The Myth of Successyphus: The Life Questions You Should Be Asking

Our mindset creates our world – unfortunately we've been brought up asking the wrong questions.

Success is a bizarre idea because the word success is subjective. It can mean money, status, passion, or just about anything else.

Many people define it as money. When you look at someone with wealth you instantly imagine how successful he or she may be (or you think about inheritance.) Personally, I define success as being able to sustain yourself while doing work that you WANT to do. There’s another vague term, “work.”

However you may define success, there are still similarities between how you obtain your idea of success. Some people think it’s pure luck, others think it’s motivation that can bring you what you want.

I’m not saying that either is wrong, but when it comes to obtaining success, people ask the WRONG questions. That’s like wanting to sail from the U.S. to Asia but first asking what to name your boat.

The years after college are scary because you worry about the wrong things. Am I supposed to be working right now? When is success coming?

From childhood we’re restricted to asking 2 important questions but we’re forced to look at them from the wrong angle. Instead, we need to look at the questions from another perspective and perhaps outright change the questions. This is powerful and can completely shift your mindset and actions in life.

For example, we often ask questions like, “How much money do I want to earn and what can I do to feel and be perceived as successful?” Instead, ask, “What would I want to do if money wasn’t part of the equation and how do I leverage what I already have?” (like my degree for example.)

The WRONG Question:

“I’ve got my degree. When do I start making money?”

Sadly enough, a college degree is no longer a guarantee these days. Many graduates who have full-time jobs are in jobs that didn’t even require a college degree. Scary.

You’re better off than not by having a degree, but hopefully the cost of education didn’t enslave you into financial debt.

The RIGHT Question:

“How can I use my degree to make myself more professionally attractive?”

Now there’s a good question! Having a degree isn’t enough, but you sure can use it to your advantage if you have it. Unfortunately, the degree doesn’t stand alone in most cases.

Start building up your resume by getting internships. You’ve probably been told that a thousand times, but seriously, internships are important. Paid or unpaid, it’s a great way to start building up your experience to show on your resume. When you have enough experience shown on paper, your degree makes you look even more attractive.

Don’t be afraid to display the degree prominently on your resume if it is from a school or field you’re proud of, but don’t think that just because you have credentials means you’re on the way to the good times. There’s still more work to be done.

The WRONG Question:

“How much money should I be making at my job?”

A lot of people are motivated by the dollar amount. So much so that success is often tied in with the amount of money made. When you ask the question of how much money, you forget the important part, how much you enjoy your job.

The counter-argument is that money gives you peace of mind and keeps you out of poverty. Of course when you are looking for possible career choices, you need enough, but people aim for as high as they can when the excess amount does nothing for you.

Give me over $1 million a year to stand still and stare at a wall without being allowed to do anything else for 10 hours a day and I would turn you down. Or make me sit at a computer and help as a customer support person for the same salary. I’d turn them both down.

A lot of my family wants me to go into medicine not to save lives but to make the six-figure salary. I’m sorry, I would really love to be doing that to save lives, but the sciences aren’t where my passion is. I’d be making a lot of money (maybe) but I wouldn’t feel successful because of the lack of self-satisfaction.

Give me enough to live comfortably and the rest is meaningless.

The RIGHT Question:

“What would I do for the rest of my life if money wasn’t an issue?”

This gets regurgitated quite often but it’s something worth considering because it can help influence your decisions. Would you be happy doing what you’re doing today (or what you’re considering to do) if there was no financial incentive?

I’ll be honest, I still haven’t quite found what I’d want to do yet. In the past 6 months alone I’ve already explored several career options, although I’ll admit it was more superficial exploration than anything. However, I am getting much closer to narrowing down what it is I want.

Like I said earlier, if I am making enough to pay the bills and put food on the table, I’ll be happy with that if I love the work I’m doing. I want to be excited every morning not wanting to hit the snooze button.

After all, money only makes you happier up until a certain amount. Studies show that after a certain point, the more money you make doesn’t necessarily make you any happier.

These two are the most common questions that I hear. Both involve entire mindsets that affect every action that you take. If you believe college is a guaranteed way to success then you will be less motivated to consider the alternatives or understand the reality that it doesn’t guarantee anything. You’ll feel entitled because you have a sheet of paper.

If you ask yourself about the money value, you go into a field because the dollar amount is luring you in not because you think you’ll enjoy it for the rest of your life.

Isn’t that scary? Two wrong questions and mindsets that can be controlling all of your actions and you may not have even realized it.

Vincent Nguyen is a full-time college student, an intern for three different companies, and freelance blogger and content marketer. He runs personal development blog, Self Stairway, where he provides practical steps towards self-improvement. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

  • Gardner

    I don’t mean to be cynical or downplay Ngyuen’s legitimacy as a columnist (clearly – he has his own successful blog), but is it the best idea to take post-college life advice from a college student?

