What exactly is success? How can it be defined? And what does it mean to be successful in life? These are the fundamental questions each and every one of us is continuously confronted with. Sadly, most people unquestioningly adopt society’s definition of success. Or, at least the definition that is propagated by media and mainstream culture. Based on this widespread definition of success, a person is successful when they make a lot of money. It’s as simple as that. If you have a lot of money, a nice car and a big house, you’re considered successful. If, however, you base your definition of success entirely on money, tangibles and other superfluous things, you may be up for an unpleasant surprise. In fact, you may even be setting yourself up for disastrous failure. The simple truth is, there is no “one fits all” definition of success. Whether or not you are successful in life is entirely up to you to judge. Therefore, it’s so important to establish your very own definition of success. Otherwise, you might end up chasing a superficial version of success (or someone else’s definition) that will neither fulfill nor satisfy you. Here’s a long overdue exploration of the question: “What is success?”
Why is it so important to form your own definition of success? Well, let’s have a quick look at an ever-growing number of people that accept the mainstream version of success. These people grow up without ever challenging or questioning the definition they are given. They never even question if this kind of definition is thoroughly applicable to their own life. Even more importantly, they don’t ask themselves where the pursuit of this kind of success will lead them. Instead, they automatically assume that it will make them happy. They equate money, tangibles and other expressions that come with this kind of success with happiness. As a result, they meet their life’s decisions based on whatever option is financially the most lucrative. A grave mistake, because many people who adopted this way of thinking lead stressed-out lives, always on a hurry, miserably chasing evermore without finding satisfaction. Yes, they accumulate money and assets throughout the course of their life, but sooner or later they will be confronted with the question, if they spend a considerable amount of their lifetime pursuing someone else’s definition of success. Or an unbalanced, incomplete version of success, that is.
Let’s focus in the following on developing a more holistic answer to the question, “What is success?”
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has left the world better than he found it, whose life was an inspiration.”
Bessie Anderson Stanley
What is success?
Let’s have a quick look at the standard definitions of success and the reason why these definitions are one-sided:
The mainstream definition of success
The noun success (/səkˈsɛs/) refers to:
- the achievement of a goal, aim, purpose or mission
- the attainment of wealth, prosperity, fame or social status
- an individual that accomplishes a desired aim (wealth, fame, etc.)
Adopted from Webster’s dictionary.
As you can clearly see, the standard definitions are heavily centered on wealth, fame or social status. These aspects, however, might be (to a certain degree) part of a successful life, but they are surely not the only characteristics that define success. Quite the contrary, the importance of these three aspects is hugely overrated.
Criticism of the mainstream definition of success
Many people place great emphasis upon wealth, status and fame, without realizing that solely pursuing these three aspects might leave them unsatisfied, unhappy and without the sense of having a purpose:
As you can see in the diagram, pursuing a vision of success that is primarily defined by fame, status, wealth and a luxurious lifestyle can create an imbalance in other areas of life. I’ve included happiness, purpose, fulfillment, wisdom and impact in the diagram above, but one could include many different areas as well. They serve just as examples.
There are several reasons why being too focused on prosperity, status and fame, while neglecting happiness, fulfillment and other aspects of your personal growth, might lead to an imbalance. First, money does not automatically make you happy. There’s no point to being wealthy, if you are not able to enjoy it or draw happiness from it. Even more so, there’s no point to acquiring evermore, if you’re not able to be happy with what you have. Second, if you spend your time doing something meaningful that satisfies you, you might be more likely to be successful at what you’re doing. Going the extra mile might not always be pleasant, especially when you’re not doing it for yourself. But when it comes to the accomplishment of your burning vision, you’ll definitely be motivated to overcome every obstacle. Do something you love and your passion might elevate you to the greatest heights of success. Do something you hate and you might burn out from the inside after a decade. Third, status and popularity might contribute to your perceived happiness, but it might not add to your fulfillment or sense of having a purpose. Think about the many celebrities were not only popular but also incredibly wealthy. Many of them suffer from depression, drug addictions and cannot seem to find a true purpose of their life.
