What Does Success Look Like?

In my role as Commanding Officer, I always tried to begin any new project with the simple question, “what does success look like?” Air-to-air combat is a complex and somewhat hard to define skillset, so we sometimes knew a pilot wasn’t doing well enough, but it was often hard to define the problem. A joking, but not-quite-unserious admonition Navy pilots often give to each other before a check ride or important flight is don’t F it up1 Because of all this, I tried to explicitly define success when counseling or setting policy.

As set out in my first post, the audacious goal for this project is working out how to live. This broad a goal easily devolves into a series of platitudes or aphorisms, and while this can motivate or encourage, it rarely teaches.

So, what does success look like?

First of all, success itself is a terrible measure of a life well-lived, but the only potentially worse ruler is wealth or making money. There are simply too many external factors that affect success or failure, and we can’t always move those levers ourselves. We do not all inherit the same set of tools, nor do we all have the same opportunities in life.

Money does not buy happiness,2 sure, but I don’t think happiness is the hallmark of the good life, either. For some of the reasons above, and many more besides, it is easier for some of us to be happy than it is for others. This leads to a sort of set-point for our happiness level, and movement of this level is subject to what’s commonly known as the Hedonic Treadmill. Simply stated, we adapt quickly to changes in our happiness, even after very large, positive or negative life changes. The desires of our hearts rise or fall in line with our ability to fulfill these desires. Nevertheless, seeking happiness first is better than pursuing money or success under the impression it will result in happiness.

Instead of money or happiness, my basic goal is contentment. This contentment often looks a lot like happiness, but when circumstances make it hard to smile, I can still be content. This is often the result of knowing an experience is hard, but that I’ll learn from it, but sometimes it is only the result of knowing something is temporary. When I’m not sure how temporary something even is, there is a military saying that helps: “embrace the suck.”3 This boils down stoic ideals quite nicely, in my opinion.

So is that is what success looks like? Contentment? I think so. At first glance, contentment seems pale in comparison to happiness, but contentment also has the benefit of being always within reach. We read our circumstances and adjust our minds. We don’t look to our circumstances and expect them to enable happiness. In fact, as we’ll see in the coming months, we will sometimes seek out tough circumstances.

Lastly, realize we won’t be perfect anytime soon.4 We don’t need to be. We just need to get a little better every day.


  1. It’s effectively-never censored as “F,” but I don’t like to swear. Also, your buddies will often encourage you after a bad performance with a rousing, “next time, suck less.” You’re only in trouble if people stop teasing. ↩︎
  2. Let’s except the extremes of poverty for now. I think you need to have a certain amount of money before this discussion matters in the least. ↩︎
  3. Read David Goggin’s book if you want to turn the corner on you own self-discipline. This is also a case where the audiobook is even better than the print version. There is a lot of information presented in-line with the narrative that adds to the story in all the right ways. Highly recommended. ↩︎
  4. (or ever) ↩︎

2 thoughts on “What Does Success Look Like?”

    1. I am honored! That Cranlana Programme Colloquium looks pretty cool. Good luck with the wiki, too. I have many times tried to maintain one, but I seem constitutionally unable to stick with it.

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