    • Michael

      Initially I agreed with you, until I realized that is column isn’t necessarily about post-college life.

      For most of us, it is- mainly because we’re reading this after having graduated college, but also because many people delay this kind of introspective questioning. Vincent may be a college student, but he shows greater maturity and wisdom than many of my peers simply by asking these questions at his age.

      The idea is to reflect on your interests and values and to create a plan of action to get you there, or else risk putting blinders on and waking up when you’re middle-aged and at a job that you hate. I’m only a few years out of college but already feel stuck in such a position.

    • http://selfstairway.com/about/ Vincent Nguyen

      I’ll have to say thanks to Michael for his reply below.

      I’ll agree with you and say that it’s surprising to be on a website with the tagline of “a guy’s post-college guide to growing up,” then to read an article only to discover it was written by someone who is still attending school. Michael already gave me a great defense, so I’d like to ask you a quick question, Gardner.

      What were your thoughts while reading the article? I’m assuming you had only realized my age after reading the entire article. I know you’re not intentionally trying to discredit me, but I’m curious to see if you agreed with what I said before you realized how old I was.

      I’m assuming that the majority of the readers here would side with me and Michael since my first article I wrote for Primer did very well (based off of social shares.)

  • Jake

    Vincent, just thought you would want to make a correction – typo 3rd paragraph under the last section.

    • http://selfstairway.com/about/ Vincent Nguyen

      Thanks for looking out, Jake! I’m assuming Andrew has already taken care of it since I’m not seeing any typos right now.

      • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

        Yep, thanks Jake for letting me know.

  • http://www.siviking.com/ Ragnar

    I hate to be a negative Nancy… but the thing is, how do you know that you will enjoy the end result of what you strive for? Let’s say you slaved on through unpaid internships to become a cgi artist, and find out you actually hate it. That’s the main thing that’s keeping me from taking a leap of faith and pursuing a riskier career. I’m completely with you on having enough money to be comfortable, more is superfluous. No matter how many yachts and helicopters you have, it honestly doesn’t matter in the long run. And I imagine it’s own set of insecurities come with fame and fortune. The infamous ‘people only like me for my money’ among other things.

    • http://selfstairway.com/about/ Vincent Nguyen

      This answer really depends on how old you are. I’m lucky enough that I’ve started dabbling at a young age so I still have time. Judging from the target audience of this site, I’d say that the majority of us aren’t chained to very many things such as marriage, kids, and a house, so we can dare take risks. Sure, you may set yourself back a year, but if you’re pursuing something that doesn’t REQUIRE a degree then you can dabble and do a lot of introspection.

      It’s difficult to say what you’ll enjoy 2 decades from now, but there really is no guarantee. I wish I had a better answer, but the “what if” is always going to be in the back of your head.

      • http://www.siviking.com/ Ragnar

        That’s a good point. I just started dabbling again myself, but there are a few career paths where you have to go all-in for years and years before you ever get to experience what the job is actually like. And those were the ones I had in mind when I made the comment. Personally I wouldn’t want to face the risk.

  • juno

    If life was that simple we would all be happy. Unfortunately,
    that is not the case. Life has more shades than two (wrong /right). We all have
    our circumstances and opportunities. Our views and desires are also constantly
    changing. Things that you like today may not be the same thing that you will
    like tomorrow.

    I agree that money cannot buy you happiness but working for
    nothing will corrode your happiness with time.

    As to college degree, one must due diligence. A degree is
    just a paper that tells your potential employer that you have minimum training.
    A degree does not guarantee a job, because jobs are produced by supply and
    demand. The compensation of the job is derived by surplus or lack of supply and
    demand. For instance: if every person was a Doctor, then the doctor would be
    the lowest playing job. So if you want to make good money working for someone
    else start looking at what is in demand !!! If collage training aka degree is required
    for that job then go for it, otherwise don’t waste your time.

    • http://selfstairway.com/about/ Vincent Nguyen

      Life is incredibly complex, sure, but you have to start somewhere. There’s never going to be advice and guidance that is universal. Some advice will work better for some over others and I’m trying my best to reach those who will benefit from a shift in mindset. As much as I’d love for everything I said in the article to be applicable to everyone on Earth, I know that’s unrealistic.

  • Sah

    I unfortunately think it’s not quite that simple. Two things stick out to me that are missing from this article.

