Made Vibrant

Why Focusing On Achievement Won’t Lead To Sustained Happiness

If you've tried pursuing a traditional definition of "success" only to find yourself happiness fleeting, this article is for you.
Caroline ZookCaroline Zook Caroline ZookCaroline Zook

Written by

Caroline Zook

Why Focusing On Achievement Won’t Lead To Sustained Happiness

Below is a little illustration I posted to Instagram, which many of you (as in like… DOZENS of you) commented on with a collective AMEN and I figured that served as an indication to me that this topic might be one worth going deeper on. When I posted this image, I remember the exact state I was in, and maybe it’s one you can relate to it.

Just a few moments before I had realized I was feeling uncharacteristically tired (typically an indicator something is out of sync), so I took a second out of my day to ask WHY? (High five for recognizing my own indicators that something is off; Double five for getting curious about it!)

Without realizing it, over the previous few weeks I had let myself drift back into an exhausting state of “success chasing.”

“Success chasing” is what I call the state where I’m fueled more by my desire for external validation than I am by my satisfaction with internal validation.


How we traditionally define success as a culture

When we think of someone “successful” what attributes immediately spring to mind?

A person who is has name recognition perhaps, whose work is visible on a larger scale than most. Someone who makes good money, maybe has a fancy title, has accumulated accolades or milestones that are recognized as metrics of achievement.

But that’s the thing… all of those attributes have to do with sources of external validation.

External validation vs. Internal validation

External validation is validation that comes from outside of us. It’s a feeling of satisfaction that is dependent upon the opinions of other people. It’s when other people say they like us, or other people offer us accolades and acknowledge them, or when other people see we’re financially well off.

External validation is our default setting because we are humans and we’re wired for belonging. Our culture teaches us that a great way to belong is through traditional paths of success.

But, external validation is a fickle beast. If your happiness or sense of contentment relies on the opinions of other people, you’re entrusting your happiness to someone other than yourself—and that’s a risky move.

Internal validation, on the other hand, puts the control back in your own hands. Internal validation comes from within us. It’s a satisfaction that doesn’t rely on the opinions of other people, only the opinion of ourselves. For me, internal validation comes from recognizing that my actions match my values, plain and simple.

“For me, internal validation comes from recognizing that my actions match my values, plain and simple.”

Therefore, that is my definition of success: making sure my actions are in alignment with my values.

Success based on external validation stems from a place of lacking

External validation is a hole that can never filled. When we reach a milestone and get a pat on the back from our peers, it’s not as though we stop craving that feeling of success. Instead, we keep chasing the next opportunity to feel that way. Hence, “success chasing.”

Success chasing is where the driving force behind our decisions, productivity, and general output comes from wanting to achieve something or be recognized for something rather than the pure satisfaction of creative expression within my core self.

Now the trickiest part of success chasing is that it often disguises itself as motivation. And motivation feels like a very good thing—it fuels us to go after our goals.

The problem, though, is when motivation is coming from a place of lacking—the distance between ourselves and that external validation we crave.

We see what we want. We realize we don’t have it. We work hard to get it. Right? Well unfortunately that particular line of logic also means that our work is stemming from what we don’t have.

The world around us not only feeds us messages reminding us of what we don’t have, but it also makes it pretty clear there are a few traditional things we should have: million dollar businesses, big girlboss-y teams to nurture, and a rapidly growing fan base.

But… there is an alternative based on internal validation instead.

Pursuing success based on internal validation

There’s another kind of fuel that actually comes from internal validation instead. It comes from recognizing not what you want to achieve but how you want to feel. Not what you want the outcome to be, but what you want the process to be.

Instead of success chasing, it’s what I call creative satisfaction (satisfaction as in fulfillment, literally the opposite of lacking.) It’s that feeling that you’re designing your life in a way that’s deeply aligned with your values. It’s a fullness; an integration.

And that feeling creates its own kind of fuel, a different kind of propulsion that isn’t rooted in a sense of lacking or deficiency. Instead it’s one that’s rooted in abundance—an overflowing sense of joy, authenticity confidence.

Here’s a little diagram to show you the difference as it sits in my head (I’m a sucker for diagrams!):

Using alignment to redefine the pursuit of success

In our culture, we often label the external validation framework as the one that outlines the path to “success.”

Why? Because it’s the one we can see.

It’s the one that gives us things we can measure like money and followers and best-selling books and website traffic.

The other framework is much more personal and intangible. Oftentimes, the only one who can even identify it or quantify it is the person engaging in it.

But is there any reason that the second diagram shouldn’t still be a perfectly acceptable framework for success?

In fact, most of us would probably agree that out of the two, it’s the only one that’s really sustainable.

Again, in the traditional version, the joke is actually on us because we never actually catch up to that nebulous benchmark of external validation. We experience tiny milestones along the way, but without cultivating a practice of appreciation, we end up staying in that “hungry” state, resulting in an excruciatingly endless hunt.

And the other framework? Well that’s the one I finally came around to with my revised definition of success in that first illustration.

I found my way back to it by reminding myself that every Monday morning I wake up with equal amounts of peace and excitement. No dread, no expectations hanging over my head, no orders to follow. I’ve reached a point in my professional life where I thankfully control every facet of how I run my business, and that includes NOT waking up on Mondays in a frenzy. It also includes making things I love, that I’m proud of, and answering ultimately to my intuition.

As a sensitive and creative soul who values flexibility, that is my ideal. That is living life in alignment with my values.

What could be more successful than carving out a life for yourself that allows you to live your values daily?

“What could be more successful than carving out a life for yourself that allows you to live your values daily?”


When success is framed as alignment, there’s room for us all

Another reason to shift our success metric from achievement to alignment is because it removes the need to constantly compare ourselves to others.

