What the Hell Does “Successful” Even Mean Anyway?

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I feel like I need a breather. I’m hell bent on finding a group of successful people that can push me to achieve my own unique type of success. You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, remember? So, to achieve your lofty goals, you naturally need to surround yourself with high-achievers.

It seems to make sense, for example, that if you want to become a successful entrepreneur, you need to cultivate a strong network of stellar CEOs. If you want to be known as a commercially successful writer or musician, it stands to reason that you should build a tight group of prosperous artists. Makes sense, right? But, when you think of these “successful” people, I’m sure you’re thinking of the validators of their success.

A CEO is considered successful when he or she builds a company with a multimillion dollar valuation, or exits from a business and becomes rich. Musicians are considered successful if they have millions of plays on Spotify or hundreds of thousands of followers on SoundCloud.

But what would happen if these same successful people fell off the map? What if the CEO you looked up to built a billion-dollar company only to be fired by his Board of Directors? What if that musician you love had one hit song and then never had another track that came close to a million plays? Are they any different from the persons you wanted to surround yourself with just previous to their “epic fail?"

No, of course not. You see, there was something inherently special about these types of people that allowed them to climb the ladder of success and achieve everything they did. It was their drive and motivation and tactical precision that drew you to them. The external validators of success - the plays on Spotify or that high company valuation - are simply proof that they already had the internal strength necessary for that success. When these validators go away, as they almost surely will, the same person remains whom you respected all along.

Which brings about the question: What the hell is success, anyway?

Internal Success Over External Validation

According to Webster’s, success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. Excuse me, but I don’t agree with that definition. You see, it stipulates that success is an external thing rather than an internal belief or mindset. But, if you’ve ever achieved even a small level of external success, you know that it was the internal drive and focus that got you there. Therefore, success is much more inward-out than it is outward-in.

Which brings me back to the diatribe above. If you want to surround yourself with successful people, shouldn’t you look for motivated individuals who have the success mindset, rather than those who have the external validators of success?

Think about it this way: If you add a successful CEO to your “five,” and then he loses all his money, is he no longer successful? Should you disassociate yourself from him because he’s failed? Of course not! He’s still the same exact same person whom you respected before his meltdown. In fact, he’s the exact same person as the younger version of himself - the one who was broke with only an idea in his head.

It’s interesting, but there many examples of two or more people where were friends at an early age, who then went on to achieve massive and unique success in their field of choice. Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore come immediately to mind. Did you know that they were college roommates? B.J. Novak and John Krasinski also come to mind. Both were childhood friends and then went on to star in the hit TV show The Office. How about Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire? Yes, childhood friends even before their earliest successes. Finally, if you like comedy, then you’ll be familiar with Joe Rogan and Jim Brewer. Both were close friends when they were broke and trying to make it as stand-ups.

Ok ok, enough already. You can find data points to support any argument. But still, it makes you wonder. All of these people became close friends prior to achieving their external validators of success, and all of them became successful, together. So, wouldn’t it make sense that you should surround yourself with people who have the success-mindset and an insatiable desire to achieve all their goals in life? If you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, it seems that you’d want to be surrounded by highly motivated and inspirational individuals, and those people aren’t exclusive to 1 million plays on Spotify.

Building a Successful A-Team

This all comes about through a realization I had a few weeks ago. I have a friend who’s an up-and-coming DJ in the EDM movement. I also have a close buddy who’s a computer programmer, technologist, and serial tech cofounder. Both of them are huge inspirations to me and they drive me to achieve the success I want. Further, they help me think bigger, in that both of them have such lofty goals that it makes me want to have lofty goals, too. So, in effect, these two people increase the ceiling of my achievements and also give me the daily motivation to push that ceiling even higher.

But if you asked either of them, I don’t think they'd tell you that they're successful. In fact, if you asked me, I wouldn’t consider myself successful yet, either. However, I know that both of my friends will eventually achieve the success they desire, and if I stick close to them, among other people in my life, I know I’ll achieve my goals, too.

Which makes me laugh, because 10 years from now when we’ve cultivated a strong group of successful artists, business people, musicians, athletes, etc., people are going to think that we found each other after we achieved our successes. They’ll think we used our clout and stature to meet at a fancy Hollywood party or something like that. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I knew these guys when we were all broke with just dreams in our heads.

Which stands to reason, if you want to be successful, surround yourself with people who are as hungry - if not more so - than you are. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have mentors who hold lofty positions, but it does mean that it’s the internal drive that achieves the external success. So, rather than focusing on people who have external validators, seek out people who are more motivated, more inspired, or more disciplined than you.

Look for people who have a quality you want rather than an asset you desire, because it was the quality that allowed them to earn the asset.


Think about it this way: Do you believe that you’ll become successful and that your success will continue to increase over time? Ok, well, are you not currently there yet? If you answered yes to both of these questions, then it’s safe to assume that you think that you’d be a fine addition to someone else’s five. Good, don’t be embarrassed about it!

But, if you believe you are a high-quality person who can help others succeed, and you haven’t yet achieved your desired level of success, it makes sense that there are other people out there who can do the same for you.

I mean, it’s much more fun to build something from the ground up with a group of friends, rather than trying to get in on the top floor of someone else’s building.

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