The great Greek philosopher Socrates was once asked to sum up all philosophical commandments and reduce them to one, and he replied, “Know yourself.” There is something intrinsically beautiful about knowing oneself. I believe any real attempt at achieving lasting success must begin with a journey of introspection into one’s self. You must become conscious of who you are. By this, I mean your identity. Not what others have said about you, or what society has morphed you into, but rather who you are.
I have distilled the concept of the knowledge about self into three specific questions that I think are essential in understanding who we are. You should be able to answer these three questions truthfully without judgment, shame, or reproach.
As Shakespeare puts it, “To thine own self, be true.” The moment we can honestly confront these questions, we can begin to chart the course of success.
The three fundamental life questions are:
- Who am I?
- Where do I come from?
- Where am I going?
Who Am I?
Imagine you are invited for an interview for your desired job that offers fantastic benefits. You spend days preparing yourself technically and mentally for those few hours that you think will determine the rest of your life.
You are anxious, yet cautiously confident that you’ll nail the interview. You get called in, and after all the pleasantries, the interviewer utters these words.
“Tell us about yourself. Who are you?”
You think to yourself. Really? Who am I?
You’re not going to ask me why I want the job or what I can bring to the table? You are interested in who I am?
Would you begin by telling them your name, height, race, and temperament?
I don’t think so!
Those are characteristics of your physicality, something for the ID card perhaps, to aid easy identification. Such features could potentially be used to describe any other object or thing in this world and beyond.
The answer to this first question isn’t as easy as it seems. It requires deep thought.
Who you are means “What do you stand for?” What are your core values? What are your principles? What are your beliefs? What are your standards?
When we truly know ourselves, we can accept and love who we are.
Who you are is your story – your struggles, your uniqueness, and your differences! If you are like everyone else, what’s the fun in that? Why should other people take notice of you? Why should any of it matter? Knowing your singular identity creates more value in you as a person.
Don’t strip your story from your work, product, or service. Use it to garnish them, and it will improve you as a whole package. Your story makes it easier for others to connect with you because they will understand your actions and perspectives better.
Where Do I Come From?
Psychologists have found, based on scientific research done in the 1990s, that children who knew more about their family history demonstrated a stronger sense of control over their lives, typically had higher self-esteem, and believed their families functioned better. Hearing stories about their ancestors gave the children a sense of their history and a stronger bond with their heritage.
Other than the apparent biological answer to the question of “Where do I come from?”, there are several aspects to the answer to this seemingly benign question, which has to do with more than just nationality.
Let us consider the case of Maleek.
Maleek was tired at this point after moving his luggage to the third floor of his college dormitory. He had looked forward to this day since being notified of his admission to his dream college. This is the first day of the best years of my life, he thought.
He began unpacking his things. His curly hair dripped with sweat, and his light brown skin was covered mostly in cardboard dust. He soon met two of his new roommates in the kitchen. They look pretty cool, he thought. He exchanged pleasantries with them and was about to head to his room for a much-needed rest when one of them asked him, “Where are you from?”
“I’m French, the city of Lyon, to be precise.”
“Are you sure?” The guy who asked the question looked surprised. I mean, where are you really from? Like where your parents are from?”
Now Maleek was slightly perturbed. He knew the answer was not a straightforward one. How best do I explain to this guy, that my dad emigrated from Sierra Leone to France as a young man and later married my mother, who was born in Rio de Janeiro, raised in Sicily, and has lived most of her life with my dad in France? For the first time in his life, he posed the question to himself, Where do I come from?
This question of origin transcends national boundaries or the current passport one carries because countries can be born, die, expand, contract, or fail. Czechoslovakia, a central European country, was created in 1918. It existed until 1993 before being peacefully dissolved. Meanwhile, South Sudan was created brand new in 2011, as were Kosovo — 2008, Serbia — 2006, Montenegro — 2006, and Timor-Leste — 2002. Furthermore, there are many failed and fragile states that may cease to exist in the coming years. Where would the people in those places claim to be from?
History is real, culture is authentic, but countries are a political construct. The question of where you’re from is more about your historical ancestors, culture, experiences, rituals, restrictions, and relationships.
A clear answer to this question of “Where do I come from?” usually leads to other related and equally important questions, such as, “Does my heritage explain some of my characteristics?” or “Do I take pride in this knowledge?” If not, why? You need to know the answers to these questions and accept them, thereby accepting yourself as you are.
Where Am I Going?
This question is fundamentally describing what you want your success to look like. What is your goal in life? Where do you want to end up? If you don’t know what success looks like to you, you will continue to measure yourself by other people’s yardstick, and this can lead to a life full of unfulfillment, sorrow, frustration, and pain.
Success means different things to different people. Many people associate the images of success in life with sitting behind a beautiful office desk managing a colossal business, relaxing in the back of a chauffeur-driven Cadillac, living in a big mansion, taking beautiful cruises to amazing holiday destinations, and so on. While for others, success has very little to do with money, houses, cash, or anything tangible. Instead, they place a priority on the flexibility of work, creativity, healthy relationships, and more free time with loved ones.
Personally, success to me means to be financially independent, to want something and then go and secure it without the need to beg or borrow. To be able to freely create and network with other creative people. I want to add value to as many people as possible during my time on this journey of life .
In the end, I want to look back and say I did my best. That I made a difference, no matter how small. Some people somewhere in this world are better off because I was born, and I lived and applied myself to the opportunities that came my way during my time on this planet.
When determining what success looks like to you, you need to be candid and objective. You should remember these two universal truths:
1. Seek Success on Your Terms
We live in a materialistic and consumerist society that tends to encourage us to keep grasping for more. We’re bombarded by those cute commercials that are supposed to encourage us to want those bigger houses, more superior cars, vogue clothes and accessories, extravagant vacations, and all that supposedly fun stuff—as if all those things are supposed to make us happy. Absolutely not! The truth is nothing on the outside can genuinely give you joy. Joy is intrinsic, and you must tap into the wells within to find happiness.
2. You Can Never Have Enough
By nature, humans are insatiable creatures. It’s in our DNA. So, the big house can always get bigger, and so can the car, private jet, business, customers, and so on. Figure out what will give you fulfilment within and let that be your driving force—something you will love doing with or without remuneration or recognition.
Success is the path you travel, not the destination. Eventually, it is who you are, not what you have. It is discovering the right approach for you that ensures growth, change, and the ability to manage life’s circumstances effectively along the way. When you know who you are, where you’re from, and where you’re going, you will have the much-needed clarity to better understand your purpose in life. You will be in a better position to discover why you have been placed on this planet. A life without purpose is a massively wasted opportunity.
All through life, many things will be dangled in front of you, and you could be tempted to pursue them. However, the real power comes from knowing what you want.
What do you want to achieve in your business, career, relationships, or even as a family? What will be the best outcome possible?
What do you really want?
When people truly know what they want, they will spend the rest of their life chasing it.
Lastly, pretend you’ve reached the end of your journey, and you’re looking back and critically reviewing your life through a looking glass—all the places you’ve been, your actions, your relationships, your contributions to others, your environment, and so on.
The idea of how you want to feel regarding your accomplishments, with the minimum amount of regrets at this point in the future, should stimulate your desire for success in this present time.
1. Answer the three fundamental life questions genuinely.
2. Know your true source.
3. Define what your ultimate success means.