Throughout my career, there have been several times when self-doubt has crept in my head as I’ve seen someone doing something similar to my work and the question has popped into my head:

Is there even ROOM for me here?

Is there even room for one more personal growth blog?
Is there even room for one more acrylic abstract artist?
Is there even room for one more online business in a sea of so many?

Have you asked yourself a version of this too? My guess is you have because this is a cunning way for our Fear to stop us from ever trying or pursuing the projects that call to us. “There’s already so many ____________ out there, why should I even bother.” That’s a convenient way for us to excuse ourselves from making things or taking a risk, isn’t it?

But it’s a question born out of a scarcity mentality about how the world works. What does this idea of ROOM mean anyway? It assumes that there is one Table of Valid Successful People and that there is a finite number of chairs around that table.

But that’s kind of BS, right? Life is not a zero sum game. There is no such table, and there certainly isn’t a finite number of ways for us to become Valid Successful People.

And that’s when you start to ask yourself: What is “success” anyway?

This question of “room” inadvertently defines success based on achievement rather than alignment.

When we ask ourselves “Is there room for me?”, what we are actually asking is “Is there room for me to be successful?” We don’t realize it, but it’s our ego hungering for validation and fearing failure.

One of the most profound shifts I’ve made in my life is changing my definition of success from being achievement-based to being alignment-based.

No longer do I define “success” exclusively in the sense that people buy my products or like the things I make. Those things rely on achieving some form of external validation, and I’ve found that no matter what milestone I hit when pursuing external validation, ultimately it only leads my ego to hunger for more or to aim even higher. In other words, it’s a recipe for dissatisfaction.

On the flip-side of that, however, alignment-based success says that my goal is to design a life and business where I can live out my core values on a daily basis. That is the source of all things good for me: happiness, satisfaction and freedom.

So when I ask “Is there room for me?” and I do so in the context of comparison or self-doubt, I’m slowly allowing myself to drift right back in that old achievement-based success framework, one where something isn’t worth doing unless I can gain financial success and visibility. That’s NOT what I want my life to be about chasing after.

When I shift this framework back to alignment, I can ask the question again, this time with a clarifying addition:

“Is there room for me to do the work my heart is calling me to do?”

When I frame it that way, I’m able to see that the primary goal in pursuing this idea or project in the first place is to express my core self. To follow a hunch or a passion or a curiosity or desire that is stemming from inside the deepest part of me.

And when I frame it that way, I can see much more clearly this definitive answer: YES.

Yes, there is ALWAYS room in this world for people doing the work their hearts call them to do.

“There is ALWAYS room in this world for people doing the work their hearts call them to do.”

There is room for me and there is room for you and there is room for us ALL to make the things we’re called to make. There’s a galaxy’s worth of infinite room where we can all try and learn and experiment and teach and lift each other up as we do so.

The moment we assume that there is one container limiting the expansive potential of each of us, we deprive the world of witnessing the beauty of our collective vibrance.


How Will You Define The Terms of Your Success?

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article and my wacky diagrams, it’s this:

You get to DEFINE what success means to you.

Keep in mind though, if you do select Diagram #2—the path of alignment—you WILL have to choose it over and over and over again. Your instinct WILL be to drift back into Diagram#1 and into the chase for external validation. You’ll want the milestone, the public pats on the back, that glorious feeling of being accepted into the tribe of humanity.

Trust me though, all of that will ring hollow compared to the glorious, sustaining satisfaction of being accepted BY YOUR INNER SELF every single day.

Last week I came across an interview of Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings, on 99u.com and this excerpt that speaks to this notion perfectly:

“…I frequently get emails from young people starting out and asking, ‘How do I make a successful website or start my own thing?’ And, very often, it’s tied to some measure of success that’s audience-based or reach-based.’How do you build up to seven million readers a month or two million Facebook fans?’ But the work is not how to get that size of an audience or those numbers. That’s just the byproduct of what Lewis Hyde calls ‘creative labor,’ which is really our inner drive. The real work is how not to hang your self-worth, your sense of success and merits, the fullness of your heart, and the stability of your soul on those numbers—on that constant positive reinforcement and external validation. That’s the only real work, and the irony is that the more “successful” you get, by either your own standards or external standards, the harder it is to decouple all of those inner values from your work. I think we often confuse the doing for the being.”

A few weeks ago I was gifted a Five-Minute Journal and every day the journal has a line for you to write your own “I am” affirmation—a guiding belief that you can repeat every day to yourself. Here’s mine:

“I am ALREADY successful because I have designed a life that I wake up excited to live every day.”

I challenge you to redefine your own idea of success and write your own “I am successful because” statement, one that acknowledges the way(s) that you are already a success—to no one else but YOU.

Remember, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop striving, stop wanting to be better, or stop trying to create a brighter life. It just means that you take a moment of gratitude for how far you’ve already come.

When you already feel successful, you move forward from a place of abundance, not scarcity.

“When you already feel successful, you move forward from a place of abundance, not scarcity.”

When you are fueled from that place of creative satisfaction, you’re striving from a sense of peace, not poverty; fullness, not famine. From a place of WANT, not from a place of need.

I hope this article has given you the permission you need to redefine success on your own terms. Be careful not to confuse the doing with the being, dear friends.

Why Focusing On Achievement Won’t Lead To Sustained Happiness

(Big Fat Takeaway)

Focusing on achievement and external validation will never lead to sustained happiness. True contentment lies in trading in society's traditional definition of success for one that is rooted in alignment with your personal values.

IT IT

This article written by

Caroline Zook

Artist, designer + writer passionate about helping soulful creatives grow into their brightest selves. Lover of bright colors + even brighter people! One half of the crazy duo running these parts!

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