4 Keys to a Successful Life

How to have a fulfilling life

“Would you tell me, please, which way
I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where
you want to get to,” said the Cat…

Success is, ‘the achievement of something you’ve been trying to do’.
From the Latin, successus, to get an outcome.

So, success is simply about working out what you want to do in life and then doing it! This allows for a very wide range of possible positive outcomes; the Buddhist monk, the small business owner, the teacher, the billionaire entrepreneur, can all be successful in their own way and on their own terms.

The first step in living a fulfilling life then is (obviously) to have some sense of what you want to do (i.e. to set some Life Goals) and make sure that reaching those goals will be a source of gratification.

The chosen goals should be something that will generate a sense of fulfilment. Pleasure should arise not just in the getting of the goal, but also the doing of it e.g. the athlete doesn’t only enjoy the race, but also likes training for the race!

From reviewing the literature in this area, my contention is that whatever Life Goals you might select there are three topics that require particular attention if things are going to go well. They are Relationships, Well-being, and Finances.

Thus, the four key elements involved in living a successful life are:

  1. Set Clear Goals
  2. Foster Healthy Relationships
  3. Look After Yourself
  4. Establish Sound Finances

Let’s look briefly at each of these factors in turn…

Set clear goals

A goal is defined as, ‘something you want to achieve, especially when much time and effort is needed to get it.

Goals help us to focus our efforts on what matters most and help us to clearly distinguish between success and failure. Without goals the risk is that we drift aimlessly and whatever effort we put forth it doesn’t result in the kind of gains we might like to achieve.

Of course, most of us will have work goals that are imposed on us by our employer, but for a satisfying life it helps if we also have a set of personal goals to help prioritise and guide our actions. Called ‘Life Goals’, these objectives are based on things that really matter to us and can cover a wide range of potential topics e.g. career, family, finances, health, romantic relationships, friendships, religion, travel, hobbies, activities, sports etc.

Of course, most people will give some attention to most of these topics but to make real progress it is necessary to give special attention to just a few areas. That means making a conscious decision to hone in on just a handful of topics.

One way of doing this is to:

  • Start with Health, Relationships and Finance, plus 2 additional topics that excite you and are a likely source of pleasure to focus on e.g. foreign travel and playing music.
  • Do some research on those 5 topics e.g. if one priority is climbing the corporate ladder it makes sense to find out what are the key success factors in getting promoted etc.
  • Think about what an ambitious but realistic level of attainment might be in each area e.g. you might want to become the Pope but the chances of getting there are limited if you’re not (a) a practising catholic and (b) male. Also, since 1378, no pope has been elected outside the College of Cardinals, so being a cardinal would be helpful.
  • Note down some ideas about what you’d like your life to look like in respect of those 5 topics in (say) 5 or 10 or 15 years from now.
  • Turn the notes into Life Goals, that is, goals that are: long term; written down, in order to create a fixed point of reference and create clarity of expression; reasonably specific and; kept private.
  • As you make choices on what to do on a day-to-day basis, reflect on whether those choices are getting you closer towards, or further away, from those Life Goals E.g. If having a long term ‘Romantic Relationship’ is important, are you getting out and meeting potential partners? (If you want to find a prince/princess you might have to kiss a lot of frogs first!) Are you quickly identifying/avoiding/rejecting any selfish or ‘emotionally unstable’ people that you meet on dates?
  • Be alert for serendipity (happy accidents) or random events, that might spring up unexpectedly that could help you take a step towards your Life Goals.
  • Review the Life Goals on an annual basis and update them as necessary. There is no reason why the definition and the mix of goals can’t change over time as circumstances and your own perceptions alter.

WOOP Goals

Gabrielle Oettingen (Professor of Psychology at New York University) advocates for a four-stage, research based, personal goal setting process she calls WOOP. The system can be used for both short-term personal goals and longer-term, Life Goals.

WOOP stands for: Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, Plan.

The procedure is to start by making notes against each of the four steps and then (for each stage) summarise those notes in just 3-6 words…

  1. Wish – your goal; what you want to achieve?
  2. Outcome – what you’ll gain/feel when you get your Wish
  3. Obstacles – What is it within you that holds you back from getting your Wish? E.g. a bad habit? An emotion? A negative past experience?
  4. Plan – How can you overcome your Obstacle?
    Use the planning format…“If… (obstacle), then I will… (action or thought).”

The key to the system is what psychologists call building Implementation Intentions. That is, anticipating barriers to success and thinking about how to overcome them when (not if) they arise. This helps to build the fortitude and persistence that are necessary to cope with the inevitable setbacks that occur when attempting anything that’s worthwhile.

Foster healthy relationships

Human beings are ‘pack’ animals. In evolutionary terms success in an oftentimes-hostile environment came from co-operation, teamwork and being part of a family, tribe or nation. So, there is a powerful, innate need for mutually supportive relationships.

