Is Your Definition of Success Even Your Own?

by Jeff Hittner

What is success?

It seems like a simple enough question. We point to someone we admire and say, “She’s successful.” But what is behind this characterization? Chances are we want to believe that success is a personalized vision of a life well-lived. In reality, we fall victim to the constant bombardments from our culture – on social media, in the news, from our parents and friends – where success is intimately tied to money and power.

For example, give this scenario some thought:

You pick up your child from school and you see them waiting for you with their teacher. The teacher is laughing and playing with all the children. You’ve met this teacher before. He lives with his lovely family down the street. Is “successful” the term that comes to mind when you describe him?

If you’re like most people, you’d use lots of wonderful adjectives to describe this teacher, but ‘successful’ would probably not be in the top five.

It’s nothing new to see that success is synonymous with money and power. Vigilance is needed to recognize that we often internalize success this way and it starts to define our own lives.

“Too often we give children answers rather than problems to solve.”
– Roger Lewin

Success = money

It starts at an early age: instead of exploring what a meaningful life could be, we are asked to imagine what we will be when we grow up. Success gets tied to career and career to money.

Before we know it, we’re being asked what we do for work within two breaths of meeting someone new. (Try asking someone you meet “What makes you happiest?” instead.) Watch them light up describing something personal – after the shock of getting the question in the first place, of course.

So we know we don’t want to believe success is about money, power or fame. What are some favorite definitions then?

Here are some of mine:

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

– Winston Churchill

I wholeheartedly relate to this one! As an entrepreneur, I always think I’ve created the next great thing that will take off, and instead find myself hustling to alter my prototype to connect better.

“If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience you will find your definition of success.”

– Stephen Covey

Stephen was the author of the famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He insisted success was about those stories of love and dignity and laughter you brought to people (this is assuming no one is commemorating your promotion to Director of Business Development in your eulogy!).

“To live the lives we truly want and deserve, and not just the lives we settle for, we need a Third Metric, the third measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.”

– Arianna Huffington

Arianna literally fainted and broke her cheekbone from overwork several years back. She had the courage to ask herself if this is what success looks like. She needed a different definition. She went on to found Thrive Global in an effort to end the stress and burnout epidemic and enhance people’s efforts towards well-being and purpose.

Holding on to your definition

So let’s say you have your own, uncorrupted definition of success. The bigger challenge is holding fast to it in the face of antiquated definitions of success hovering around you constantly.

Related: 10 Lessons I Learned from Changing Careers 6 Times

Here are four powerful ways to maintain your definition of success when the world wants it to be a caricature of perfection (two children, two-car garage, a job with a business suit, etc.)

  1. Carry your eulogy virtues with you. Ok, maybe this sounds a bit morbid, but stick with me for a moment. NYTimes columnist and writer David Brooks has written extensively on resume virtues versus eulogy virtues. Too many of us spend all our energy focused on our resume virtues, and yet when it comes to the end of our lives, none of these titles get mentioned. Instead, we focus on what truly gives life meaning – things we deeply valued and how we impacted others. So, as a shortcut to literally writing your own eulogy, carry around with you the collection of values that make you most proud to be the person you are.
  2. Photomontage! Instagram is the devil. Ok, not quite. But too often it is the epitome of superficial examples of success. Try deleting the app and in its place make a large collection of photos to keep on your phone of all the people and experiences you care most about. This used to have a name, what was it… oh yes – a photo album! But this is the 21st-century version.
  3. Gain versus gap. We spend a lot of time focusing on gaps in our lives (not enough money, not the right role, etc.). What if you look at your timeline from a different perspective? Chances are, you are living a very different life, with a very different set of goals than you had five or even two years ago. Focus on the growth you’ve seen in yourself over that time. When you look at your life from this perspective, success can feel quite different. Ask yourself these questions:
    • What major breakthroughs, achievements, and growth have I had over the last five years?
    • What were the ideas or goals I was pursuing five years ago? How close am I to living those?
    • What major milestones, growth, and breakthroughs have I had over the last two years?
  4. A new vision. Create a three-year vision for yourself that covers all the broader notions of success for you. Write a paragraph about each of these themes and what “success” would mean in each of them. These might be your five themes:
    1. Family
    2. Friends
    3. Career
    4. Faith/Spirituality
    5. Health

For example, my description under family is: our two children are deeply loved and cared for by my wife and me, by each other, and by our amazing network of extended family and friends. Our oldest is thriving in his first organized school experience. He has all the tools and support he needs to grow, learn and love. He is an amazing big brother. I often see him reading to his younger sibling and inviting him/her to play with him.

So what does success look like for you? Take a moment out of your busy week to think about the baggage we enter the working world with and it might surprise you to see where it leads. Once we start being aware of the definitions of success that society places on us, we can start liberating ourselves towards the future and the success that is truly ours.

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