Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting in his entire lifetime. As such an iconic artist, it’s natural to assume it was one of the “greats” with which we associate his talent. Starry Night? Irises? Sunflowers? One of his many, famed self portraits? Nope – it was a golden auburn-toned piece entitled “Red Vineyard,” a depiction of farmhands harvesting crop at a wine plantation. Not the one that I, at least, was expecting. His life was tumultuous, his paintings underappreciated, his world not ready for what he had to offer. Yet he kept painting, he kept expressing himself in the unique way he knew how. And now, centuries later, our souls moved by his artistry, we are so lucky he did.
This could be an article addressing what it means to be successful, seeing success from different perspectives, guiding you from one mindset into another (if you’d like to read about that, though, take a peek at Breaking Out Of The Dream). But if we’re being honest – and here at The Chalkboard we all strive to be honest first and foremost – for many of us success does involve others. Let me put this out in the open: if being visible or making an impact in someone else’s life is what your definition of success looks like, there is nothing wrong with that. We are all human – community-driven beings by nature. If following your gut instinct about your purpose in life involves others, embrace it and move forward.
I’ve been contemplating success quite a lot lately. What it means to succeed, who determines success. While I do firmly believe that you get to define success on your own terms, that doesn’t mean that a desire for visibility is counter to success. If being in the public eye and connecting with others helps you define your success, that’s something to fight for, not against.
So many of us desire to be lasting, or expansive, or simply useful. To make a difference that goes beyond our self or lasts way past our own existence. Whether than means change within our nuclear families or on a global level, our sense of mortality can sometimes scare us into a scramble for success that’s visible, success you can see. Whether our definition of success involves the immediate future or posthumous celebration, we want to be sure of it. We want to know we’re being the change we wish to see in the world.
But how do you know that is what’s actually lasting? When it comes to success, what is more important: success that lasts a lifetime, success you can scale and be sure of…or success that is not shown to you directly but is impacting the world on a level beyond your awareness?
Social media and technology provide us with amazing tools to connect and impact each other, and it’s now easier than ever to gain signs and signals of your success. Whether it’s likes, shares, or just a message from a friend saying how happy they are to know you, in some ways we’re able to be more aware than ever of our influence. But not everyone reaches out, not everyone is connected – and as dialed in as our culture is, in many ways the true tell-tale signs of success are old-school. You don’t always know.
And then there is the work we do in the world that we’re not necessarily recognized for. Work that, centuries from now, our society might deem revolutionary.
What is more important: that the success actually materializes, or that we actually see its impact?
For me, seeing my impact, however small, keeps me fueled and connected. But does seeing my impact define success for me? I’ve come to the conclusion that seeing our impact can be a metric of success, a symptom of and supplement to the success itself. But if we’re truly successful, there might be a whole boatload of impact we don’t see. Lives we’re never aware we touch.
And we need to be okay with that. Because lasting impact is the one thing we cannot control.
Success you can’t see is scary (“Does what I do really matter?”), but it’s also kind of empowering. Success you can’t see is what drives us to be fully and completely self-expressed, for how will we know if we don’t even try? If you’re one of those people who believes we are all put on Earth for a reason – and I for sure am one of those people who believes we are all put on Earth for a reason – then we must let ourselves fully and completely live our purpose and look for the little signs telling us we’re doing the thing that’s in our DNA to let live. It might be a smile from a stranger. It might be a comment on your blog or a tweet from a stranger. It might be your best friend’s child expressing gratitude or when you hear a family member repeat a word of wisdom you offered up randomly one day.
If you keep your eyes open and live your life to its fullest, its fullness, you will start to see signs everywhere that you’re a lasting force in this world. It is only those people who actively choose not to create change that don’t.
Whether you’re far along your path or just beginning to let it live, please know and trust that what’s right in front of you is just the tip of the ice berg. A star in the sky. One painting in the collection. Simply desiring to make a difference means you’ve probably already made one.