In good times these relationships are a source of joy and fulfilment.

In bad times the advice, guidance and perspective that family and friends provide are vital to keeping a sense of perspective and ‘switching off’ the potentially damaging reactions to stressful events.

For the overwhelming majority of people, healthy relationships underpin the ability to both get things done and to feel good when doing them. As such it’s important to have clear Life Goals in this area.

One aspect of building good relationships is to be wary of ‘Energy Vampires’…
i.e. people who constantly generate problems, difficulties and angst. The aim is to minimise exposure to those people and consciously seek to spend time with individuals who give you a sense of well-being and provide mutual support. It is common to suggest aiming to have at least five people who you have a very positive, energising relationship with. This is a reminder to avoid the problem of your friendship pool ‘shrinking’ over time as the staying in touch gets crowded out by work commitments and the daily grind of commuting etc.

It’s not what you know it’s who you know

From the work perspective, social networks, as most people know, are a key success factor in business. With a good range of personal contacts, a person can: get support for projects, influence the strategy of their organisation, get promoted, spot issues at an early stage and react to them appropriately, make life in general easier, e.g. by getting a recommendation for a good plumber or baby sitter etc.

Most people have much weaker networks than they realise, and so often they find out about important matters too late in the day to affect the outcome, struggle to get resources allocated to their projects, find that their advice is ignored, miss out on promotion opportunities etc.

Effective networking requires:

  1. Digging the well before you are thirsty! One common mistake with networking is to wait until there is a pressing need before trying to make friends or get back in contact with people. Effective people build relationships before they need them and make sure they understand the agendas of potential allies, co-workers, contacts, etc. well in advance of asking for support on any given issue.
  2. Consciously identifying and connecting with ‘useful’ people, in an authentic and ethical way. This involves (i) helping people out – networking is a two-way street, and (ii) making conscious choices about when and where to network, e.g. explicitly deciding what conferences, exhibitions, breakfast clubs etc. you should attend.
  3. Nourishing the network once it has been built, this means having contact with people in the network at a frequency that can be counted upon e.g. a monthly catch up. In professional networks, the ‘use it or lose it’ principle applies!

Look after yourself

Achieving things involves taking action, and action requires energy, and energy is developed by taking care of your mind and body. So, making a success of your life involves trying to stay in reasonable shape; physically and emotionally.

This starts with the obvious physiological factors – sleep, diet and exercise.

If you’ve ever had a bad night’s sleep (and who hasn’t) then you know what tiredness can do to your mood, attitude and decision-making capabilities. Similarly Junk Food, Alcohol, Tobacco and all the other things you might (or might not) try from time to time will, in excess, hamper your ability to feel good and get things done. Ditto exercise; your body was made to move and there is a minimum of effort needed to keep the system in good working order.

Maintaining a good posture is also an important (but often overlooked) factor in maintaining well-being. Poor body alignments, caused by hours spent hunched over a steering wheel, phone or laptop can (over time) cause pain, immobility and low mood. You can read about seven benefits of good posture here.

Positive Mental Attitude (PMA)

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has written persuasively of the need to adopt a positive outlook as part of being happy and resilient. Something he calls, Learned Optimism. For him this capacity to be upbeat and avoid low mood has three components:

  1. Permanence – viewing bad things as temporary setbacks that can be overcome in time.
  2. Pervasiveness – compartmentalising bad events so that they don’t ‘bleed’ negative energy into other aspects of your life e.g. work problems don’t impact your social life.
  3. Personalisation – bad things just happen from time to time and the optimist doesn’t take it personally when they do. Of course, they take ownership of any mistakes they make, and take corrective action but they don’t dwell on them.

The Self-Care Philosophy

This sense of ‘looking after yourself’, is formally known in psychology as Self-Care, defined as; “taking time to pay attention to you, not in a narcissistic way, but in a way that ensures that you are being cared for by you.”

In her Psychology Today, article – Self Care 101- Dr Maria Baratta points out that Self-Care is a vital component of avoiding fatigue, sickness and burn out. She then lists 10 aspects of Self-Care including: knowing what your limits are, finding a way to decompress throughout your day and giving some thought to changing a difficult work situation.

Self-Care then, is about consciously finding ways to recharge and re-set your mind so as to avoid burn out and stress. Common strategies include hobbies, be it gardening, horse riding, yoga, dancing, running etc. Restful daily activities e.g. going for walk, seeing a friend, walking the dog, reading a book etc., and then more ’therapeutic options’ to stay in touch with your true nature and to understand your boundaries. This might involve approaches such as meditation of whatever flavour you like – Mindfulness, Transcendental, Taoist, Vipassana, Zen etc. – or maybe some psychological methodology like Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

The main thing is to consciously think about how you are promoting a sense of personal well-being and doing something each and every day that helps build your resilience.

