Avoid the Shiny Objects! Why Internal Motivators are better measures of Success

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We live in an Instagram inspired world where on a daily basis we lay witness to all the pretty things everyone else around us owns.

We also see the trips others jet off to on a regular frequency, and the new cars they acquire.

We see these folks as “having it all” and wonder why we can’t seem to achieve what they’ve accomplished.

What we don’t see is the staggering amount of debt they try to avoid each month or the tears they shed as they try to fall asleep after yet another gut-wrenching fight with their spouse.

We don’t see the little moments they miss in life because they’re glued to their phones, or because they work so much.

Yet, we still view all of these things as measures of their success.  But, despite this outwardly focused yardstick, as we approach 40, we start to feel a little unsettled.  All of those things don’t hold as much joy as they used to (but, we still want to chase them because that's what we're supposed to do!).

Here’s the thing:  we grow up learning to measure our achievements by external markers when in reality, internal measures are the best measure of success.

 

EXTERNAL MARKERS OF SUCCESS

So, what exactly are ‘external’ markers of success?

External markers of success are all of the things we learned about achievement and success from a young age.  It wasn’t just what we were told; it was also what we observed. These external markers are the easiest to understand when we’re young because we don’t have the emotional development to understand internal drivers.

To be blunt, external markers tend to be the superficial stuff that feeds the comparison monster most of us battle against throughout our lives.


To be blunt, external markers tend to be the superficial stuff that feeds the comparison monster most of us battle against throughout our lives.

Let’s take a look back at our younger years to see these in action.  In school, the popular kids were the ones that were the best looking and had what everyone else wanted (the trendiest clothes, the cutest backpack, the newest car, etc.).

Our grades defined whether we passed or failed, if we were smart or not, and put us on the path to “success” or “failure.”  For most, we didn’t necessarily strive to get good grades because it fulfilled us, we did it because that was what we were supposed to do and would allow us to fulfill certain obligations from others (our parents, teachers, etc.).

Even as adults, we chase these external measures by trying to get the right job title on our business card, the biggest house, the more expensive car, the designer purse, the right brand of yoga pants, etc.

It’s us walking around with the right Starbucks cup, holding the latest and greatest phone, while flipping our freshly blown-out hair.

We strive to have all of these things because, yes, they might make us happy, but why do they make us happy?

Many of these external things make up happy because having them in our possession says “we’ve made it.”  We’re successful because of the car we drive, the label in our clothes, and the amount of money in our account.

It doesn’t matter if we’re dying on the inside, feel mind-numbingly bored throughout our day, and continually lament the fact that there must be more to life than this.

If supposedly having all these things makes us happy and successful, then why aren’t we blissfully on top of the world?  Why do we slip into a midlife crisis and start to question it all?

 

INTERNAL MARKERS OF SUCCESS

Internal markers, on the other hand, are those things we can’t put a price tag on and it’s not even something our closest friends can see.

Internal markers are what gives us the life that makes us feel fulfilled and that our life has meaning and purpose.


Internal markers are what gives us the life that makes us feel fulfilled and that our life has meaning and purpose.

When was the last time a designer pair of shoes did that?

What good do all the things do if you never see your family, haven’t laughed with a good friend in years, hate your job, and skate through life just skimming the surface?  What will all of those things have mattered if you lie on your deathbed and regret the life you lived?

Striving to meet and exceed our internal markers allow us to live a broader, more meaningful, and rewarding life.  It’s one of our choosing that lights our soul on fire, and isn’t something that can be measured by money or anyone else.

That doesn’t mean earning a good living is a bad thing.  Money can certainly make our lives a little easier (in some ways) and give us more opportunities to chase what lights our soul on fire, but at the end of the day, we don’t need money to live a rewarding life, or to do good in the world.

So, what are examples of ‘internal markers’ of success?

For some of us, spending quality time with our partner and family is the secret to a rewarding and fulfilling life.  For others, having time to be creative and lose ourselves in our latest passion project is the key to loving life.

Maybe it’s giving away to charities - in both time or money that makes us go to bed feeling we’ve done something right in the world.

It doesn’t matter what it is, but when we uncover what makes us feel good about ourselves, that allows us to feel we’re living a full, rewarding, and meaningful life, we’ve discovered our internal markers.

But, whatever it is, I’m going to wager it doesn’t have a designer label on it, and it’s not something we can buy in the store.

Want an inside tip on how to get a peek at some of your internal markers?  Consider these questions: 

  • What are you craving more of in your life?
  • If heaven forbid, your house was to burn down tonight, and you were left with no material possessions, what would you be most grateful for in your life?
     

HOW OUR DEFINITION OF SUCCESS CHANGES AFTER 40

When we’re younger, we chase the external motivators because it’s a bunch of shiny new toys.

As children, we haven’t fully developed our sense of self-awareness and don’t know what makes us feel fulfilled and accomplished, so chasing what society tells us is ‘success’ is the easy path.

For most of us, but sadly not all, we eventually hit a point where all the shiny objects start to feel meaningless.  We need something of greater depth to attach our star for a more rewarding journey.

We know we have many years left, but we also know how quickly it passes, so we feel an urgent need to live a more fulfilling life so we limit our regrets and we leave something of substance behind.

Sometimes, when people become parents for the first time, they experience this shift where something outside of themselves is now more significant than they are.

But, for many, this shift becomes particularly apparent when approaching 40 and hitting an impending midlife crisis.

Part of what makes the transition from youth to midlife to old age so challenging is the shift in importance between internal vs. external success markers.

Without even realizing it, we start to see that all of the shiny objects are nothing more than that and we feel empty, bored, and unfulfilled.

We start to see that working less is actually more desired than working more.  Climbing the corporate ladder loses some of its luster. As a result, we begin to shift our definition of success.

Navigating the gap between what we’ve known to be true (acquiring the shiny objects are the key to our success) and what we are beginning to feel (the shiny objects are just distractions), is tricky, scary, and earth-shaking.

Life as we’ve known it feels like it’s flipping upside down.

But, as we explore our seeds of insight and let the new-found knowledge take root and grow, we find that our life doesn’t upend itself.  For the first time, we start to feel more rooted in our lives and stand taller and stronger in who we’ve become and what we want from our lives.
 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Listen, I’m not saying a particular job title is a bad thing to chase if that truly lights up your soul and makes you feel you’ve done something good in the world.  I’m also not saying that treating yourself to something expensive is a bad thing if you love it and feel you've earned it (I'm all for indulging and treating ourselves from time to time!).

All I’m saying is that if those are your only measures of success and it’s about nothing more than bragging rights, you’ve missed the beautiful opportunity to enrich your life and experience it on an entirely different level.

Our internal markers of success can be hard to measure, because it’s not really about an endpoint, it’s about the journey along the way.  Yes, we can measure it in some ways by working less, giving more, and paying attention to those tugs of desire within our heart and soul, but the primary element for gauging success is that feeling of accomplishment when closing our eyes at night.

By becoming more aware of our internal markers of success, we become empowered to design a life around those markers to set us up for a life of limited regrets and limitless possibilities.