Be Successful vs Be Content


I’m currently in a tiny town in the UK with my friends, and I’ve started to question whether I want to live in San Francisco. Why? Because I feel really lonely and unsafe here when most people care about being productive and being successful.

My classmate

Let me report on the reality of my friends who graduated from my class. Almost all of my friends who live in San Francisco or New York aren’t happy. Some of them feel desperate not to have a job. Others either hate their jobs, even though they pay very well, or they feel they aren’t progressing aggressively enough in their careers. Even though some of them have hobbies, their entire schedules are packed. Just chilling and enjoying life isn’t the norm, or to be precise, it’s not an option.

“I don’t want to be happy now. I want to succeed!” He screamed at me.

My Work

How about my work environment? Being surrounded by a group of startup founders, most people are constantly under immense stress. I know many of them are building great products, pushing things into production constantly, and are passionate about their work. However, amidst their stress, I feel suffocated. San Francisco feels unsafe, not just in terms of the city itself but also due to the stressful atmosphere where people lack the capacity to take care of each other.

San Francisco may appear to be a city of the American dream, but beneath the surface, it is a city of desire — the desire to build, the desire to achieve, the desire to succeed. It has fueled my ambition and confidence, but it has also brought about loneliness and frustration.

Dissatisfaction → Success?

A friend told me that they felt super conflicted because they didn’t know how to both be content with life and gain great career success after reading Elon Musk’s new biography. Let’s sit and think about this question more deeply. The premise of this conflict is, “The one and only way to achieve great success is to constantly feel unsatisfied.”

Let’s examine this premise in two parts:

  1. Is dissatisfaction the only way to achieve great success?
  2. What does great success even mean?

(1) Is dissatisfaction the only way to achieve great success?

For (1), I think that’s bull shit. When I was at National Taiwan University (NTU), no one was satisfied. The culture always told you, “You are not enough.” And then you would feel jealous when you saw other students getting into McKinsey and BCG. Your life was never satisfying. I hated this toxic culture, so I quit the school. But are those students more successful than I am? It’s questionable. I found my way by traveling to seven cities in four years and paved my way into the big tech industry. I viewed success as a byproduct of my love for learning, not as my end goal. Unsatisfaction isn’t the only way to achieve great success.

Furthermore, is dissatisfaction even a path to success? Let’s ask ourselves a question. Do you thrive when you are constantly under stress, or do you thrive when you are healthy, happy, and supported? For me, it’s always the latter. I only felt anxious and miserable when comparing myself to others at NTU. However, when I left NTU, my joy for learning and curiosity drove me further. Life does bring stress that guides me toward some success (e.g., getting into Meta), but it’s more of a guide than a motivator. Hence, I believe that success and satisfaction are a false dichotomy for me.

(2) What does great success even mean?

If you only define Elon Musk’s level of success as a great success, I have no idea what the recipe for it is. Is it extreme satisfaction? Don’t ask me, no one can tell because we cannot prove it statistically. But why do people admire or desire to chase Elon Musk’s level of success in the first place? Is it because we desire to gain respect and feel powerful? Is it because we want to be rich? Is it because it’s the only way to create a global-level impact? (Again: Is it the “only” way?)

Well, I would definitely love to be rich, love to feel powerful, and love to create a global-level impact. But none of them is my purpose for living. None of them means success to me. My working definition of success is “Happily and healthily learn and grow every day. Investigate things I’m curious or passionate about.” My success basically the same definition of my happiness. If an opportunity comes and life pushes me to have a great impact, then fine God I will try! But I won’t be unhappy or resentful about myself if the impact is not at Elon Musk’s level. What’s the point of that?

To talk about it in an even more detailed manner, I would love to be a change-maker to push for systematic change in learning. But even if someone else does it and I’m merely a helper in that effort, I will still be pretty happy. We all market ourselves for “impact” but will you be happy be you aren’t the one who owns that?

What should I do next?

To conclude, I find society overemphasizes the role of pain (=dissatisfaction) on success even if it can be partially true. The definition of success is also poorly defined without understanding the level of success, the owner of success, and a healthy perspective when pursuing it. In the end, it only breeds fear-driven and unhappy short-term opportunists.

That’s why I’m truly questioning whether I should stay in San Francisco. On the surface, we all seem the same — loving AI, loving learning, and loving growth. But in essence, I don’t care about their definition of success, nor do I feel happy about the way they live. Sorry, weirdos, but I think I can only feel curious when I’m happy and safe. I wonder if that slight difference in motivation starts to become an issue for me. If that’s the culture, I’ve got to get out of this city ASAP.

For me, success = happy + healthy + learning. It is quite the opposite of stress and dissatisfaction. I want to feel happy, safe, content, curious, and inspired. So if you ask me, “Do you want to choose to be successful or be happy?”

I will say, “Wrong question, ma’am.”

Note: You might say I am so opinionated. But opinion is like a belly button. Everyone has one. 😉 I might change my opinion tmr. Who knows?

Day 4 of 30-day writing challenges.