I’ve had a blessed life in terms of my academic accomplishments and professional success. But like so many women, I’ve gone through life plagued by the question: Have I achieved enough? Only by uncovering my core values and redefining “success” have I begun to quiet that nagging voice urging me to “lean in and do more”—and to discover my own definition of authentic happiness.
My father came over to the US from India with not much more than a suitcase and fire in his belly. When I look at how much my father has achieved in his life, the sacrifices he made to emigrate to the US and provide his family with financial advantages, I often think: Who am I to slack off? I’m fortunate enough to live in the US, what right do I have not to make the most of all the opportunities offered here?
But that same wealth of opportunities has a flip side. With so many paths open to us in terms of career options and lifestyle choices, the result can be overwhelming—even paralyzing. It can feel like we are never enough because there are always additional ways we can lean in and do more, and that quest for more can suck the air right out of our souls.
The power of saying “I quit”
In a world of “just do it,” I’ve been experimenting with the surprisingly liberating motto: “I quit.” Inspired by spiritual leaders like the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, I’m learning that real joy comes more from subtraction than addition; shedding possessions rather than accumulating more stuff; avoiding experiences that don’t ultimately bring joy. And that extends to relationships, as well. This philosophy has helped form my joy-based spending approach.
For example, I used to pay a substantial amount of money for a country club membership. But when I started being more honest with myself about my values, I had to admit that my plain Jane chain gym membership was bringing more happiness and meaning to my life than paying a premium for being around people I didnʼt particularly like.
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
For most of human history we only had neighbors in our tribe or village to compare ourselves to and envy. The Internet has enlarged that village to a global one—of over seven billion people. Comparing ourselves to others has a kind of inverse relationship to how good we feel about ourselves. Therefore, scrolling through endless pictures of other peoples’ fabulous vacations and phenomenal accomplishments can sap our joy quicker than it drains our smartphone’s battery. And of course, the people we compare ourselves to on social media are highly curated versions of their actual, mundane selves.
On a professional level, I realized that unhealthy comparisons also extended to my obsessing over "Top 50 Women" lists that would inevitably leave me with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, of falling short.
Moving away from that narrow definition of success can be scary. How do you fill the void it leaves behind? Before figuring out what success meant to me, I had to first figure out what my core values were.
Uncovering core values
Revealing one's core values is not as straightforward or as easy as naming a favorite cocktail or food. For me, it took reading lots of books, going on retreats (some as basic as a digital detox over the weekend in my own home) and periods of introspection to unearth the real me who had become wrapped up, like a mummy, in the false values of modern life.
The first three I came up with were: 1) Simplicity 2) Small joys and 3) Financial independence. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve added three more: 4) Health 5) Meaningful work (voluntary as well as paid) and 6) Relationships. In our increasingly “connected” world, it’s easy to give more attention to our phone screens than to the real-life human beings sitting across from us at the dinner table.
So, how do I live my life according to these abstract values? It helps me to frame them into mantras, my current favorite being:
“How can I grow and what can I give to others?”
Since redefining my idea of success, good things have happened to me professionally as well as personally. Try it yourself: Life becomes so much easier when you live according to your true, unique, core values.