Why Success Often Leaves You Feeling Empty

They tell you to stay hungry, but what if there really isn’t any other choice?

I don’t know whether you can chalk it up to the Dunning-Kruger Effect or what: the more you succeed, the less it feels like you’ve achieved. Maybe it’s because you realize how much you don’t know. Maybe you’re more focused on the race and the vast number of folks in front of you. Maybe you can’t wrap your mind around what you ever even wanted, or why it’s so worthless when you have it. Maybe it’s an automatic process that you can’t seem to manage, like a tiny dog that can’t stop barking. Maybe it’s your childhood, your adolescence, and adulthood rolled into one. Maybe it’s all of those things or none.

I often tell my clients that most people feel like failures; you can have everything you want and still feel like you’re no one. Like a child, I’d idealize life as a podcaster and writer, searching for fulfillment in success. And, as expected, I’d feel high after an episode’s or an article’s release. I’d swallow the feedback and the likes but then wake up the following day like nothing happened. Success can be a great disappointment, and I don’t think that most people whom you’d consider to be high achievers want to talk about it. In the age of digital envy, we hide behind velvet masks, propping up our brands.

Unfortunately, depression doesn’t sell and loneliness doesn’t feed your team. So maybe it’s the pretense. I’ve asked myself countless times: how much do others really know me? When they aren’t coming to me for advice or help, do they actually care about my experiences? And as significant, do I actually ever ask them to? I’ve treat doctors, lawyers, and a few politicians; none of them are happy. There’s always a big chasm between who they and wish to be. Outsiders may envy them, but they don’t understand why. If you asked how they were doing, they’d note their dysfunctional relationships with their children, their regrets about their love-lives, and how all they still really want is parental approval; there isn’t much of a difference between then and now.

So, peeking behind the veil informs us that success is a compulsion, a coping mechanism of sorts. Ambition is cultivated by sadness and anxiety, the fear of never being loved. Yet, success doesn’t love you back, nor does it necessarily bring more love into your life. They say success is nothing when left unshared, and I suspect it’s because, fundamentally, success is nothing when you’re the sole beneficiary of, and reason for, its existence. If anything makes it what it is, makes it somewhat special, it’s the joy that it gives others, in the pride they feel through you for themselves. You’ll often hear athletes tell their fans that they won a championship for their city. You’ll hear graduates tell their peers that they finished school for their parents. Success only seems to mean something when it’s done on behalf of others, when other people care.

Many of my successful clients couldn’t tell you that they make their families proud, or that they momentarily heal the people in their communities. And, thus, no one else cares about what they’ve done. In essence, success is only meaningful to the extent that it symbolizes a collective. Individual success may feel nice for a bit, but the other form can last a lifetime. It seems that authentic success is making other people happy.

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