Fulfillment versus Success–Which is More Important?

Fulfillment versus success–which is more important? I have thought about and studied these two concepts for many years. Although interrelated, they are distinct. Each is important and understanding the difference can help us find balance in the journey of life.

So I want to share with you the following passage from my book, The Hero’s Choice: Leading from the Inside Out, which makes the distinction between these two ideas:

Hal laid back on the rock, pulled his backpack under his head, and gazed at the blue sky. “Sounds like my high-school buddy, Duane. He was the most popular guy in my class. Voted Most Likely to Succeed. The whole thing. He went to a prestigious college, then Harvard Law School. Boy, did I envy the guy. It seemed like he got whatever he set his sights on. He even stole my high-school sweetheart.” Hal laughed. “He graduated at the top of his class and was hired by a red-hot law firm and shot straight up their ladder. I even see his name in the paper, once in a while, because of the high-profile cases he works on.”

He was quiet for a moment. “I ran into Duane not long ago, and we had dinner. I sat in awe as he described some of the cases he’d won. He told me about his Ferrari, his home in Hawaii, his travels. I was so envious I felt worse and worse as the night wore on. Then he told me he was on his third marriage and hardly had a relationship with his two kids. The sadness in Duane’s voice made me look at him, not his watch or expensive suit. I noticed the strain in his face and the weariness in his eyes, and I suddenly felt sad for the guy.” Hal was quiet again as he watched a hawk circle high above his head. “He’d missed out on a lot in his race to become rich and famous.”

Donald nodded. “That brings up a distinction. There’s success, or achieving a predetermined outcome. And there’s fulfillment, the sense that life is full and meaningful. When success doesn’t lead to fulfillment, most people redouble their efforts, believing that accomplishing even more will bring them their elusive prize. What they don’t realize is that success and fulfillment are not the same thing.”

Hal sat up. “Wow. I guess I’ve known that … but I see how much I’ve been caught up in the trappings of success.” He rubbed his hand along the hard, coarse granite surface on which he was sitting. “But I hope we don’t have to give up success to find fulfillment.”

Donald tossed another small rock over the ridge. “Nope. In fact, most of us would have a hard time finding fulfillment if we didn’t set goals and go after them. We have to get out there in the world and mix it up—but we also need to remember that success has to do only with outer, material things, and fulfillment has to do with our inner or spiritual world. We have to pay attention to both to be happy.” He turned toward Hal. “The more important journey isn’t the one out there. It’s in here,” he said, pointing to his chest.  The Hero’s Choice: Leading from the Inside Out, page 157

American culture places a premium on success by encouraging and providing opportunity (at least for many of us) to achieve, accumulate, and accomplish. This is a blessing. And yet we don’t have to look far to find examples of people who achieved incredible success…and yet something was missing.

I think it is important to remember that success does not necessarily lead to fulfillment. Somehow, we must also make sure our successes are connected to a deeper sense of connection, being grounded in the present, and personal purpose.

In next weeks post, I’ll talk more about the kinds of actions we can take that will lead to fulfillment.


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