success.

I started my apprenticeship with a coaching intensive.  This sounds like a gruelling thing, but actually it was anything but, and I remember distinctly about 1 hour into the conversation he said to me:

“So here’s the thing, John.  We have three options.  We can:

1) Continue going over that list of stuff you have brought with you.
2) Talk about your thinking about that list of stuff
3) Ignore the list and look at the nature of the human experience and where happiness and success really come from.”

When he said this, it sounded on some level like there were a number of options, but he also spoke with a certainty that the real movement would occur if we opted for option number 3.  After years of playing with options 1 and 2 (and not getting very far), it seemed pointless to go there again, so I followed his guidance and parked my laundry list.

And so began 3 days of what I can only describe as sacred exploration.  We laughed and we cried and we shared what we could see about the human condition.  And as we did, I found myself caring that bit less about my list of stuff, and at some point I found myself ‘at home’, in a place of much deeper wellbeing.

Yet nothing had changed in my circumstances.  The noise was still there in my head even.  But my relationship to it was different.  It didn’t look as solid.  It’s hard to describe, but I felt a sense of security that came from a knowingness.  A connectedness to something greater than I.  And as I sat there, I really saw for the first time that my wellbeing had never left me.  It was always here.  In my humanness, I had just lost sight of where to look for it.  When I saw that, I just let go of caring about the noise so much, and I found, as Viktor Frankl alludes to in the quote above, that happiness just ‘ensued’!

Those of you who read my blog frequently might recall that I have had such an experience before (see this blog).   But there was something a bit different this time.  Something had shifted.  I really began to ‘see’ the futility of pursuing happiness, and how it was the very pursuit of it that took me away from it.

But what about success?

As an idea, success is such a relative thing.  Every single one of us will have different ideas as to what success looks like.  But it seems to me that there are two things that are constant to success.  The first is the need to be in a creative space to innovate and react wisely to changing circumstances.  The second is some form of action.

My experience told me that I didn’t tend to get very far pursuing success, at least as I saw it, from a place of being ill at ease in myself.  I certainly had often found being creative hard.  So I was curious what was going to change, since now I had glimpsed where happiness lay, it suddenly didn’t seem so important to pursue success either.

I remember talking to Michael about this too.  As I recall he didn’t seem overly bothered by it.  And as time went on, I began to notice that even though it didn’t seem important to pursue success or happiness anymore, apparently I still got up in the mornings.  Apparently I still did work.  Apparently I didn’t seem inclined to lie in bed all day.  This was actually a revelation as it had always looked to me (and had been conditioned further into me via years of personal development) like I had to be unhappy to be motivated!  Well, apparently not!

But there was something different.  A willingness to play.  A curiosity to explore.  An openness to work on things that previously I wouldn’t have done because at the time it looked like they would have caused me unhappiness.  Actions were being taken, but it seemed less like I had worked out those actions.  They were just coming through me naturally without much consideration.  As I played, taking one step at a time, I noticed an unfolding.  Things started to get created, but they almost felt easy and effortless. I started to see that life is already creative.  I saw that there’s something at work already that works through me, and you, and it just works when you and I are not caught up in the illusion that we need to seek and pursue what, in essence, we never really lost.

It seems to me that we enter that creative space when we ‘see’ the futility of the search for happiness and let go of thinking that it is out there.

Then, as Frankl alludes to – happiness and success happen.  You and I don’t make it happen.  It must happen because it’s only when we try to make it happen, that we get lost in our minds and take ourselves away from the fact that happiness is natural and creativity is a function of an already pre-existing intelligence that is already at work!

Moreover, in this space, we naturally become more focused on something bigger than ourselves.  Again, it’s not something we do.  It’s actually a by-product of us reconnecting back to what we never really lost.  As I reflect back many of the creative pursuits that came through me following my insight into the nature of happiness, had much less to do with me and were much more about being of service to others.  Again, this was not because I was trying, but because I just saw that I was okay already, and it didn’t make sense anymore to be so focused on me, myself and I!

So, if like me, you have found yourself pursuing happiness and success in your life, consider another possibility.  Perhaps ‘you’ – in your ideas of yourself and your ego – are the thing that is the way of what you are seeking?  Perhaps happiness is already here, right now, in this moment, and it’s just a simple misunderstanding about the way your mind works and your true nature that is in the way.  If you can look in that direction, and even get a small glimpse of that, and you’ll find yourself with a clearer mind, and with that will come a reconnection to the creativity and natural motivation to do things that is already inherent in life.  Success will follow from there…

You may find the following blog interesting as it speaks to the nature of happiness and success within a business context:

With love,