What is success?

I’m in my final year of college and I fear that I will not succeed. Actually, my grades are passable, but I feel continuously anxious and am always comparing myself with my classmates. When the anxiety gets really too much, I smoke marijuana to chill out. It is effective, but only for a short time. The next day, the anxiety returns. Actually, the main issue is my parents’ expectations. I’m not blaming them, and I’m sure that they want what is best for me, but they give me a lot of pressure to get top grades and really want me to succeed in life – high position, social status etc. I fear that cannot live up to their ideals.  What can I do?

Worried guy, Bangalore 

Well, worried guy, you mentioned the word succeed a number of times in your question. In this respect, I think that it is important that you and your parents first consider what success really means in terms of our short human existence. In modern times, people tend to blindly follow the general consensus, which is manipulated by the mass media. As a result, acquiring property, status, and big cars, etc have become the most common goals in life. However, can we really say that these aspirations constitute a successful human life? Do they really represent our highest common ideals? 

Furthermore, if we examine these mundane achievements, we will come to realize that they have no actual value outside the minds of certain people at a particular time and place. In this respect, they are no more real than a dream. Ok, I know this sounds complicated, and so I’ll give an example. When most people think of a diamond, they will automatically associate it with status and prestige, right? But what makes it so? What gives it this value? In reality, there is no inherent value to the gem itself. If there were, then diamonds would be prized everywhere and at all times, but this is not the case. An indigenous person in the Amazon jungle, for example, would find the gem stone useless, as would people in very early times. Even in the future as environmental situations change, water may become the most valuable substance on the planet, and diamonds will be as worthless as pebbles on a dry river bed. 

Basically, what I am saying is don’t blindly follow the general consensus of success, but think deeply about what you yourself believe to be important in life. To put it in another way, you need to discover your own understanding of success and not merely follow a current trend, which, as I stated, is merely a creation of the mind and will change according to circumstances and influences.     

As you are used to the prevailing definitions, however, you may not immediately be able to think of other explanations of success. Here are some ideas to think over. In a Buddhist context, for example, success could be defined as awaking to the illusory nature of samsara and nirvana, while in a worldly sense there are an infinite number of alternative definitions, a few examples of which are given below:

Dalai Lama: “Cultivating a close, warm hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life”

Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

Albert Einstein: “Try not to be a success, but rather to be of value.”

Michelle Obama: “Success isn’t about how much money you make. It’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

In reality, status, and material wealth are neither very noble nor daring goals.

Anyway, I apologize if I’m not answering your question directly, but I feel that before moving forward you need to have a direction. At the moment, I feel you are getting stressed by trying to achieve goals that are not only very vague, but also not very meaningful. In this respect, you need to consider what you want to achieve in life. If this question is too abstract, then imagine that you are lying on a hospital bed dying. Now think back over your life and honestly ask yourself what brings you a sense of contentment and peace – is it the expensive cars you owned and your college exam results or is it the people that you helped and the wisdom you acquired? Only you can answer this question.

As for smoking up, I personally don’t think it’s a good idea. Here, I’m not discussing the legal or moral aspect of the drug, but the practical considerations of marijuana use. I know that it offers relief from stress and looks cool but, as you have already discovered, the effects are temporary. Furthermore, regular use can actually make people more anxious and prevent them from acquiring the skills they need to deal with life’s problems. In reality, it would be better to learn how to address the underlying causes of our stress. Obviously, there will be times when you feel totally overwhelmed by your problems. When this occurs, I suggest that rather than smoking up, you look for healthy options that will clear your mind, such as going for a long walk, joining a hip-hop session, going skateboarding, or a taking off on wild cycle ride. 

In short, I recommend that you consider what is important in life. Then, once you are clearer about what success means to you personally, you should develop the courage to forge your own path and not merely follow one created by mass media and imposed on you by peer pressure. Otherwise, you will always be stressed by aiming at goals that may neither be easy to achieve or even desirable. Anyway, I hope that my answer was not too complicated, but I would like to initiate a spark of thought about life’s goals. In reality, if we do not question the direction of our lives, most of us tend to move blindly from birth until death like sheep wandering on a mountain.           

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programmes.

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