This is an excerpt from Finding Mastery #096 with USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni in which he explains why he asks his students to redefine their metrics for success.


Varun Soni: What I talk to my students about and what I have to remind myself of (because I’m really good at giving them advice and not always great at following my own advice) is to challenge them to think about: how do we redefine the metrics of success?

So many of our students who come to USC are the smartest kids in their class, they’re the best athletes on their team, the best musician in their band.

They come to USC and for the first time they’re not the smartest kid in their class, they’re not the best athlete, they’re not the best musician and they might not get into the sorority or fraternity they want, they maybe won’t get the “A” in the class they want, they maybe won’t get the girl or guy that they want and they might not get the internship or job they want.

That can be devastating because in their own mind, they’ve succeeded at everything they’ve done and they get their first “B” and suddenly they’re living in a van down by the rive. It just spirals out of control.

What I challenge students to think about is how do you define success in a way that makes sense for you.

Why are you so reactive to the everyone else’s definition of your success and why are you so dismissive of your own definition of success? How do we empower ourselves to define success in a way that focuses on the things that both spirituality and science tell us matter which are human relationships, a sense of meaning and purpose, a type of service to others, the understanding of ourselves as being part of a larger whole.

Those are the things that science shows us now matters. And of course you’re probably familiar with the Harvard Grant Study which was the longest longitudinal study of human human behavior in history. And after 75 years they found that the things that made people feel like they were going to flourish in life weren’t their status or celebrity or salary or grade or institution that they graduated from.

It wasn’t anything that American capitalism tells us it is. It was actually the relationships they have, the depth of their loving relationships, and in fact for men, it was the warmth of their relationships with their mothers before the age of five. So here we are a whole life trying to find a sense of flourishing and happiness by going to the right schools, and getting the right grades, and getting the right jobs, and making the right money, and something that we’ve had no control over — where we were born and who we were born to and how we were raised is actually the most responsible for how we feel at the end of our life, which is incredible.

Michael Gervais: And it’s a phenomenal finding that I feel like zipped under the radar.

Varun Soni: Yeah that’s right. It’s like my gospel, the Grant Study, I talk about it every chance I get because I’m at a research university. So what I challenge my students to think about is to create an internal resume that only you see, not that the world sees, of the accomplishments that are meaningful to you.

How do you measure bravery? How do you measure courage? How do you measure overcoming fear? How do you measure your relationships? How do you measure the things that will ultimately be responsible for the types of personal success that you’re looking for in a way that you can gauge your progress along the way.

Michael Gervais: Ok so you’ll pull up some characteristics or traits or whatever value systems that are important.?

Varun Soni: Yeah.

Michael Gervais: And will you have them define each one of those or are you looking for one definition with a big “S” success.

Varun Soni: I want them to define it for themselves. I want them to feel empowered.

Michael Gervais: Ok. So I love this because I think about this all the time. It’s too trite to say there’s one definition of success for sure but can there be 20,000 definitions of success or are there four?

I don’t know if you’ve been keeping track of the thousands of kids and student athletes that have given you a definition. Are any themes emerging? What are you finding when you ask that question?

Varun Soni: Well I think that there are themes that that kind of success inevitably draws upon like doing something outside of one’s comfort zone – students feel really proud if they’re able to do that or doing more than they think they can do or being in a relationship that matters to them.

I think those are themes but the way those themes are articulated by different people are different. I think that every one is going to have a subjective experience of the way that kind of success translates into their life. So I’m less concerned about the nuts and bolts, I’m more concerned that they just start the process of thinking about this. And also if we’re talking about spirituality, for me spirituality is really more about the questions than the answers. I think religion tends to be about answers, spirituality tends to be about questions. Our students will describe themselves as more spiritual than religious. That means they have to be comfortable with the questions.

At a university they’re told that they need to have the right answers, they’re not told they need to have the right questions.

What I’m trying to tell them is have the right questions of how do I measure this, what matters to me and why, how do I find meaning and purpose, how do I translate my faith into action or my values and action.

Even if you don’t know the answer to those questions, it’s important you ask and live those questions.


Listen to full podcast here.


Dr. Varun Soni is the Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California (USC) and the first Hindu to serve as the chief religious or spiritual leader of an American university. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the USC School of Religion and a University Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Public Diplomacy.