What Do You Do When Someone Else's Success Makes You Feel Like Shit?

Guest post by Jennifer Gresham of Everyday Bright.

You tell yourself it’s irrational.

You know the stories are supposed to be inspirational.  You know you’re supposed to think: if they can do it, so can I!

But let’s be honest. Sometimes, those rags-to-riches or instant success stories just make you feel like shit.

You’re working your butt off, you’re doing everything you know to do, and when someone does it faster or bigger or better, you lose faith.  You wonder if you’re even capable of achieving your goals or if you should just quit while you’re ahead.

There’s that voice in your head that can’t help but wonder: what’s wrong with me? when will it be my turn?

As a career coach and writer, inspiring people to fulfill their dreams is part of my job description. So I wondered: why do some stories pump us up while others push us down?  And more importantly, is there anything we can do to tip the balance?

The answer is yes on both counts, and it turns out it’s a lot easier than you think. Let me show you how.

Whose success are we talking about anyway?

Recently I had the chance to interview Bo Eason, a former NFL football player turned Broadway actor and playwright. Bo set a goal at the age of nine to be the best safety in the world. Unfortunately, Bo was cut from his college team after his first day of practice for being “too small and too slow” for football.

A lot of people would have gone home as the coach demanded.

Undaunted, Bo continued to show up for practice, looking for a way to demonstrate his talent. Not only did he ultimately secure a place on the team, but he was the first safety picked in the 1984 NFL draft four years later.

I love Bo’s story, and I frequently think about his amazing persistence in the face of some pretty extreme challenges when I’m struggling to reach my own goals.

But then there’s the story of Cameron Johnson, who started his first business at the age of nine, and then went on to bank checks of $300K a month at the age of fifteen.

On the face of it, it’s a similar story of success and inspiration.  But somehow, Cameron’s story makes me feel a bit … inadequate. But why? What’s the difference?

My theory is that your level of inspiration (or irritation) is based on two factors:

  1. whether the person has done something you're trying or have tried to do
  2. whether their definition of success aligns with your own

One of the reasons Bo’s story is so compelling for me is because even though our goals are quite different (I never entertained a football career), our measures of success, such as persistence and doing what seems impossible, are quite similar.

On the other hand, while Cameron is a fellow entrepreneur, the measures of success emphasized differ from my own.  As the opening line of the article says, “It’s said that even as a toddler, Cameron was interested in making money.”  I have nothing against making money, but it’s not a prime motivator for me.

So why does the article make me feel uncomfortable?  Because it calls into question whether I should be trying to make more money.  It challenges my measures of success with the more traditional ones supplied by society, namely wealth, influence and fame.

It implies that while I may feel successful, unless I’ve done what Cameron’s done, I’m not really successful.  And that makes me feel bad.

That’s why it’s crucial that you learn how to define success for yourself.  So you can stop the apples to oranges comparisons and start feeling better about your path and your progress … today.

The Success Trifecta

Personal and professional development gurus agree defining success is important, but very few tell you how to do it. Without a method, too many of us default to society’s definition and then wonder why we’re still dissatisfied when we get it.

In my experience, success comes from three things: core values, pride, and motivation.

Let’s take a look at each.

1. Core values

Core values aren’t just vague principles you think are important. They define how you view and interact with the world. Ideally, they serve as decision aides when you need to navigate tricky situations.

For example, my core values are family first, inspire change, and courage. These values drive real, everyday behavior. It means I walked away from nearly a million dollars in pay and retirement benefits with the military because the possibility of my family getting geographically separated was unacceptable. It means getting an email from a reader saying I changed their life is worth far more than the honor of getting dubbed an A-list blogger.

Make no mistake: I’d be happy to get a million dollars and A-list blogger status. But when I have to prioritize, family comes before money and making a difference comes before fame.

Those are my values. The key is to find yours.

Steve Pavlina provides a good list of values to sort through. The important thing is to consider whether you’re willing to live by them. It’s okay if you choose values that aren’t driving your decisions today (that is, in fact, how Pavlina uses them), as long as you’re willing to commit to them for the foreseeable future.

2. Pride

When you’re a little kid, you think about making your family proud of you. When you go to school, you want to impress your teachers and more often, your friends. A few years later, and now you’re focused on the boss.

Pretty soon, you’ve completely lost sight of what makes you proud of yourself.

I recommend people look back over their experiences for clues. At first you may be tempted to list the achievements that meet society’s standards: prestigious college acceptances, awards, or promotions. And maybe you really are proud of some of those things.

But small moments can be sources of pride too, and in many ways, knowing what they are is much more important.

For example, convincing the director of a play to give me a part in the college musical, even though my audition hadn’t made the cut, is a big source of pride for me. (Notice the correlation with Bo’s story?) Or how I lobbied the Principal in 4th grade to let me start a school newspaper, rallying assistance from fellow kids and teachers alike.

Find the underlying sources of self pride in your stories and design a life that regularly supplies them. You’ll feel like a million bucks, even if you aren’t earning it.

3. Motivation

Science says we are pretty lousy at predicting what makes us happy.

One reason may be that we’ve lost sight of our intrinsic motivators.

Intrinsic motivators are those activities that are rewarding in and of themselves, regardless of the outcome. They’re the source of fulfillment. Unfortunately, studies have shown that our intrinsic motivation tends to wane precipitously with each passing year in school. As adults, we feel more and more constrained by obligations to provide, perform, compete, succeed—and intrinsic motivation takes a beating.

This is especially true for “over-achievers,” who are prone to measuring the value of every experience by its outcome or return on investment.

When outcomes and returns are the only yardstick, it’s easy to become jaded and a bit empty too. That doesn’t sound like success to me. There has to be a healthy balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to keep moving you forward on those challenging goals.

Because in the end, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Inspiration isn’t advice on how to do what someone else has done. It’s about becoming the person you always wanted to be. It’s about unleashing your untapped potential to do great work, to create the world you believe in.  It’s watching your ideas spread and enrich the lives around you.

If you do that, you’re guaranteed to change your own life for the better.

Someone might even call you an inspiration.

Jennifer Gresham is the founder of the No Regrets Career Academy, which offers a free mini-course in career change.  She’s on a mission to help people make Monday their favorite day of the week.

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Hi, I’m Corbett Barr. I’ve been writing here since 2009. Join my email list for new articles about supporting yourself doing something you love: