Don’t compare: Discovering the true meaning of success

December 8, 2016 — by Ryan Kim

Junior discusses what it means to be successful.

Success. Happiness. Thousands of philosophers and the greatest minds of the age have given their two cents and more on how to achieve these seemingly unattainable goals. Great mentors, theorists and thinkers have used their own experiences to explain their take on happiness.

The writer Maya Angelou once said that “success is liking yourself, liking what you do and liking how you do it.” In 1994, Nelson Mandela said, "Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."

But as wise as their advice may be, sometimes the greatest paths to success are your own. Success should be defined by your attitude, not by the people around you. As scary as it sounds, it is up to you to establish how far you need to go to succeed to attain happiness and how to get there.

Here at SHS, many of us look to academic achievements, popularity and admission to the prestigious Ivy League as cornerstones of success. But we don’t always consider the more fundamental aspects of life: integrity, self-worth and improvement.

These are the qualities that define your own successes (yes, you can have multiple), not a fancy college title or a stamp for valedictorian to fit in your laundry list resume.

Comparison is not the only thing that matters in life. It’s not what defines success, and it’s certainly not the only path to happiness. I had to learn that the hard way at school.

One time, I received a math test that I had performed well on and looked around, beaming and trying to figure out what my peers had received. But as I looked at my classmates’ papers, I realized that some of my friends had done much better than I had. Suddenly, my happiness felt hollow, and I felt like my success was comparatively worthless.

Comparison often leads to harmful exclusion and derision among social cliques and intellectual groups. I’ve noticed that the A+ students generally don’t socialize with those whom they deem the “sub-par” students, while the other students look up at them with envy and unhealthy resentment. We’re really good at hiding our competitiveness and ill will, but those feelings persist nevertheless.

In our myopic understanding of success, we don’t fully appreciate the method in obtaining our goals or the impact this view of success will have on us. What’s after college? How do you become successful after obtaining a degree from a prestigious university and a high-paying job? What obstacles and paths must you face to get there? And through all of that, how do you stay happy and continue to value yourself?

My father, a middle-aged engineer, comes from a stereotypical Asian family in South Korea: He started poor, studied hard to become the best in his class, got into the best colleges and now lives prosperously in a nice house with a family and a well-paying job.

But these accomplishments do not define his happiness, he told me, or his success. Success, he said, is living your dream. It’s earning it. It’s about you, not comparisons to others.

“I know you probably didn’t do your best this round. Maybe today was a bad day, I don’t know,” my orchestra conductor once said. “What you must know, though, is that there is always another chance. There’s always a time to get back on your feet. Just try your best and you’ll go far.”

And through our constant struggle to achieve success, we have a chance at happiness too. To me, as a Saratoga student, happiness is finishing my homework before 1 a.m.; it’s hanging out with my friends under the shade of the big tree in the quad, not worrying about tomorrow; it’s enjoying the activities at school, dancing and joking around as we prepare for Homecoming.

As I grow older and life changes around me, I don’t have many chances to have this type of happiness anymore, so I strive to adapt to these new situations and find how well I am doing overall, including integrity and academics. When I’m overwhelmed by school, I sit down in a quiet, empty room and think to myself, “How am I feeling? Why am I feeling this way? How do I fix this situation?”

That way, I can always see what to be thankful for so that I can appreciate the blessings of my life. Optimism, I find, is the best way — maybe the only way — to find true happiness.

Changing our self-defeating tendencies of comparing ourselves to others and risking our integrity to achieve “success” is not a one-day effort; it takes time for each individual to cultivate a healthy mindset.

Not everyone can obtain the same level of success as others. For some, success is an an 8-minute or even a 12-minute mile time, while others can run a mile in 4 minutes or less.

The important thing about success is that there is no given rubric; the definition of success depends on the individual’s perception of self-improvement.

I used to think success was obtaining A+s in all of my classes and get accepted by Harvard or Stanford University. But I realized that this may not be attainable for me, so I changed my goals and my version of success: try as hard as I can to do the best I can. By striving to improve myself and find my limits, I effectively succeed at maintaining a happy attitude by not comparing myself with anyone other than myself.

Putting in your best effort, trying as hard as you can: that is what truly brings happiness, not comparing and trying to outdo others to feel superior.