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For Lessons On Success, Add Will Smith, Football, a Teenager and Stir

Let’s be real. Will Smith is one of the most likable human beings in existence. (<–Not actually hyperbole.) In his movie, Concussion, he plays real life Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian born pathologist with no knowledge of football who fights the NFL after they try to discredit his research that repeated blows to the head ultimately leads to memory loss, dementia and ultimately death.

In the movie, Dr. Omalu amasses all the classic trappings of success: multiple degrees from prestigious universities, respect from the medical community, a black Mercedes and an impressive new home, nestled in an upscale suburb of Pittsburg and built for his beautiful, pregnant wife. Plot things happen, and before long, Dr. Omalu has lost his job, his child and his brand new house.

You see him leaving his beautiful new home in Philadelphia and arriving at a much smaller home in a lower middle class neighborhood where he accepts a job as a coroner in Lodi, California. Ultimately, Omalu is completely vindicated, the NFL eats crow and Dr. Omalu is offered a job as the Chief Coroner in Washington D.C. The movie ends with Omalu rejecting this prestigious new job in favor of his current position, home, and life in Lodi. (Spoilers. Sorry.)

I was elated by the feel-good ending. After all, Omalu knows what’s important to him and chooses happiness and family over fortune, fame and a silly house.


Then, I looked over at my daughter, tears streaming down her face.

“I hate this movie!” she said. “It’s so depressing.”

She was so angry at the injustice of it all.

And therein lies the perfect example of how our definition of success changes as we age. For my 17 year old-daughter, it’s about the multiple degrees from prestigious universities, the fame, the fortune and the beautiful home, all consistent with the classic definition of success. But after we have children and a few years under our belts, our meaning of success often changes into something new. Something better than those Gossip Girl ideals.

Obviously, success is tricky to pin down.  There are four simple questions— simple to say, but hard to answer—that’ll help you define what success actually means to you.

Question 1: What do you value?
What are the activities you prioritize in your life right now? It might be your job, your friends, your family, your pet iguana, or travel. How would your list of priorities change if you could start from scratch? What values would you take off or add? You’re allowed to replace your priorities.

Question 2: What do YOU value?
This might sound just like Question #1, but the difference in emphasis is really important. After all, we internalize values from those around us—our parents, our friends, our boss, our church—and those messages seamlessly seep into our own values before we have time to realize if they’re things we actually want. Take a moment and think about the priorities you listed for Question #1, and decide if they’re your values, or values you adopted from your family, friends or community. You have complete, sweeping permission to only keep values which are important to you.

Question 3: How do you want to feel?
The dirty truth is that we value things that don’t make us feel very good. Maybe you think you value your career, which actually means that you work 80 hours a week and never see your family, or you think you value a friend who blasts holes in your self-esteem. If what you really want is to feel loved, happy, and appreciated, maybe that 80-hour a week job or self-absorbed friend isn’t the ticket. Success is supposed to feel good, and living your own success means letting go of anything that doesn’t. Once you’ve identified the things that don’t feel good, start to focus on what does. That’s actually what you value.

Question 4: What will it take to feel that way?
Once you’ve figured out how you want success to feel, what will you change to make it happen? Will you give up your soul-sucking job for one that only requires 40 hours and still makes you feel accomplished but gives you more balance in the rest of your life? Will you minimize or eliminate time with your negative friend because you’ve realized you want to feel happy and positive? Or will you add in new things—travel, connection, philanthropy, watching more Will Smith movies?

Success is not the same for everyone, but there’s one overlying principle that ties us all together—

That after all this time, Will Smith’s still got it goin’ on.

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