Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting in his entire lifetime. As such an iconic artist, it’s natural to assume it was one of the “greats.” Starry Night? Irises? Sunflowers? One of his many, famed self portraits? Nope – it was a golden auburn-toned piece entitled “Red Vineyard.” A depiction of farmhands harvesting crop at a wine plantation. Not the one that I, at least, would expect. His life was tumultuous, his paintings underappreciated, his world not ready for what he had to offer.
And yet…he kept painting. He kept expressing himself in the unique way he knew how.
We are so lucky he did.
I’ve been contemplating success a lot lately. What it means to succeed, who it is that determines success.
So many of us desire to be lasting or expansive, or maybe simply useful. We long to make a difference that goes beyond us or lasts way past our own existence. Whether than means a change within the four-ish walls of our apartment uniut or on a big huge global level, our sense of mortality can sometimes scare us into a scramble for success that’s visible, success we can SEE.
Whether our definition of success involves the immediate future or posthumous celebration, we want to be sure it’s gonna happen. We want to know we’re being the change we wish to see in the world.
But how do we know what is actually lasting?
When it comes to success, what is more important:
success that lasts a lifetime, success you can scale and be sure of…or success that is not shown to you directly, but is impacting the world on a level that’s beyond your awareness?
Social media and technology provide us with amazing tools to connect with and impact each other. It’s now easier than it’s ever been to gain signs and signals of our success. Whether it’s likes, shares, or just a message from a friend saying how happy they are to know you, in some ways we’re able to be hyper-aware our influence. Seeing our impact, however small, can keep us fueled and connected.
But not everyone reaches out. Not everyone is connected. And as dialed in as our culture is, in many ways the true tell-tale signs of success are old-school. You don’t always know.
And then there is the work we do in the world that we’re not necessarily recognized for. Work that, centuries from now, our society might deem revolutionary. So what’s more indicative of success: that the success materializes, or that we see its impact?
I’ve come to the conclusion that seeing our impact can be a metric of success – a symptom of and supplement to the success itself. But if we’re truly successful, there might be a whole boatload of impact we don’t see. Lives we’re never aware we touch.
And we need to be okay with that. Because lasting impact is the one thing we cannot control.
Success you can’t see is scary (“Does what I do really matter?”), but it’s also kind of empowering. Success you can’t see is what drives us to be fully and completely self-expressed, for how will we know if we don’t even try? If you’re one of those people who believes we are all put on Earth for a reason – and I for sure am one of those people who believes we are all put on Earth for a reason – then we must let ourselves fully and completely live on purpose, and look for the little signs telling us we’re doing the thing that’s in our DNA to do (or at least on the right track).
We see only one star in the dark night and confuse it for a lack of sky, when instead we should be taking it as proof that there’s a huge universe out there filled with way more stars that we can imagine.
It might be a smile from a stranger. It might be a comment on your blog or a tweet from a stranger. It might be your best friend’s child expressing gratitude, or hearing a family member repeat a word of wisdom you offered up randomly one day. Maybe at first glance they don’t seem like much, but that’s the sneaky thing about success: it shows itself in the micro moments, but the macro effects often are so big – so many collective moments upon moments – we can’t accurately gauge what a difference we’re making.
If you keep your eyes open and live your life to its fullest, its fullness, you will start to see signs everywhere that you’re a lasting force in this world. It’s only those people who actively choose NOT to create change that don’t.
Whether you’re far along your path or just beginning to let it live, please know and trust that what’s right in front of you is just the tip of the iceberg. A star in the sky. One painting in the collection. Simply desiring to make a difference means you’ve probably already made one.
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