May 25, 2007

The Definitions of Success

Back to the interesting question of a person’s success in Singapore.

In my earlier post, it was implicitly assumed that everyone has a common understanding of what “success” means. But of course, success is relative and subjective.

And I think that it is very wise to have, and to pursue, your own subjective definitions of success, rather than society’s, or your parents’, or someone else’s. Because it is, after all, your own life.

My idea of success (which you certainly don’t have to agree with or subscribe to) is based on an “all-round” model. I like to divide life up into seven or eight broad areas – eg “family”; “career”; “health”; “finances”; “spiritual” etc – and consider how I’m doing.

If I were doing very well in one or two areas, but very badly in one or two others, I would not consider myself to be very successful. To me, success means that every major area of my life must at least be on an even keel.

If everything is at least on an even keel, then I can start thinking of how I can do even better in one, two or three particular areas. (Simultaneously pursuing greater heights in all seven or eight areas will just lead to burnout).

Most of the time, the major personal crises that people have did not suddenly happen overnight. They usually started off as small, harmless-looking seeds that were left unaddressed and grew slowly, slowly into large monsters. Examples would be divorces, bankruptcies and heart attacks.

Don’t let the bad seeds grow too much, before you decide to fix them. Most problems are easily solved, if you nip them in the bud. But once they reach monster size, they can bite your hand off when you try to tackle them.

For example, don’t wait till you’re 85 kg and have a heart attack, before you decide to take better care of your health.

Major personal successes also usually do not happen overnight. They may appear to. But if you look closely, you will see that they too were the result of many little things that happened over a long period of time. Ahh, now you see the importance of persistence and patience.

In my Personal Investigations Into The Nature of My Universe, I have seen that ultimately one area of my life matters more than the rest. It is the overarching theme under which all the other areas fall. This area - I call it “Spiritual”.

So far I have not been that successful here. But hey, I’m still trying. More on this, another time, perhaps. In the meantime, it’s persistence and patience again.

In Singapore, success in life is typified by the five C’s. That is very shallow. Take it as the lowest common denominator in everyday parlance, for Singaporeans to make conversation about success. Treat the 5 C’s like last week’s weather - something to chat about at a party.

But don’t take the 5 C’s as your personal benchmark to measure your life against.

Why cheat yourself? Life is a lot more than that.
Choose your own definitions.

I'll end with an excerpt from Steve Jobs' best-ever speech:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

[Describes his personal encounter with cancer]

... This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope its the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.


Slawek Rogulski said...

Hello Mr Wang. Again, your writing is a fresh breeze in a humid day. I am curious though, where you get the strengths of your convictions to pursue the singular life that you have chosen for yourself amid the shallowness of the 5 C's among the mainstream/majority. Apologies to all the wonderful exceptions to the mainstream.

Anonymous said...

the "success stories" we read in the papers and magazines glorify money and status as success. equating success to happiness did not help either.

in your previous post, success is found in stages as in the Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

In my opinion, more should be emphasized on the pursuit of happiness and not on the pursuit of success.

Anonymous said...

Death is really over-rated. Embrace reincarnation and escalate to a new level.

With unlimited time, u take all the stress out of making those big decisions. U just get on with it.

We are just tiny specs in this huge universes of time and space. And our suceesses even smaller.

You, your successes and failures. There's really no one looking. Its just you.

Rush said...

"Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid." - Albert Einstein

We're forced to climb all sorts of trees in our lives, so, be a monkey!! Hehheh

Anonymous said...

Guess what Mr Wang, I completely agree with your posting.

What you say about various spheres of your life reminds me of something I read in self-help books. Did you get that idea from 7 Habits or Awaken the Giant within?

Zhixiang, I would say that success in all these spheres would naturally lead to happiness.

From time to time, I hear about people who are disdainful of earning money, and that happiness is more important. To ignore the importance of money would be foolhardy, unless you're fortunate enough to have a huge inheritance. Having no money would upset the balance in your life. By all means, pursue your dreams and happiness, but don't forget your bank account in the process.

Anonymous said...

Well-said, Mr. Wang, though I suspect you have it a little easier than others to pursue success in non-monetary areas, since without having to struggle financially to make ends meet.

Anyhows, I do see more young people today than before who are willing to pursue personal happiness, not measured in terms of the 5Cs. Of course that is purely anedoctal observation, but I'm optimistic.

Like you, I really like that Steve Jobs speech as well. Probably ranks as one of my favourites :)

- Gabe

Jimmy Mun said...

For those who like to see Steve deliver the speech in the flesh, you can have a look at the embedded youtube video at my blog. Short speech, 15 mins only. The Stanford Commencement is incredibly rowdy and informal compared to NUS.

I think the worst advice we can offer to our young people, is to demand them to "concentrate on their studies first". If as students we can only measure our self worth in marks and grades, then as adults we inevitably stay on that track of grading ourselves in dollars and 5Cs.

takchek said...

But what if the child is truly interested in his/her studies? Many Singaporeans assume that to study means to do something that isn't inherently interesting and they have to focus on the grades and marks.

