Redefining Success – Lessons On Stillness


photo by Julien Saquing

Is your sense of success inextricably linked to your output ? We invite you to redefine success from a measure of “doing” to a feeling of “being.”

As a coach, clients tell me they’re frazzled, burnt-out, and unfulfilled. They want balance and wellness but their calendars are full. They won’t let themselves slow down. Why? Somewhere along the line, the world told them their worth is based on their output. They’ve been told that when they’re overwhelmed, they should work harder and be more efficient. They have not been told to slow down and focus on what is essential.

How do I know? Because I heard these same messages if success, tethering worth to productivity. In an effort to feel worthy, I obeyed. This article explores my journey moving from busy to still.

Success – An Important Assignment

Years ago, I had a counselor give me a very simple task:

Jill: When you get home, I’d like you to sit in a chair for ten minutes.

Me: Sure! So what am I doing while I’m in the chair?

Jill: Nothing. You’re just sitting in the chair.

Me: Okay. I can do that. So should I meditate while I sit there?

Jill: No. Just sit.

Me: Alright. What should I be thinking about?

Jill: There’s no other assignment outside of just sitting.

I dutifully completed the assignment but missed the point. This assignment came after many conversations around my sense of worth. While on a constant quest to prove myself, I never felt I did enough. My value was inextricably linked to my output. I measured my success in  how I make myself useful to others.

What was Jill trying to teach me? That not “doing” is an acceptable use of time. I learned that my life was no less valid during moments of stillness. My first lesson? Value, worth and success do not fluctuate moment by moment, depending on my productivity.

Success – A Season of Stillness

A decade later, I was still suffering from the urge to “do” — still believing that success and intrinsic worth was tethered to my extrinsic value. In the moments I could not muster internal validation, I looked for external validation. And, the world rewarded me greatly when I said yes.

In her New York Times Bestseller, Present Over Perfect, author Shauna Niequist describes this mindset perfectly: “For a while, we don’t even realize the compromise we’ve made. We’re on autopilot, chugging through the day on fear and caffeine, checking things off the list, falling into bed without even a real thought or feeling or connection all day, just a sense of having made it through.”

This was me, sans caffeine. I spent a decade striving. Working hard to graduate, going to law school, practicing law. Trying to rescue family and friends from this or that. Striving. And then I got sick and I couldn’t produce. I couldn’t help others. Fearful questions pervaded my thinking: “Is just being enough? Who am I if I’m not doing? Do I have worth if I’m not serving, creating, fixing, or improving?”

At last, after months of these questions, I had a shift in perspective. I started asking myself a different question each morning. Instead of, “What can I get done today?” I began to ask, “What would make me feel well today?” Upon reflecting on my day, I’d ask, “Did I take care of myself today?” Not, “What did I accomplish?” Noticing and redefining my definition of success was the beginning of a new life. I learned to claim my worth in a season of stillness.

Success – A Philosopher’s Take on Being over Doing

Kieran Setiya, the MIT Professor of Philosophy, distinguishes between two types of activities:  telic and atelic.

Telic activities are those you do to produce or achieve something. An example of a telic activity is  a project or an item on a “to-do” list. Setiya describes: “These activities aim at their own annihilation. You’re preparing that client pitch and then presenting it; negotiating that deal and then closing it; planning the conference and then hosting it. Reaching the goal brings a moment of satisfaction, but after that, it’s on to the next project.”

Atelic activities are those that are done for the sake of themselves. They are not activities that are a means to an end. Setiya explains: “Think of the difference between walking home and going for a stroll, or between putting the kids to bed and parenting. When you engage in atelic activities, you do not exhaust them. Nor do they evoke the emptiness of projects, for which fulfillment is always in the future or the past. Atelic activities are fully realized in the present.”

Why does this distinction matter? Because a life of telic activities leads to exhaustion and a lack of fulfillment – both inhibitors of true success. Telic tasks pose a problem: “The completion of your project may be of value, but it means that the project can no longer be your guide,” Setiya notes. You perpetually chase ways to add value, to prove your worth.

The Final Lesson

A fulfilling life requires not just doing and achieving, but being for the sake of being. It’s a life sprinkled with joy-inducing experiences that have no other end. Setiya suggests: “By adjusting your orientation to become less project-driven, you can defeat the sense of emptiness in the present.”

If you are like me and measure success with how much you “do,” let yourself be still. Examine and redefine how you measure success. Pursue activities just for the sake of experiencing them. And, above all, dwell on the possibility that your worth exists in being just as much as in doing.

Want to take it deeper?

  • What learning can you apply to make a change in your daily life?
  •  Which telic activities could you ease upon to give you more space?
  •  What is one joy-inducing activity you can pursue today?
  •  How can you cultivate stillness this week?
  •  The excerpts from Kieran Setiya were from his article Facing Your Mid-Career Crisis,” which appeared in the March-April 2019 Issue of the Harvard Business Review, and from his article The Philosophy of the Midlife Crisis,” which appeared on February 3, 2018 in The New Yorker.

Article by Brandy DeOrnellas. If you’d like to learn more about her, you can read her bio at https://www.alwaysonpurpose.com/brandy-deornellas/.

Sign up here for more articles like this one. Or, go here to see AOP’s last post, “Maybe the Answer is Not in Resolutions..”

4-Step Process to Resolve Conflict Quickly

Learn to reduce friction, be heard, & find an agreeable outcome in 4 easy steps.