May 26

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How to Develop Your Personal Vision of Success at Midlife


“In order to carry a positive action, we must develop a positive vision.” – Dalai Lama

The Problem with a Lack of Vision for Success

We read and hear about so-called successful people all the time who are unhappy. How can this be? In fact, the very goal of success is to be happy with our lives. The answer is that these people are only successful in one area of their life and never took the time to decide what total life success looked like.

For most people, the success picture starts with more money or a better career. However, neglecting or ignoring the other areas of life will ultimately lead to unhappiness. It’s not uncommon to read stories of people who downgraded their careers to pursue something they felt more passionate about and gain better life balance.

You are a whole human being and developing a vision of success should include your whole life. The purpose of this success skill is to help you determine what your personal vision of success looks like.

Common Scenarios

Marilyn Monroe, in spite of her fame and fortune, was both sad and disturbed. She struggled with both wanting fame and a normal life. She was married and divorced three times and multiple miscarriages. Her life tragically ended at age 36 with an apparent suicide. Consider also the suicides of Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, and Corey Monteith (Glee co-star). All were highly successful actors with no apparent financial problems and people who loved them. And yet, the success they achieved brought sorrow instead of happiness. Countless business executives and professionals have achieved career and financial success only to lose their families or die early due to health issues.

Lasting personal success does not come easy. It is not measured by what society tells us, and creating financial wealth alone is not the answer. Personal success is not created using a formula. It is unique to each person. However, there is a process that everyone can follow to find personal success. It begins by building a personal vision of what your ideal life would look like.

Questions and Answers About a Personal Success Vision

What is the definition of success?

The first thing that comes to mind with the word success is money and possessions. However, success is really a feeling brought about by accomplishing or achieving something important. Money and possessions are the symbols of those achievements. The feeling of success is an internal feeling of pride, satisfaction, and even happiness with where we are and what we have accomplished.

Why do I need to define success in my own terms?

Society, the media, friends, and family all have preconceived notions of success. However, only you can determine if you feel successful and are happy with your life. Allowing other people to determine what your success should be is a sure-fire way to unhappiness and regret. Lasting success comes by looking at all areas of life and determining how we want them to be based on our personal values and priorities.

What are the areas of life I should consider?

Different areas of life are called life domains. There are a number of different definitions, but most people agree on the following 8 life domains: family, career, health, personal goals, friends and relationships, finances, leisure activities, and home environment.

What is the difference between a vision and a goal?

A vision is a picture or image of how you want your life to be. It is your ideal life. Visioning is different than goal setting because with visioning there are no constraints. A goal, on the other hand, is a specific state or outcome you want to achieve by a certain time. Goals are usually stepping stones toward our vision.

How do I create a personal vision of success?

You can begin to create a personal vision of success by examining your life across all of life’s domains. Take time to reflect on what you like and don’t like, and what you are grateful for and what you still desire. Creating a personal life vision can be as simple as thinking about each life domain an imagining what your ideal life would be like.

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The Psychology and Neuroscience of a Personal Success Vision

Balancing Life Domains

What most people call work-life balance is more completely described by the term life domains balance. The terms work-life and work-family imply that there are only two domains to balance. However, psychologists refer to 8 primary life domains, and work is only one of them. Work tends to be a domain of primary focus, but should it? Does the pursuit of work-related success bring lasting life success and happiness?

Life domains often compete for time causing conflicts. If you are pursuing a career, in a primary love relationship, and raising children, you are in what psychologists call the “rush-hour” of life. Another challenging period of life is the “sandwich generation” where people are taking care of their children and aging parents. Each life domain such as work, raising children, or finances can produce stress. And when the demands of life domains compete for a fixed amount of time and energy, it can create enormous amounts of stress.

Conflict vs Facilitation of Life Domains

Any given life domain can be characterized by how much time we spend pursuing it, what kind of psychological bond or connection we have with it, and what stressors or negative effects we feel from it. These factors determine the extent of conflict one domain causes with another. The obvious example is the person who pursues their career to the detriment of their family and health. However, life domains don’t have to compete with each other. In fact, there are strategies to facilitate cooperation and support between life domains.