Establish sound finances

Obviously, it is not a requirement for a successful life to prioritise earning money. Many people are very happy living a life based on service to others, or focus their efforts around an activity that they love to do. It is also a truism that money per se doesn’t make you happy, and, as Lennon and McCartney memorably reminded us, ‘money can’t buy you love’.

On the other hand, it’s not easy to be positive, relaxed and energised if you are mired in debt, and can’t afford to pay the rent or the electricity bill. Money problems are a fact of life for many people. For example, 49% of American households live paycheque-to-paycheque, and in the UK research by the Investing and Saving Alliance shows that a third of households have less than £250 in savings. Over 50% have less than £1,500 set aside.

So, some level of financial self-sufficiency is a prerequisite for not being ground down by the need to pay for life’s necessities. While beyond that, some level of affluence in order to do (at least some) of the extra things that help to make life enjoyable, is a definite plus. Consequently, it’s important to have clear Life Goals in this area.

In terms of making ‘big’ money (and by way of a benchmark, to be one of the top 1% of UK earners you need to make £120,000+ a year) there are four main ways of ‘getting rich’. None of the options are easy and only a small number of people will have the appetite, ability and opportunity to pursue them. They are:

  1. Climb the corporate ladder and get to the C suite. At the executive level the rewards come not only from the salary but (very importantly) from share options, bonuses, incentive schemes and company pension contributions. You may like to know that the CEO median total remuneration for AIM listed companies for 2019 was £324,000.
  2. Become a virtuoso in some highly paid area e.g. sports star, surgeon, actor, IT guru.
  3. Start a business. For those with the necessary entrepreneurial flair, building a business from the ground up, whether through spotting a gap in the market, or developing a brand new ‘product’, can lead to great wealth.
  4. Marry into money.

For everyone else (which is almost everyone) establishing sound finances is about balancing spending on the necessities, while investing slowly but steadily for the longer term. The basics of doing this are pretty self-evident, but just for the sake of completeness the main elements are…

Learn a Valuable Skill

Keep that skill current and learn new skills as required. (Like a professional athlete constantly training to improve their race times.) Just to be clear, ‘valuable skills’, in this context, means a skill that can command a premium in the market place. There are rare skills, that are hard to acquire, that deliver great benefits but don’t command a good market rate. Delivering them may be very satisfying, but if they don’t generate enough income to pay the bills, then making ends meet becomes a matter of relying on support from a partner/family member and/or having a second job.

It is also important to note that while a good work ethic is important, many people are willing to work hard, but ‘valuable skills’ are in shorter supply and so command both good remuneration and job security.

Balance income and expenditure

Experts in this area suggest that you don’t spend what you don’t have. Don’t buy things you don’t really need. Don’t try and ‘keep up with the Jones’s’. Do monitor your cashflow and do keep up to date on the best deals for utilities, credit cards, bank accounts, loans, insurance etc.

Save for a rainy day

There will always be unexpected events, and that could be anything from needing to replace a washing machine to being made redundant. The usual advice is to aim, over time, to build up enough cash that you can survive 3 months without working (and a 6-month buffer is better still).

Start retirement planning early

Most retirement plans are highly tax efficient and often involve ‘free’ additional contributions from the employer. Also, the returns accumulate over time, such that even modest investments made very early on can build into something substantial by the time it comes to stop work. To quote Albert Einstein, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it… he who doesn’t… pays it.”

Invest for the long term

Once the rainy-day fund is built up it’s time to think about long term investments i.e. using your money to buy an asset that you think has a good probability of generating an acceptable rate of return over time. Many options are available here, from property, to shares, to mutual funds, to making extra contributions to pension plans etc.

Putting it all together

Success comes from thinking about what Life Goals make sense to you and then taking steps to achieve them. It’s unlikely that you can do everything you might want to do; so, focus in on a handful of topics. Pay particular attention to the quality of your relationships, your health and your finances. Things change over time so review and confirm/update/change the goals each year.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how clear your Life Goals are. Are you continually taking small steps that move towards what you most desire? Are you having positive experiences on a regular basis? What changes might you make to how you live your life?


Read this article on the Wheel of Life technique for deciding upon what Life Goals to focus on.


Watch this four-minute long video by on the WOOP goal setting method.


Consider signing teams up to our Practical Time Management workshop, run either as a face to face session, or as a Virtual Training Event – which covers Life Goals, Looking after Yourself, and tools for efficient working.


If you’re a senior executive, maybe a ‘one-to-one’ executive coaching session, or our Remote Coaching Programme, would be a useful option for helping you review your networking skills.


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK) or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And finally, an old adage about making a success of just about anything…

“The secret to getting ahead is
getting started.”