Sometimes people, especially young people considering their future, will say, “But what if I don’t succeed? What if I fail?” Hearing this often sends me into a reverie.
When I was 20 years old, I dropped out of college to enter a Buddhist monastery. This was in 1967 so it was still a very unusual thing to do. My family was horrified and mystified. My college friends were concerned to see me abandoning the success that they believed an Ivy League education would insure.
I didn’t care. I was passionate about following through on my sudden inspiration to set out on this adventure that everyone around me thought was crazy..
As time passed and I settled into meditation practice at Zen Center in San Francisco, which owned and operated the Tassajara Monastery, I came back to Earth a bit. Somehow I had to figure out how to make a living. But now, as a college dropout I had no clear idea how to do it. Out walking in the city one day, near a busy intersection, I just stopped and sat down on a fire hydrant! Looking off into the distance, I felt aimless, terrified by my unknown future.
Many years later I realized that the terror I felt then actually had little to do with the “unknown.” It was more about the “known” lurking behind what then appeared as an “unknown.”
Outside my conscious awareness was a subtle “known” –– a belief that I was obligated to live up to my parents’ expectations. At that time I deeply believed, even though I wasn’t clearly aware of it, that I was required to be a “success” in the eyes of others. This very common belief results in an equally common stressed-out state. When we are in this state, we may call it “fear of what other people think.”
When this dawned on me many years later, I realized there was no hard-and-fast rule that I had to live up to my parents’ expectations. With that perspective, I could have sat on that fire hydrant and had a very different experience.
Instead of being gripped by fear, I might have regarded my unknown future with eager interest. I might have felt excited and inspired to explore and discover my options, and to create my life according to my true interests. No fear of making mistakes and no fear of what other people would think!
Over the years I have often spoken with a young person graduating from high school or college who feels frightened and intimidated in the face of their unknown future. When I share the insight I wish I had had earlier, they breathe a great sigh of relief. Often they add, “I wish someone had told me that earlier!”
Each of us has the right –– and the responsibility –– to decide what “success” means for ourselves. Once we have done that, it is our right and privilege to go after it. We are not here to please others.
We may make a few mistakes on our path of exploration and discovery. But mistakes are not synonymous with failure. Mistakes are simply how we learn. Mistakes are how everyone learns, no matter our age.
So what do you do if all this makes sense to you, but it seems impractical? How do you apply this “on the ground”? It’s helpful to ask yourself some questions first (You can start with the 5 questions below).
Remember, as you go, that “success” is not a one-time event accompanied by balloons and a dance party. Life brings us all sorts of small “successes” too: the fresh smell of grass after rain, the warm smile of a child or a co-worker in response to our own smile, a well-deserved promotion at work, or a friend’s offer of help at just the right moment.
Do these add up to “success” in life? What does it mean to succeed?
5 Questions to Help You Invite Success
To invite success, you first need to know what it means for you. Answering the questions below and considering your answers will help you gain clarity. This clarity, clear thinking, is the first step in opening the way to success.
1. What are my beliefs about success? If I imagine myself having “success,” what does that look like? What does it feel like?
2. When I think about my future, what is foremost in my mind? Do I consider what interests me and would bring me a joyful, fulfilling life? Or do I focus on pleasing others? If the latter, who do I think I need to please? Why? Is that really true?
3. If I set aside what others may think, what does my heart say about ways to use my time, talents, and interests? Hint: there are no wrong answers. Also, your heart is allowed to change its mind.
4. When I think about exploring a few interesting possibilities, what springs to mind?
5. What are 3 simple actions I could take in the next week to begin exploring these possibilities?
Once you have arrived at some clarity, begin exploring. You will learn more as you go along. Be open to being surprised! As you become clear about these insights and skilled at using them, you accomplish the essential success in life –– to be kind and encouraging to yourself and others regardless of how projects and plans turn out. Keep your good spirit. As we said in the 60s thanks to Robert Crumb, “keep on truckin.”
No one owns your life except you. Go out and live it!