Real Leaders

What’s the Difference between Success and Happiness?

I’m giving a speech today to a large group of executives entitled “What To Do When You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” The company these executives work for has just been acquired so everything is going to change. And change is tough. Very tough. Uncertainty is a major brain strain. There are four bad things we typically do when there’s a lot at stake and we’re not in control of the outcome:

  1. We amplify our confusion. Of course it’s natural to feel confused when facing an unknown future. But it get amplified to levels of high anxiety if you don’t have a vision and agenda for your own future. Without a personal vision, confusion turns your brain to mush.
  2. We listen to our self-doubts. All of us have that inner critic voice that tends to whisper that we are inadequate, unprepared and about to be exposed for being a goofball when we are under any nasty stress. Remember you are not that voice, so tell it to shut the hell up!
  3. We second-guess our decisions. Whenever you have to make difficult choices that involve tradeoffs, it is tempting to think that there is one perfect choice if you can only discover what is is. It’s not true. There are no perfect choices. What life is about is making our choices work or changing our choices if we have clearly made a mistake. We are farm more resilient and capable of positive change than we give ourselves credit for.
  4. Horriblizing. This simply means freaking out. It comes from feeling that you have no choice but to do whatever is presented to you. As soon as you give up your free will, you give up your dignity and your judgement. You always have choices. And sometimes you will have to say, “No.” to something good to get something great.

We simply need to learn to deal better with uncertainty because of the world we live in. Our work and our lives are constantly being altered by forces increasingly their control. We will have many moments of truth in our lives so it is good to be strong and wise. Here is how:  Research on happiness leads to the conclusion that when you build your life by saying YES to certain types of things, live will be good. Research also confirms that success comes from committing to the words KNOW and NO. (I’m indebted to Eric Barker for bring this research to my attention.)

Saying YES to happiness means that you’re actively embracing three things in your life. First, friends.

 The happiest people in the world have five to seven friends with whom they feel comfortable sharing secrets. This is incresingly difficult. A recent Harvard study indicated that 25% of adults have no one they trust enough to share a secret with. That’s zero real friends. Cultivating genuine friendships takes time. It’s an investment in yourself and your life. People with real friends live longer and are far more resilient to life’s hard moments.

Second, experiences.

Experiences have a much more powerful effect on our happiness than buying stuff. Experiences are life fine wine, they get better with age. That’s because our memories tend to put a glow on the happy times and help us forget the difficulties surrounding positive experiences. Experiences are also social, meaning that we can share them with others and relive them together. And importantly, experiences cannot be repossessed.

Third, enthusiasm.

People who are driven by enthusiasm are bright lights. They attract opportunities, friends and positive experiences. Enthusiasm is easy to generate. It is primarily created by verbally stating for the positives in any situation and to affirm the good deeds and efforts of others. Enthusiasm is very contagious and tends to make both working teams and families more positive and productive. The good news is it’s absolutely free.

So, if friends, experiences and enthusiasm are things to say YES to, what’s the deal with KNOW and NO?

Again, it’s pretty simple. Success is a bit different from happiness so it requires a different set of mental tools. The knowing part of this is that work success comes to those who know what they want. That is, they know their soul’s desire. They have deep longings. They want to do something that has a specific impact, often for a specific group. For instance, I have a daughter who wanted to be a neo-natal nurse, not just a nurse. She wanted to go to work each day to save babies’ lives. That vision guided all her decisions until she fulfilled it. That’s success. This need to know is born out time and again in my recent study of the patter of real world-changing geniuses. Many of their lives were difficult and they faced setbacks galore.

What they had in common was the grit of determination to pursue work that fulfilled their unique nature. 

This takes deep self-knowledge. Some geniuses seem to have been born with a mission, but for most, it emerged. Yes, what really sets super successful people apart from the rest of us is extraordinary focus.

This is where the other NO comes in. 

We live in a time in which everyone wants our time and attention. Advertisers want it. The media wants it. Your boss, of course, wants it. And that’s a problem. If you don’t say, “No.” to the vast majority of demands and temptations, you will spend your life achieving other people’s goals, watching what other people want you to watch and buying what other people want you to buy. That is not a path to either success or happiness.

There is one habit that will help you the most with both YES and KNOW/NO.

It’s the universal habit of genius. Go to be a half hour earlier. Then get up 3o minutes earlier and plan your day.

Don’t you dare look at your email. 

In the quite silence of the morning, separate what’s most important to you from that which is only urgent to others. Have a daily agenda for your work and your life. Defend it, act on it. And, have the grit to stay with it. Get great at saying NO because you have a bigger YES in your life.


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