The Three-Legged Stool | Less but Better

How we live each day matters more than what we do in our lives. There is nothing to achieve. There is nowhere to arrive.

The Three-Legged Stool

Today, it’s not uncommon for many young adults to aspire to be a billionaire entrepreneur, and to pursue status through wealth, fame, and impact in the name of having “ambition.” They may even look down upon others, who are living a fairly ordinary existence (in their eyes), and mistakenly confuse it with thinking them having little ambition. Many of these young adults inadvertently buy into others’ notion of (outwardly) success rather than think for themselves as to what success could mean for them, and the kind of life they might want to lead. It’s not their fault entirely, because most of their conditioning comes from the world around them including their parents, many of whom are always looking to prepare their children for the future, and in the process, totally lose out on living in the present.1 They are so caught up in preparing the road ahead for the children that they totally miss out on preparing the children for the road (which is all we can really do, lest we delude ourselves). In other words, they are so preoccupied with the “doing” that they completely lose sight of the being.

Is success about achieving or acquiring?

We usually associate success with having material wealth. We think of success as something to “get” in life, and we make it about ourselves. We mistakenly think of it as achieving. Above all, we erroneously think of success as a destination that we’ll arrive at some day in future when we’d have achieved X goal or Y outcome. It’s called the “I’ll be happy, when…” syndrome.

We mistake success to be an end in and off itself rather than thinking of it as a means towards a greater good. We are so occupied trying to get somewhere in life that we don’t even know where we are.2 We are mindlessly running around reacting to whatever comes our way, and we’ll do whatever it takes to reach that arbitrary goal or outcome. In all of the running around (“doing”), we have lost our ability to simply be, which was the point all along.

We spend our lives pursuing (acquiring) success through outside experiences (people, places, things, events). For instance, one of the paths we might take as part of the societal conditioning (including our parents) is as follows: We aspire to graduate from a top school, then pride ourselves on having a fancy job title and a trophy partner. Along the way, we acquire a big house and a fancy car. We take exotic vacations, have hundreds (if not thousands) of connections in our phone book (and social media), etc., all of which to implicitly validate ourselves that we have “arrived” in life, only to realize there is nowhere to arrive (if we are wise). We are so preoccupied with checking of all the “right boxes” in life that we forget to live in the here and now. In all of the “doing”, we have lost our ability to simply be. This path usually leads to financial and social success at the cost of one’s unhappiness and lack of fulfillment, only to leave a gaping void inside. We try to solve our inner issues with outer experiences, but we never learn.

While going on this path, we likely experience anxiety, stress, burnout, etc. all of which are unnatural to the human experience, not the least of which is because we have decided in advance (based on societal conditioning) that we want our life to go in a certain way and if/when it doesn’t, we exert our will to “make it happen” to meet our arbitrary notion of success (based on what we learned from others), which isn’t even our own most of the time. We are basically aspiring to live someone else’s life, even as we are ignoring all the red flags that come along the way. We keep conforming to the status quo even though it doesn’t feel quite right within. We spend our lives pursuing the temporal and the finite in the experiences external to us. However, by pursuing what’s external to us, we are implicitly telling ourselves that we aren’t complete by the virtue of who we simply are, and that we need these external experiences in order for us to feel complete, lest we forget life isn’t about acquisition or accumulation.

Is success at work enough?

We are so bought into this notion of outer success that we tend to define ourselves solely by “what we do.” This is why one of the first things we do upon meeting others is ask them what they do for a living. We tend to associate success mostly with our work without ever thinking twice about what success could mean for our personal lives. For instance, we might be successful in our work at the cost of our poor physical/mental health and/or our unhealthy relationships or troubled family life, but is that true success? We forget that success in one area of our lives (work) cannot compensate for failure in other areas (self and love).

As Gandhi said:

A person cannot do right in one department of life whilst attempting to do wrong in another department. Life is one indivisible whole.

Although we are talking mostly about young adults here, there are many people in this world, who are financially successful and socially unhappy based on worldly standards. They are unfulfilled in every way, not despite their so-called “success”, but because of it. It’s fairly common to see many of these individuals having a “mid-life crisis”, which they usually try to overcome through a big purchase such as buying a second house or a car, or leaving their partner for another one, mistakenly thinking that that is the solution.

