The Illusion of Success

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We are successful and are happy about achieving these successes. We have worked hard for it, sacrificed some desires, compromised on some values, all in the pursuit of our goal. Achieving goals makes us happy.

Add the accolades, praise and respect from society. This gives us a dopamine hit that reinforces our behaviour and we continue the pursuit of success along the same lines. Be it a larger company, a bigger title, more wealth or fame, our path of success takes us down the road of bigger, better and more. 

Yet, to each one of us ‘success’ can be remarkably different. Becoming a CEO, climbing Mount Everest, completing the marathon, raising funds for a local charity etc, are all valid examples of success.

After achieving our goal, what comes next? A CEO of a larger company? Climbing a different mountain range? 

In this way we live a ‘successful’ life, goal after goal, achievement after achievement.

But the happiness from these achievements is short-lived, so can this really be a success? 

We look at some of the pitfalls of a ‘successful’ life.

The 5 Pitfalls of Success

1.     An addiction to achievement: It is common to think of success in terms of achievements – wealth, title, qualifications, etc. Is this all we want out of life? What does a successful life look like for us? When we equate achievements to success, our focus narrows to achieving one thing after another. We are constantly on the move, mistaking action for productivity.  We dare not slow down, for slowing is a failure. We cannot afford to pause and reflect, on where are we headed and where we want to be.

2.     Compromising our values and principles: Success is not a walk in the park. It requires sacrifices and compromises. Sometimes, we are so focused on our goal that our core values get compromised. However subtle, this creates an internal conflict, and we are never truly happy about our achievements. 

3.     Work-life imbalance: In the pursuit of ‘success’ it is easy to lose track of other aspects of our life. We lose sight of the many other aspects that make up life. Being part of our children growing up, creating special memories with our significant other, our hobbies, etc. An imbalanced life is an unfulfilled life, and we are not firing on all cylinders. Our performance at work is not going to be 100%; our presence with the family will not be 100%.

4.     Perfectionism / Procrastination / Avoiding risk: Our desire for success often generates a fear of failure. We operate in a safe territory simply because success is too important to fail. This leads to perfectionism, procrastination and not taking calculated risks. These practices greatly limit our personal development, and career growth while causing avoidable stress. We are unable to see what we are truly capable of and end up celebrating climbing a hill when we have the potential to climb a mountain. It limits our experience of how full and rich our life can be.

5.     Risk of burnout: Too much of anything is not good for us. We may become so involved in achieving our goal that we ignore our meals, miss out on our exercise, do not take time out to relax, etc. Since we are high achievers, people around us expect us to get everything done. Instead of saying ‘No’ we just work harder to get everything done and gain the recognition we are used to. Is this success worth the potential burnout?  

6.     Comparing with others: Successful people are often competitive. This inevitably means a comparison with others, and we end up using our time, energy, and wealth in keeping up with the Jones’s. As if this was not enough to shoot down any happiness, when we move up a level, we compare ourselves with a new set of Jones’s. We are more focused on what we have not achieved rather than on what we have achieved. How can this lead to any happiness about our success?  

Having goals and striving for them is a good thing. It gives us a sense of direction and motivation. However, achieving goals and living a purposeful and fulfilled life are not necessarily the same thing. 

Here are some useful questions to ask ourselves:

·     What is the cost of striving for success?

·     Life is about give and take; what are we ‘giving’ while ‘taking’ the success?

·     How could success be more meaningful and fulfilled?

Self-awareness, a holistic view of life, and a deep understanding of our core values help in giving a perspective on how we define success and how we live our lives. What makes this deeper is making our goals bigger than ourselves. Something that involves contribution to the community, and helping others.

Becoming a CEO could morph into becoming a CEO of a company with a social cause that resonates with us. Climbing mountains could morph into climbing for awareness of mental health problems.


Success is only an illusion if we let society define it for us, if we do not take the time to reflect on what we truly want out of our lives, and if we are not willing to shift our way of thinking to boldly go where only a few have gone before. 

About the Author

Sandeep Gupta is a professionally certified coach, a chartered accountant, and a CPA. He is passionate about helping people live a meaningful and fulfilled life focusing on high achievers with his 8-week programme – Explore, Evolve & Emerge. For more information visit:

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