Finding ways to reduce conflict among domains or even facilitate growth in multiple domains reduces stress and improves progress towards success. Domain conflict can be approached from four levels: societal level, organizational level, household level, and individual level. You do not have to conform to the desires and expectations of society including friends and family members. Your primary responsibility is to yourself and the family members in your household. Organizations such as work, church, or other volunteer organizations may be asking for too much of your time and energy. Learning to set healthy boundaries is an important first step in reducing stress and conflict.

Your household can either be a great source of stress and conflict or a place of joy and restoration. Learning to communicate and establishing boundaries with the people you live with can reduce stress and conflict at home. As an individual, you are ultimately responsible for managing all of your life domains. Establishing priorities, setting boundaries, communicating with others, and making daily choices can bring balance across life domains.

Some ideas to reduce interdomain conflict are to set firm boundaries between domains, schedule time for things that never seem to get done, and increasing communication about life domain balance with your spouse and children. Scheduling 30 minutes a day for self-care (exercise, meditation, etc.) can reduce stress overall. Combining domains such as participating in a church group can support spiritual and social goals or doing physical activities with your spouse and children can support health and relationship goals.

The Wheel of Life

(Kimsey-House) The life wheel concept describes a pie with 8 pieces representing various life domains. Each domain has a scale from 1 to 10 where 10 is perfect. Using this wheel can provide a good visual representation of how you feel about your life across various domains. Our brains are wired with a negative bias and tend to focus on one thing. The life wheel helps us see the bigger picture of how we are really doing in life overall. Is your wheel lopsided or well-balanced? This may give you an indicator of where you would like to make some changes.

Wheel of Life graphic showing 8 life domains on a scale of 1 to 10.

Materialism Degrades Quality of Life

Psychological studies show that materialism and quality of life don’t go together. The saying that “money can’t buy you happiness” is true. But, it’s not the money that’s the problem. Materialism is defined as the importance a person attaches to worldly possessions. Materialism is often exhibited in specific personality traits such as possessiveness, non-generosity, and envy. Three beliefs emerge in people materialistic attitudes: acquiring possessions dominates thinking, success is defined in terms of acquiring possessions, and believing that the acquiring possessions is pursuing happiness.

Studies show that as income declines, people are more likely to equate happiness with material possessions. And, people who grow up in less advantageous circumstances put greater value on financial success than on self-acceptance and relationships. This demonstrates the complex nature of money and success. Having lots of money doesn’t necessarily make you happy. Putting money and materialism above other values brings unhappiness. And, the lack of money tends to create a greater emphasis on acquiring money.

A psychologist by the name of Herzberg determined that people are motivated by eliminating dissatisfiers and pursuing satisfiers. In general, satisfiers are internal things and dissatisfiers are external things. In this case, money and possessions are dissatisfiers meaning that the lack of them causes unhappiness but the abundance of them does not bring happiness.

In summary, almost everyone would enjoy having more money, and having more money and possessions as part of your life vision is appropriate. Just make sure that pursuing money and possessions aren’t at the expense of other life domains. Placing the pursuit of money as a high priority at certain stages of life makes sense. However, even when money is a primary focus, other areas of life shouldn’t be ignored. After all, what good is money without the health to enjoy it and the people to enjoy it with?

Zig Ziglar used to say, “Money can’t make you happy, … but everyone wants to find out for themselves.”

Balancing Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Aspirations

Not all goals are equivalent in terms of their relationship to well-being. When financial success aspirations are dominant, people achieve less self-actualization, have less vitality, more depression, and more anxiety. Excessive money pursuits can decrease motivation. Focusing on possessions alienates people from growing and evolving as a human being. In addition, individuals who favor financial success over other goals have a higher control orientation meaning they are strongly influenced by the opinions of others.

The pursuit of internally driven aspirations related to personal growth, self-acceptance, relationships with others, and serving the community produce greater happiness and less stress. Case studies of people with lasting success show that their primary motivation was not solely financial success. They were personally driven by greater levels of personal growth and achievement. They pursued their passions and created businesses that provide enormous value to others. Financial success was a by-product of their personal success. Goals around money and possessions are healthy when they are balanced with goals of personal growth, relationships, and achievement.