I wouldn't be where I am now if not for my interests in chemistry and math.

Liquidfuel said...

This post reminds me of Eugene O'Kelly, ex-KPMG Chairman who passed away not long ago.

In the face of death, he didn't think of the deals he should have closed. He was only thinking of his family.

I've wrote something about it here (


X said...

While I don't break up my life into parts like you do, I am very curious about the spiritual part. From your postings, I'd assumed you weren't exactly a religious sort (an agnostic, or maybe an atheist? I don't know.) Do correct me if my assumption is wrong.

Then again, spiritual may not always equal religious, but I can only think of meditation, yoga etc. What do you exactly do under the "spiritual" theme?

Anonymous said...

No matter what ur criteria of success, that u bother to measure success is in itself a self defeating exercise. Self defeating in the sense that once u measure urself, u r putting pressure on urself. Is this necessary ? Why creat discontent within urself ?
Accept whatever the outcome and u will have inner peace.

Anonymous said...

Thats why I always like this Chinese Phrase: 正心、修身、齐家、治国、平天下.

Must be able to look in all aspects of life and also look into areas u can improve upon step by step

Anonymous said...

i can't say i disagree with steve jobs, but it's got to be easier coming from a multi-billionaire who happened to make his fortune doing what he loved. not everyone can reach that level and then go give a commencement speech at princeton about the definition of success.

Anonymous said...

oh, stanford

Anonymous said...

From that link, Steve Jobs: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right."

If I lived each day as if it were my last, I'll get arrested for sexual crimes in a short while. Sometimes inspirational quotes don't hold up to the reality of the real world.

Anonymous said...

Maybe that's your inner self speaking up. Perhaps you should move to the Netherlands or the US and be a porn star! ;)

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang, I think it is a useful reminder that 5Cs are not measures of success but it is an interesting reflection on the satisfaction of needs in Singapore - evidently not very far from the safety needs - alluding to the reasons for underlying difficulties in creating a sense of home in Singapore.

To Anon: "If I lived each day as if it were my last, I'll get arrested for sexual crimes in a short while. Sometimes inspirational quotes don't hold up to the reality of the real world." Fantastic!

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

"but it's got to be easier coming from a multi-billionaire who happened to make his fortune doing what he loved."

If you read his speech in full, you'd see that Steve Jobs had a rather tenuous start in life. He was the unwanted child of an unwed mother, who gave him up for adoption, to adoptive parents who apparently were not that well-educated or well-off.

Jimmy Mun said...


I dont mean to say schooling or education is not important. It is the blind devotion to a single cause that is damaging our young. After spending the first twenty, twenty five years chasing the yellow brick road paved by the education system, would you still know which way to head when the road suddenly ends?

Anonymous said...

May I ask if spiritualism(of religious form or not) could be attained by material pursuits? I have tried to answer the Question myself for the past forty years or so but is simply as lost as ever. We know that there are (were) very rich and powerful men but they rot like any other men soon after they stop breathing.

Anonymous said...

If you read his speech in full, you'd see that Steve Jobs had a rather tenuous start in life. He was the unwanted child of an unwed mother, who gave him up for adoption, to adoptive parents who apparently were not that well-educated or well-off.

yes he did, but I meant that it's much easier to redefine success in more than seven unconventional ways when he's already achieved so much success through unconventional means. it certainly looks different from the starting line.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Aha. Sounds like a trick question to me.

You have to ask yourself whether success in the conventional ways looks any easier, when you're at the starting line.

Anonymous said...

You have to ask yourself whether success in the conventional ways looks any easier, when you're at the starting line.

definitely hard too. but definitely easier to take the leap, simply because it's conventional and we humans tend to like following the crowd :D

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Yes, but what happens next is you will find yourself in Red Ocean, to borrow a term from the business world.

Red Ocean is when there are many competitors in the same space, and they have to fight and kill each other to be successful.

Whereas if you choose the unconventional path, you head into Blue Ocean. That carries its own risks, but the advantage is that you have no competitors (or very few).

Slawek Rogulski said...

Red and Blue ocean thinking is not on most people's minds when they set out to mark their place in the world. And of course it is easier to go with group current rather than swim against it. Sure, you can step out of the river and find your own path. But its a lonely road, is it not?

Anonymous said...

I think success in Singapore is defined as the achievement of either:

the making of a lot a lot of money


the holding of high office in government (which can coincide with the former definition). This is the definition one is groomed to believe in, at least in school. Think ranking, going to top schools, scholarships, etc.

So if I were to have kids in this country, he would be happy if one of the above two became his/her personal definition of success. But then, that's a chance I'm taking, with his/her personal happines...

Anonymous said...

Oh, and, regarding people in high office who draw very high salaries, one thing that still boggles my mind is, what do they do with all that money??

I know a good number of them have second homes in Vancouver and go there once or twice a year. But I also know they don't drive around in Ferraris or wear flash clothes.

So, as they appear to lead relatively simple lives, anyone knows where all that money goes??