Come to think, it’s surprising how more of us don’t have such crises (maybe because we don’t pause to reflect and question ourselves) given that we have spent almost half our life in accomplishing what we set out to do, and wondering why we still feel unhappy and unfulfilled, despite checking off “all the right boxes” (or maybe because of it). But, one thing is for sure, we know something’s not right (only if we pause and reflect to dig deeper). We know it because we feel it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there have been a number of public figures in the past (and present), who have been successful in their work (and the world admires many of them because of it), however, their success at work has often come at the cost of their personal lives (their turbulent mental states and/or their troubled relationships), which the world conveniently ignores. But, is that true success?

Success that comes at a price isn’t true success

We forget success (or growth) that comes at a price/cost isn’t true success. Not only is this true in our personal lives, but it’s also true the way we run our organizations (and nations). Any business/financial/economic growth that comes at a cost (of our planet, let’s say) isn’t true growth, but a decline.

Although, we use gross domestic product (GDP) as one of the economic indicators to evaluate a nation’s growth, it totally disregards the damage/loss to nature (including but not limited to causing human-induced climate change), ergo resulting in an overall negative impact, which is totally unaccounted for. Yes, GDP can be one of the growth metrics, but it can’t be the only one.

Robert F. Kennedy:

The gross national product [now, gross national income or GNI] measures everything in short, except that what makes life worthwhile.

Gross National Happiness (GNP) might be a better indicator for calculating true holistic growth of a nation, when done right, not the least of which is because it places ecological sustainability in the center, whilst placing socio-economic metrics around it, but let’s come back to success as it relates to our individual lives.

Is success about working hard now to retire later comfortably?

There are many of us, whose idea of success is to work hard now in a career before retiring comfortably later in life. But, is success about working hard now (translation: long hours through slogging), so we can retire later to “reap benefits” from our time spent working? In other words, is our retirement from work a reward for having worked all our lives, so now we can do all of the things we have wanted to do, but never got around to doing before?

While there are many flaws with this approach, the major one being that we are making a huge presumption that we’ll get to live a long life, and that we’ll get to do the things we want to do at some later date. We are postponing our everyday living for an arbitrary future that we don’t even know exists. None of us can say with certainty if we’ll wake up the following morning, much less have a long life, and/or remain in good health. Yet, many of us don’t think twice about postponing our daily living in the hope of enjoying a future that might not exist. In all of the “doing”, we have forgotten to simply be.

Is success about working less to spend more time away from it?

There are many of us who find ourselves on the other end of the spectrum, where we don’t wish to wait to retire from work before we enjoy our lives.3 We aspire to work a “four-hour week”, so we can do all the other things we want to do with our discretionary time such as learn tango in South America or sip a beverage while relaxing in a hammock on a warm sandy beach looking at the waters.

This lifetyle too leaves many questions to be answered, but above all, by taking this approach, we are implicitly saying to ourselves that work is something we do as a means to an end, just so we can do other “fun” things with our time, which is classic resistance (among other things). It underlies the assumption that work is something we “have to do”, and then there are things we “want to do.”4

Is success about us?

We tend to think of our success at work about ourselves, which is one of the reasons for our unhappiness (and lack of fulfillment). We are so focused on actualizing ourselves (by way of fulfilling our potential and making success about ourselves) that we have totally lost sight of self-transcendence (being service to others), which was the point all along. Self-actualization is only a means towards self-transcendence, but we mistake it for thinking as the goal in and off itself.

True success lies in the service of others. No amount of “getting” in life will ever fulfill us for the basic truth that we are here to give, not to “get.” The more we give, the less we need. There is no greater sense of fulfillment that comes from knowing how we did something for/with others made even a small difference in their lives. That we are fortunate to be able to serve others, and, we are lucky if we get to do it all over again.