    One would be that while I agree with the basic premise about money, “enough” to be financially stable and live reasonably comfortably is far, far more than you think it is. It’s not just food and a roof (which are very expensive in big cities), it’s also emergency savings, medical expenses, furnishings, the occasional vacation or weekend excursion just to give yourself a needed break, clothing, etc. Not to mention if you have kids. It’s sort of amusing that one sentence says “give me enough to live comfortably and the rest is meaningless” and the next says to think “what would I do if money wasn’t an issue?” What you’ll find is that the things many (if not most people) are passionate about – singing, acting, politics, media, fashion, video game design, journalism, etc. – do not, actually, in many cases pay enough to allow you to live comfortably. Sometimes the choice isn’t “decent paying job that I love vs. unrewarding job that pays great”; instead it is often, “job that I love that pays so low that I’d need to borrow money from mom for groceries vs. unrewarding job that pays maybe decently”.

    The other item is what others have said – that you will find that your interests change, and that jobs that seem interesting from the outside will not be once you are actually working them. It’s difficult to know what something is like until you’ve done it. Something I have also found is that issues like what your actual responsibilities are, how well you get along with your coworkers, how you are treated at work, whether or not you can advance, and what the culture is in your office end up being far more important to your enjoyment of a job than the specifics of what industry or field you are in.

    Just my two cents. Definitely a thought-provoking article.

    • Steve Gordon

      Yes, two cold realities I’m afraid. I’m a realist myself, rather than a dreamer – which is at least part of the reason I will be forever stuck in the “unrewarding job that pays decently” category – but unfortunately, I think that is the reality for a majority.

      And a lot of it is to do with the lesser opportunities our generation has. There’s no more free education, abundant or affordable property, job security, untapped investment opportunities, hearty pension plans, etc, like our parents enjoyed and competition in the workforce is only getting more fierce.

      To make matters worse, the previous generations clutch onto their accumulated wealth, assets and political power, doing all they can to prevent any of it from trickling down to the newcomers into the workforce. While they complain about how the younger generation needs to “toughen up” and stop whining about no longer being able to afford education, children, or a home of their own, we wait for the inevitable, crippling burden of having to support an aging population which will certainly blow away what little crumbs of the pie they have left us to fight over.

    • http://selfstairway.com/about/ Vincent Nguyen

      I was criticizing more where people are in careers to acquire more and more money for the sake of making more. Some people do need to live paycheck to paycheck or live below their means for a long time, but there is a huge number of people who are doing well for themselves and only want to continue making more on top of their current salary.

      It’s something that no one thinks about but the default mode is “I need more money.” How much is enough?

      Interests do change and I wouldn’t even dare disagree with that since I’ve experienced exactly that many times in the past few years.

  • TJKimberly

    Thanks for the great article Vincent, I really enjoyed it. In fact, I’ve been using the question “What would I do if money were not an issue?” for quite some time.

    However, you’ll notice that for my question, I’ve left out the “for the rest of my life part” and this is for a couple of important reasons:

    1) It isn’t realistic: the old statistic was that the average person changed Careers (not jobs) 3 times in their life. At the time that number was on the rise so I suspect it’s much higher. You have to be realistic.

    2) Including “for the rest of my life” adds a HUGE amount of pressure to the decision. Pressure that makes many of us (even those of us who aren’t afraid of all commitment) pretty freaking nervous. I’ve seen the idea lead many a guy (or girl) to indecision.

    There’s another piece of advice that I’m a big fan of – “When you’re young you should work to learn or experience” because, especially when you’re young, you should get used to improving who you are, taking risks and trying new things.

  • SteveM

    No–you should take the $1 million to stare at the wall for 10 hours, do that for a year, and then you can quit and do whatever you want for quite some time thereafter.

  • Marc Faure

    Sorry but I whole-heartedly disagree with the writer about the money question. You wouldn’t sit at a computer doing customer service 10 hours a day for $1 million dollars in salary? Then you are a fool. You could work for two years, and with modest risk live off interest for the rest of your life. Throw in two more years and you live high on the hog within reason.

    This is America, EVERYTHING is money. Some folks say money doesn’t buy happiness. But it removes 99% of the obstacles to being happy. Think money early, and everything else gets easier. Or try the happy but poor route like I did. And then get sick, or have your car die or some other costly issue. Life will suck for a long time. Now money is my first focus and life is fantastic, I get to enjoy vacations, buy what I need, and save significant amounts for retirement and have great health insurance. NEVER forget about money.

  • Paulii

    This is a bit naive – how many people really have the option for this kind of introspection? How many either in or post college have the ability to discern these things? I am 53, and am just beginning to understand how decisions I have made in the past were not as thoughtful as I believed at the time.

    As for the article, many cannot afford college and are left to choose an available blue-collar trade or job. Most of those who attend college stack up mountains of debt. Add to that the reality that in many areas of the nation fulfilling work of any kind paid or not is a great idea but not readily available. The three things that I see most limiting to people (other than their own minds) are the unwillingness to move to opportunity, debt that restricts freedom to do much of anything, and an unwillingness to try uncomfortable things (driven by all kinds of fears).