Does success lead to happiness or happiness to success?

It is commonly believed that success leads to happiness. Although, research shows that people who are not happy along the road to success are often not happy when they achieve success. So, this begs the question, does success lead to happiness or happiness to success? The answer is probably a little of both.

Here are some things to consider about how happiness may lead to success:

  • Research shows that happiness is determined 50% by genetics, 40% by beliefs and thought patterns and 10% by our circumstances or environment. A genetic predisposition to unhappiness can be overcome. Changing beliefs and thought patterns can have a significant on happiness. And if happiness leads to success, circumstances and environment can be improved with greater happiness.
  • Happiness is often exhibited as gratitude, enthusiasm, playfulness and a positive attitude. From a neuroscience perspective, the brain functions more effectively when relaxed and having fun.
  • People enjoy being around people who are positive and enthusiastic. Positive people attract positive people, and others are more willing to assist and support a positive person.
  • Happiness is often associated with a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset view not meeting goals as a failure, while a growth mindset sees not meeting goals as learning experiences. In other words, the growth mindset finds happiness in the progress, not in the perfection.
  • Studies with a cross-section of people across time show that happy individuals are more likely than their less happy peers to have fulfilling marriages and relationships, high incomes, superior work performance, community involvement, robust health, and long life.
  • Happy people are characterized by desirable thoughts and behaviors such as sociability, optimism, energy, originality, and altruism that are associated with success and thriving.
  • It appears that happiness, rooted in personality and in past successes, leads to approach behaviors that often lead to further success.

Important Tenets of a Personal Success Vision

Being Realistic

Achieving a life vision takes time. A life vision can’t be achieved all at once, but it can be achieved over time. Most people over estimate what they can do in one year and severely under estimate what they can accomplish in 3 years. The most important thing is to think about and describe your personal vision of success. Most people only think about work, money, physical health, and their primary love relationship (and usually only when it’s missing or broken).

Investing the time to self-reflect on what you want your life to be like across all life domains is the first step towards lasting success. It puts you ahead of 95% of the population. Just by putting the images of your ideal life across all domains into your conscious mind will help your subconscious mind pull you in that direction. Of course, just thinking about the perfect life won’t create it for you, but it will point you the right direction.

Measuring Achievement

Armed with a vision of personal success, how will you know for sure when you have achieved it? Measuring achievement is important because it helps you understand the progress you have made. The emphasis of this success skill is on creating the vision and not measuring achievement. However, it’s worth spending some time thinking about how a successful vision of family life, health or leisure activities might be measured. Some visions are tangible such as finances, career, and possessions. However, others like relationships are difficult to measure. For now, just try to be as specific as possible about what you would like your life domains to look like in your ideal life.

Changing Ideas and Priorities

The measures of success that society projects have changed over time. What used to be only about wealth is now more about finding a career that you are passionate about. If you have read or heard of Tim Ferris’ bestselling book, The 4-Hour Work Week¸ then you know that creating a life with time freedom is gaining popularity. There is also a movement called essentialism that is focused on reducing life’s baggage that a consumer-focused lifestyle brings. But what have we gained if we achieve society’s version of success only to be left unhappy?

Society’s trends are only valuable in that they can provide ideas of what is possible. Looking for examples of people who are doing exactly the opposite of what society says. These have had the courage to look inward to determine what matters most to them. They decided they didn’t care what others think. They were going to live a life pursuing what matters most to them.

Life priorities also change with time. Here are some generalizations illustrate the changing nature of life priorities. People in their 20’s are strongly interested in starting a career but not as concerned about their health. People in their 30’s are interested in improving their career and starting a family. People in their 40’s are maximizing their careers and maintaining family and health. People in their 50’s are managing finances in preparation for retirement and finding better health. People in their 60’s are transitioning into retirement and concerned about maintaining health. And, so on.

Understanding that your current life priorities will change over time is important. It doesn’t mean that the 25-year old should worry about what life will be like when their 65. However, developing a vision and priorities for all life domains will ensure that none of the domains are neglected robbing you of the future ideal life you deserve.