Life is meant to be lived in service of others (without undermining ourselves, of course). There is this notion that we need to serve others even if it means putting others first at the cost of our own well-being. Not only is this approach ineffective, but it’s also unsustainable. We need to take care of ourselves first and foremost before we can show up to better serve others (if/when warranted). Let’s call it healthy selfishness.

Is success about “doing?”

We equate success with “doing” things in life. We mistakenly think of success as the What (versus the How). Success is less about accomplishing, and more in how we do anything. There is no greater success in the world than rightful living — how we live each day matters much more than what we do (“achieve”) in our lives. It’s only when we focus on living (being) first, we end up achieving more in our lives (not less), but that comes from a place of intentional living, which is the antithesis of mindlessly pursuing external success.

Success isn’t a destination, but a journey. Every day is an opportunity for us to be (and do) our best. There is nothing to achieve. There is nowhere to arrive. We’ll achieve whatever there is to achieve by the virtue of who we are, and not “what we do.” Success is a function of (human) being/living, first and foremost followed by “doing”, but because we have been so preoccupied with the doing, we have totally lost sight of the being. Where we come from (intention) informs where we go (direction).

True success is a three-legged stool

Think of success as a three-legged stool. Visualize a bar stool with three legs with each leg representing Self, Work, and Love. The work we do is in service of others. The time we get to spend with our friends and family comprises of love. And most important, we show up at work and in our relationships from our true Self. Two out of three isn’t enough (no matter how we look at it). It’s only when we have all three legs of the stool in balance on an ongoing basis (and not at some distant time in future) are we truly successful.

I’m reminded of a quote that’s been attributed to a few people:

Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.

True success is a byproduct of repeatedly showing up to be (and do) our best in all three aspects of our lives. What greater chance of fulfillment than to have the opportunity to serve others?! What we “get” is a result of what we give, but we don’t give with the intention of getting.5 We are simply being (and doing) our best.

It’s only when we fully actualize ourselves can be of greatest service to others.6 And, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what it’s like to live that way. Self-actualization is only a means to an end and not an end in and off itself. In other words, it’s not about us, but how we show up to be of service to others personally and professionally. Success is service. And, service is success.

Final thoughts

It’s almost funny and tragic how we think of “success” only from a work standpoint. Would we be truly successful if we have all the wealth in the world, but are unhealthy physically and/or not have meaningful relationships (including friendships) in our lives?

We tend to make success about ourselves. But our success lies in service of others. No amount of “getting” will ever satiate us. We spend most of our early adulthood preparing for success in the real world. We chase success at work until we get to the midpoint of our lives and realize (if we are wise) no amount of success for oneself will ever be fulfilling. That’s because we are here to give, and not to get. And, the more we give, the less we need.

Success that comes at a price isn’t true success. Many of us today are fixated on simply arriving somewhere, and in doing so, we totally lose sight of the journey, which is the point all along, even when destination maybe the goal. For instance, it’s hardly surprising that many of the most “successful” heads of organizations have their personal lives in disarray. We can’t be truly successful when we are only successful in one area of our life at the cost of the other areas, such as personal growth — never mind the fact that our relationships are suffering.

When we think about our own experiences from doing something good for others, it naturally feels good to be (and do) good for others. But, we never have this feeling when we are looking to “get” something from others. When all is said and done, the only measure of success is if we’ll be missed when we’re gone (both personally and professionally through our character and contribution respectively). We can use this metric to evaluate our own success week to week, and month to month.

What else is there in life apart from living in service of others, spending time with friends and family, and living from our true selves?! Not only is it attainable, but it’s the only natural (joyful and sustainable) way forward.

  1. (Despite their best intention, parents don’t always know what’s best for their children maybe partly because of their own upbringing.)

  2. We are implicitly saying to ourselves that where we are isn’t okay, and that we won’t be okay until we reach that goal or outcome.

  3. While I can’t fully disagree with the intention here, this approach too begs a few questions.

  4. We have established earlier, there are no “have to dos” or “want to dos”, there are only get to dos.

  5. If we’re giving with the intention of getting, then that defeats the point of giving, and perhaps we ought to reconsider our true motives.

  6. This isn’t to say that we wait someday in future to serve others, but to start now.

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