In a moment, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes, think about one word, and tell me what comes to mind. Not yet; first you have to know what the word is.
The word is “success.”
Now close your eyes, sit quietly, and tell me what comes to mind.
That’s your current definition of “success.” It’s important that you remember that.
When I do that experiment, I open my eyes to see exactly what I imagined when my eyes were closed. That’s probably because I’m a lot older than you and happy with what I’ve achieved in life. I feel fulfilled.
Don’t get me wrong. I still have goals. I’m still hungry to accomplish certain things. I mean, that’s what life is all about, n’est-ce pas? But since I started out with nothing and my expectations were low, I’m pretty damned ecstatic to be where I am right now.
Funny thing is, wealth was never my goal. It was never my definition of success. If it had been, I doubt if things would have turned out so well. I’d still be closing my eyes, imagining some vision of fame and fortune, and opening them to disappointment.
It’s one of life’s great ironies: Money doesn’t buy success; success buys money.
That’s not some rhetorical slight of hand. It’s true. Let me explain how it works.
Whatever your definition of success, if you’re true to yourself and achieve your goals, not only will you feel fulfilled, but you’ll also find plenty of money when you get to where you’re going. That’s just the way it works. No kidding.
The problem with wealth as a success metric is this: As goals go, it’s a pretty lousy target. It’s superficial. It’s not fulfilling. And there never seems to be enough of it. The more you have, the more you want. The more you spend, the more you need.
I imagine there must be some fabulously wealthy people who spent their whole lives focused on accumulating tons of money for themselves. I just don’t know any.
When all the successful tech industry executives and investors I’ve known were building their careers, I’m sure every single one was laser focused on their work. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure they’re all concerned about their finances now that they’ve made it, but back then, I doubt if they gave personal wealth much thought.
Actually, VCs are a great example of what I’m talking about. Since some manage billion dollar funds, you’d imagine that their entire lives have been focused on generating and increasing their own wealth. Not true, at least not for any of the tech industry VCs I’ve known.
Most of them cut their teeth as engineers, researchers, analysts, or marketers who climbed the corporate ladder to prominent positions, reached the top of their trade, or founded startups that became successful. And during those long years, their goals were inevitably related to their work, not their wealth.
Then, and only then, did they become investors. To this day, I bet their primary goal is to generate exceptional returns for their limited partners by making smart investments and helping their portfolio companies be successful. If they’re good at that, then personal wealth comes with the territory.
Look at it this way. If your professional goals are to enjoy what you do for a living, work hard at it, strive to be the best at what you do, and accomplish things you’re proud of, then there’s a very good chance you’ll achieve all that and make all the money you need to be happy. That’s how it works in the real world.
If, on the other hand, you want to obsess over the habits and hacks of millionaires, billionaires, or boastful bloggers who really just want to talk about themselves and attract hoards of adoring followers, be my guest. Just remember one thing. That’s not what any of them were doing on their way up.
A version of this originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com.