Why You Should Turn Your Back On What Others Want You to Do

Ask 100 people for a definition of success, and chances are, you’ll get 100 different answers. Many will be variations on similar themes. Wealth and its trappings define success for some. A high-ranking position in their career field signal success for others. Some will mention their large families including many grandchildren. Others will describe houses on the beach, in the mountains or atop Fifth Avenue buildings in New York City. A few might relay stories of fulfillment through volunteer work or giving to charity.

Baby Boomers Vs Generation X and Y

Each generation defines itself by its definition of success. For men and women that grew up during the Great Depression and then survived World War II, starting a family, keeping house and maintaining relationships with friends and neighbors were the ultimate goals. Societal norms of decorum and privacy influenced their children, who grew up during the 1970s when free love became the new standard of success. Breaking the bonds of societal norms meant that you had “made it.” The 1980s and 1990s were marked by excess in everything. Boomers and their children defined success in the most materialistic of ways. Big houses, fancy cars, big hair, and flashy jewelry were the new status symbols. Everyone worked hard and played even harder. With the turn of the last century, many have begun to reflect on the true nature of success.

Dropping Out and Heading Up

Today, amidst over-packed schedules, SAT score obsessing parents, and badge-of-honor college acceptance letters, some are pausing to reflect on what they truly want out of life and how to get it. Rather than staying on the part hamster wheel, part Stairmaster of the corporate ladder, many are re-assessing, re-organizing and dropping out of the median flow. They are forging their own paths. To these people, success is a state of mind, and to achieve it, one must know where one is going. They know they have achieved success when they realize self-actualization, the highest state of being on Maslows’s Hierarchy of Needs. At this state, one experiences creativity, morality, acceptance, spontaneity, and being all that one can be.

The following are stories of success in this vein. They are stories of real people who overcame odds, re-arranged their lives, and headed in the direction that made the most sense to them, internally, and beyond the reach of the judgments of others.

The World’s Oldest First Grader

Alferd Williams, 70, was featured recently in People Magazine and had a trip to the Oprah Winfrey Show. What is Alferd’s claim to fame? He is one of the world’s oldest first graders. He grew up as the son of sharecroppers in Tennessee. Needing “all hands on deck” to grow and harvest cotton, Alferd never learned to read. While caring for a neighbor’s children, walking them back and forth to school in 2006, he happened upon schoolteacher Alesia Hamilton. She discovered that he could not read and asked him if he would like help from a local literacy agency. He wanted to learn from her, and together they arranged for that to happen. Alferd has served as a volunteer in Hamilton’s first grade class since 2007, helping and learning along with the children. During several interviews over the past few months, Williams has described an entire new world opening up to him since learning to read. He enjoys going to the grocery store and selecting his own food, knowing that he will like what he chooses, or at least knows what it is.

Alferd is not a corporate CEO. Nor will he cure cancer. But he has found success. He has started to achieve something that he always wanted to achieve, and has inspired others. One foot in front of the other, one word at a time, he has achieved success.

Three Cups of Tea


Greg Mortenson did not begin his life with the goal to change the lives of thousands of women in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He began his life in Minnesota. The son of missionaries, he grew up on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, served in the military and attended the University of South Dakota. In 1993, spurred by the untimely death of his sister, Mortenson embarked on a climb of Pakistan’s K2 mountain, the second highest mountain in the world. He did not make it to the top, experiencing bitter defeat for what was supposed to be a climb in tribute for his sister. He left his group during the descent and ended up, ill, in a small village of Pakistan. The villagers nursed him back to health. While there, he discovered that the children of the village had no school, books or teachers. He left, promising to return and build a school.

Upon returning to the United States, Mortenson began his fundraising quest. Nobody took him seriously until school children from Wisconsin donated $623 in pennies to his cause. He sold everything he had, raising only $2,000, and went back to Pakistan to begin his project. Mortenson has succeeded where almost every other American has been unable to. In the areas of the world where Americans are feared and hated, he has built over 50 schools that teach 24,000 students a year. He began his life wandering around. He discovered a purpose and followed it against every obstacle thrown in his path. He has achieved success. Not because his book about his experiences Three Cups of Tea is an international best seller. He has achieved success because he felt conviction to help a cause, inspired others to join him and has elevated the lives of thousands of people.

Worlds Apart, yet United in Vision

Alferd Williams and Greg Mortenson could not be more different, yet they each have achieved a level of success that most would only dream of. Each happened upon a life-changing opportunity, embraced it, became it and ran with it. Each has made a difference in their own life and has touched the life of others. Neither is on the Fortune 500 list and neither lives in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, but each has achieved a level of success that permeates every level of being and extends to the world beyond.

You Define Your Own Success

Today success is the act of forging your own path, discovering the world, and finding meaning in unique, personal endeavors. Success is not necessarily achievement of a pre-ordained, planned path of success. Greatness can be found by stepping off the beaten path and choosing your own way. Success for an individual is as they define it, and nothing else.