Assessing Life as It Is Now

When you plan a journey, you begin by looking at your starting point. This is equivalent to Understanding where you are now. Secondly, you consider what form of transportation you have and what roads you will be traveling on. This is equivalent to understanding your current skills and motivation as well as your guiding values. An honest self-assessment is the first and most important step in any success journey.

Honest, Non-judgmental Self-reflection

When assessing individual life domains, it is important to be both honest and non-judgmental. If you are not honest about where you are, it will only sabotage your efforts to succeed. However, judging yourself too harshly lowers self-esteem causing less motivation and fewer goals. Self-reflection requires a special mindset. Imagine you are a parent observing a young child playing. They get somethings right and other things wrong. Sometimes they are happy, and other times they are frustrated or sad. You don’t judge the child for making mistakes or feeling angry. You understand that they are a child who still has much to learn. When we approach our self-reflection with this same level of objectivity and understanding, we learn the most about ourselves.

Take some time to think about each life domain and give yourself a rating between 1 and 10. Be honest but don’t be too hard on yourself. Start by being grateful for what you have now and thinking about the things that you are happy with. Starting from a point of gratitude makes you less critical and more balanced in your assessment. Then think about how you want to improve your wheel. It’s not necessary to make your wheel round or all 10’s. Choose what feels most important to you right now and choose a path you want to pursue.

Your Life’s Bank Account

The bank account analogy is very appropriate for visualizing lasting success. Imagine instead of just one account, we actually have 8 accounts correlating to each life domain. Every day, you have the choice to make a deposit or make a withdrawal from the account. There is no trust fund magically putting money into your account, and there is no credit or overdraft protection. You can only withdraw what you have in your account on any given day.

The theory of compound interest also applies. Even small deposits on a daily basis add up to great sums over time. The actions you take today will directly affect the actions you will be able to take in the future. There is a famous quote that says, “I will do today what others will not do, so that I can do tomorrow others can not do.” Are you making more withdrawals than deposits in certain domains? Can you make some small adjustments to build or maintain your life domains?

Action Steps for Developing a Personal Vision of Success

  1. Complete the wheel of life survey rating each life domain from 1 to 10 with 10 being ideal.
  2. For each domain, write a few words about how you currently feel.
  3. Imagine being able to live your perfect life in 3, 5 or 10 years from now.
  4. For each domain, write a few words about what that would look like and how that would make you feel.

Success Skill Summary:

Personal success is just that – personal. We inherently know in general terms what we want and what we don’t want. The process of creating a personal vision of success is the first step. By knowing that success is more than money and possessions, we can begin to understand that lasting success comes from success across many life domains. Pursuing money and possessions above all else eventually brings unhappiness. Measuring our success by other people’s standards leaves us feeling empty.

When we view our lives as a whole that includes all life domains, we can begin to see a vision of what lasting success could be. Using the wheel of life, we can assess our starting point. Our life wheel doesn’t have to be perfectly balanced. Our overall priorities and those of each life domain will change with time as we progress through various stages of life. Honestly assessing our priorities, values, and feelings will help us choose the domains we most want to improve. Building a personal vision of success whether it’s 5, 10, or even 20 years sets the course for all future action. Only by having a clear vision of success can we begin the process of creating our ultimate successful life.
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References

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 410-422. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.65.2.410

Kimsey-House, H., Kimsey-House, K., Sandahl, P., & Whitworth, L. (2018). Co-active coaching: Changing business, transforming lives. UK: Hachette.

Lothaller, H. (2010). On the way to life-domains balance: Success factors and obstacles. In J. Tremmel (Ed.), A young generation under pressure? (pp. 109-128). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-03483-1_6

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.131.6.803

Olson, D. A. (2017). Success the psychology of achievement. New York, NY: DK Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/541743/success-the-psychology-of-achievement-by-dk/

Roberts, J. A., & Clement, A. (2007). Materialism and satisfaction with over-all quality of life and eight life domains. Social Indicators Research, 82(1), 79-92. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-006-9015-0

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Bruce Fleck

About the author

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