The Definition of Success Is Autonomy

None of us truly control our own destiny.

Fate has too much power over us puny humans.

Still, we often suspect that were we just a little richer, just a little more famous, if we were in charge and got the success we craved, then we’d finally have some say over the direction of our lives and of our world.

How naive this is. How many false prisons this has created!

Now to be sure, the poor and disenfranchised amongst us suffer greatly. Some lack access to basic resources. Some are held down by systemic forces. Some are buffeted by adversity that we cannot even imagine.

And we think, if we can just be the opposite of that, then everything will be great. In many ways, that is at the root of our pursuit of fame and fortune. And yet, it’s worth noting that the people we envy, who have reached the pinnacle of success as we have defined it, are hardly as free as we think.

There is a revealing scene in Miss Americana, Netflix’s Taylor Swift documentary from earlier this year, that speaks to just this point. Here is a young woman who has accomplished in her field nearly everything you could ever dream was possible. She’s rich. She’s famous. She has millions of fans and followers. She’s sold tens of millions of albums. She’s won Grammys. She has challenged and beaten Apple and Spotify, as well as a man who sexually assaulted her.

And yet there she is, on film, confronting her manager, her parents, her publicist and nearly everyone who works for her, fighting—no, begging—for permission to make a standard political contribution to a candidate in a Democratic primary election in her home state.

Eventually, she breaks down in tears. Why can’t you let me do this? Don’t you see that it’s important to me?

You might think that all this resistance is just a quirk of her particularly risk-averse team, that it would be easy to push past it, but it isn’t. With power and success come all sorts of limitations and constraints. It’s not worse than oppression or actual slavery or incarceration, obviously, don’t be crazy. But it doesn’t change the fact that to experience the kind of suffocating restriction on display in the Taylor Swift documentary is to feel like you are living within a prison of your own making, a slave to what you have built.

“Today, I’m sort of a mannequin figure that’s lost its liberty and happiness,” Napoleon once wrote to a friend. “Grandeur is all very well, but only in retrospect and in the imagination.”

Ernest Renan, writing about Marcus Aurelius, observed that the “sovereign… is the least free of men.” You’d think that being a millionaire or being a celebrity or being the CEO would be empowering. If done right, perhaps it is. But the reality is that most of the time it is inherently disempowering. How is that possible, you might ask?

Many years ago, Mark Bowden answered that question in a fascinating article about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. While ostensibly a detailed day-in-the-life portrait, Bowden illustrates many of the paradoxes of power. This paragraph is worth reading in full:

One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices, but in reality he has the fewest. Too much depends on his every move. The tyrant’s choices are the narrowest of all. His life—the nation!—hangs in the balance. He can no longer drift or explore, join or flee. He cannot reinvent himself, because so many others depend on him—and he, in turn, must depend on so many others. He stops learning, because he is walled in by fortresses and palaces, by generals and ministers who rarely dare to tell him what he doesn’t wish to hear. Power gradually shuts the tyrant off from the world. Everything comes to him second or third hand. He is deceived daily. He becomes ignorant of his land, his people, even his own family. He exists, finally, only to preserve his wealth and power, to build his legacy. Survival becomes his one overriding passion. So he regulates his diet, tests his food for poison, exercises behind well-patrolled walls, trusts no one, and tries to control everything.

Lest you think this is an edge case in the history of power, know that it is in fact the oldest story in the world. There’s even an ancient myth about it: The Sword of Damocles. We think a king is free… in fact, terror hangs over him.

The point of painting this picture is not to get you to pity the powerful; it’s to get you to ask some important questions about your own ambitions and desires. Are you sure the goals you pursue are what you truly desire? Are you sure you understand what success entails? Are you sure you have defined it properly? Are you sure it will make you happy?

Over the years, I have wrestled with this. As I wrote a while back, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a highly-paid one. I wanted to have influence and a platform. But one of the very interesting things about becoming a writer—a job which is a calling and a craft—is that the more success you have at it, the less time you actually have to write.

Suddenly, people want you to speak. They want you to be on social media. They want you to consult. You have all sorts of decisions to make about covers and titles and foreign publishing deals. You have gratifying emails from fans, from people who want your advice, but all of that–to read it, to respond to it—takes time.

It is very possible, and very tempting, for this to consume your life. Write another book? Who has the time? Sitting down on a quiet morning with your thoughts? Ha! Quiet mornings don’t exist anymore.

Think of the actor who gets typecast. Think of the billionaire whose every waking second is consumed by managing their fortune. Think of the CEO who is at the mercy of the enormous beast that is their business. Think of the prime minister whose schedule is controlled by their staff. It might seem glamorous, but looking closer, it’s hardly so enviable.

It took me a while to realize that it was quite possible that the success I thought I wanted would prevent me from doing the thing I actually wanted to do. What kind of sense does that make?

Today, I don’t define success the way that I did when I was younger. I don’t measure it in copies sold or dollars earned. I measure it in what my days look like and the quality of my creative expression: Do I have time to write? Can I say what I think? Do I direct my schedule or does my schedule direct me? Is my life enjoyable or is it a chore?

In a word: autonomy. Do I have autonomy over what I do and think? Am I free?

Free to decide what I do most days…

Free to do what I think is right…

Free to invest in myself or projects I think worth pursuing…

Free to express what I think needs to be expressed…

Free to spend time with who I want to spend time with…

Free to read and study and learn about the things I’m interested in…

Free to leave the office to enjoy dinner with my family before tucking my kids into bed…

Free to pursue my definition of success…

This also always helps me to weigh opportunities properly. Does this give me more autonomy or less?

Screw whether it’s fancy.

Screw whether it’s what everyone else is doing, whether it gets me a few more followers or a couple extra dollars. What matters is freedom.

Because without freedom, what good is success? As Seneca said, “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”

Don’t just nod your head at that. Think about it for a minute. Or for the rest of the day. Was this morning your own? Or were you rushed through it, to go somewhere, to do something, for someone you don’t actually like?

Are you sure that “getting everything you want” is what you actually want? Will it mean the ability to dictate what you do today? Will it give you control of your life—insofar as that is possible as a puny human being?

Because if it doesn’t… well, what’s the point?

Written by Ryan Holiday