Steve Goldberg is the creator of The Opus Movie Community, a social network of goal oriented people inspired by The Opus movie, who passionately live life to its fullest potential.

Images from Jason Rogers and Wisdom Portal.


16 Responses to Why You Should Turn Your Back On What Others Want You to Do

  1. Marelisa says:

    I agree that success is being true to yourself and learning to listen to your inner voice, as well as being authentic. The more you dare to be yourself and to go after what you want–as opposed to chasing after the usual trappings of success–the more successful you are.

  2. Steve says:

    Exactly Marelisa! What I consider success may be very different from what you consider success to be. But that’s a good thing. It lets us all pursue worthwhile dreams that have a special meaning to each of us.

  3. You point directly to a primary inhibitor of success, which is language. Knowingly or unknowingly, we accept the meaning of words, such as success, wealth, and happiness, that are defined by social conventions. As you communicate here, that is an often fatal mistake.

    We are “taught” that success is defined by social status and material wealth and all forms of media, in general, promote this idea. Thank you for challenging conventional wisdom with real wisdom and for revealing the true path to self-actualization, which is self-awareness:

    “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.” ~ Martin Heidegger

    “There is more happiness in doing one’s own [path] without excellence than in doing another’s [path] well.” ~ The Bhagavad Gita

    “You cannot tread the Path before you become the Path yourself.” ~ Zen saying

  4. Steve says:

    Great point. We ARE the path we choose to follow. It is only in the creation of our destiny where we find our own definition of success.

  5. This is a great post. You illustrated the power of having one’s own unique goal and taking actions toward the goal with these two distinct stories!
    I think the surge of inner awareness is so real these days. Many of us are finally becoming aware that joy and meaning are not out there. We first need to ask ourselves what it is we want in our life.

    I can relate because I quit my corporate job last year to do what I believe to be meant for me. I’m in the process, and things are not easy, but I can’t even imagine myself going back.
    Thank you for this inspiring post.

  6. Steve says:

    Right on point Akemi! You’re right about the surge of inner awareness. I don’t know what it is or where its coming from, but its definitely amazing.

    It’s so exciting to hear people like you taking a leap of faith & quitting their job in search of something better. Don’t worry, you’ll find your path soon.

    Your very welcome.

  7. Emma says:

    I find the story of Alferd Williams especially touching. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed at the grocery store trying to choose the best item. I couldn’t imagine trying to decide what to buy without at least being able to read some of the label. Very encouraging article.

  8. Adam says:

    This is an absolutely wonderful piece and I can totally relate to what you are talking about. Over the past sixteen months my entire outlook on the world and life has completely changed, but definitely for the better.

    Not long after I graduated from high school I started having some rather serious problems from bipolar disorder. Modern medications quickly reined in the extremes though and I was again able to focus on the goals of “success”. As it later turned out though, having experienced the highest-highs and lowest-lows proved to be one of the most valuable experiences of my life. Having felt emotions above and below the “norms”, then having felt the effects of psychotropic medications on not only those problematic emotional states, but all my emotions and cognitive functions, I was given, what I would call a gift, of basically having the curtain pulled back on the experience of life. Over the next five years of working with my psychiatrist and practicing mindfulness in my daily life, I was able to come off all the meds and have now been doing fine for four years and counting.

    To me, that was my first real taste of success, and an eye opener to how our modern western ideas of success are so skewed. Too many people these days want “quick-fixes” to what they consider minor-problems (but in actuality are quite major) that stand in the way of their worldly goals of success. If depression is preventing you from climbing the corporate ladder, take some antidepressants and leave it at that. If a hectic modern life makes it impossible to get a good nights sleep, take some sleeping pills and forget about it. If weight is a problem, well, there is tons of products and services that claim they’ll help you loose weight without having to work for it. After these “inconveniences” are brought under control, they can trudge on towards that shiny sports car, big house with a picket fence, and two and a half kids. (Note: I am not against the use of modern medications, I just don’t see them in many cases as a feasible long-term solution as opposed to true lifestyle changes)

    Okay, now I’m rambling, but I guess I’m just trying to say that in many cases these days, people’s priorities are totally messed up and as a result they miss so many (subjectively) little successes each and every moment that ultimately makes living so sweet. Anyways, I’ll save the rest for a later time.

  9. Steve says:

    I know, it’s so inspiring to see someone with that much courage to go against the norm and learn to read with 1st graders.

  10. Steve says:

    Adam, I really like your point about people just wanting quick fixes. Unfortunately some people don’t want to put in any work, and will spend money on things that claim quick fixes, like diet pills, etc.

    It’s great to hear that you’re willing take on obstacles in your life and deal with them like a conscious, mindful, responsible individual.

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  12. “The current definition of success is a potentially toxic prescription for your life. The real definition of success is a life that brings personal fulfillment, lasting relationships, and makes a difference in the world.” – Success Built to Last

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  15. Bill says:

    Yes you are right! this was a very interesting article. I guess I learnt something

  16. Pingback: Yes to Me Month Three & Four Review | Real Life Spirituality

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