What is success? Here’s a more holistic approach
If we want to develop a working definition of success, it’s necessary to include not just material benefits, but also non-material aspects of success, such as happiness, purpose, fulfillment, accomplishment and many more. Success can come in many different shapes and forms and that’s the beauty of it. It neither depends on tangible assets nor wealth or prosperity, as many believe. And it certainly doesn’t require the accomplishment of status and popularity. That’s because success is a multi-faceted phenomenon, which is why it’s so important that you endeavor to discover what success means to you. The following presents a toolkit you can use in order to answer the question, “What is success?” It’s created to help inspire you to formulate your own definition of success.
Forging your own path
“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”
One person’s concept of success might not necessarily apply to your own life. For some people, there’s no greater success than having a family and supporting one’s children while they grow up. Others measure their success based on their ability to make this world a better place. These perceptions of success are absolutely fine and quite beautiful. But they are only nuances in a much broader spectrum to choose from. A person’s definition of success is always quite individual and a very unique thing. It applies to their specific situation and the circumstances they grew up with. Therefore, it would be a great mistake to forcibly try to establish another person’s ideas about success in your own life. Don’t try to copy another person’s accomplishments. Don’t chase other people’s dreams. Instead, try to forge your own path. Have the courage to discover what success truly means to you and how the whole concept of being successful applies to your own situation, circumstances and life.
Loving what you do
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.“
There are many supposed keys to a successful life. Centering all your efforts on the ambition to be successful certainly isn’t. Doing what you love and doing it with passion is. Why? A person that does what they do simply for the sake of becoming successful might end up frustrated or demotivated sooner or later. If there’s nothing else that keeps you going than the desire to be successful, you might not come too far. But if you love what you’re doing and if you’re doing it with great passion, you can overcome every obstacle. In fact, passion for what you do is one of the key elements to success.
Choosing happiness over riches
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
Although it’s a rather naïve belief, we all fall prey to thinking that becoming rich makes us happier. In the beginning, it definitely will. But in the long run, an effect known to psychologists as “hedonic adaptation” kicks in and the initial happiness begins to dissipate. It was even shown by scientists that people who won millions in the lottery quickly returned to their regular levels of happiness as the years began to pass. Therefore, the main pursuit of success should always be centered on striving to become happier, to add purpose and meaning to your life; not to strive to become richer.
Building something of value
“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.”
If you closely analyze extraordinarily successful people, you’ll notice that they almost always started their pursuit of success with the aim of creating something of value. They didn’t make success, money and fame the focal point of their actions. Instead, they focused on finding unique ways to deliver value. Not for the sake of wealth and popularity, but for the sake of other people. And as a result of the unique ability to deliver value, they accomplished success and the many aspects that come with it.
Making the world a better place
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
For most people, the focal point of success centers entirely on themselves. They want to be successful, they dream of leading successful lives and they deeply desire to accomplish success. Consequently, their actions are solely motivated by the desire to be successful. They do what they do in order to be successful. For them, it’s not about creating value or solving a problem. It’s not about helping others, it’s all about helping themselves.
But if you do think about the true benefactors of mankind, those who profoundly changed the world we’re living in, these are the people who are often perceived as widely successful. Not those that are limited by their self-centeredness. Accumulating wealth might buy you the most impressive gravestone imaginable. Making the world a better place allows you to leave something behind on this planet that is of real value.
Adjusting your sails
“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”
None of us can change the specific circumstances of our lives. Some are born in great poverty, others suffer from illnesses or disabilities. There are many things that seemingly limit us in our pursuit of success. That is until we step outside the confines of the traditional perception of success. If we are able to overcome pitying ourselves for that which we cannot change, we open ourselves up for new opportunities. Be flexible in your pursuit of success, adapt the concept of success to your specific situation. Just because you’ll never be able to accomplish success in one area of life doesn’t mean that you cannot lead a successful life.
Enjoying each moment
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
Living in the now and enjoying each and every moment of your life is an integral aspect to a successful life. After all, what’s the point to being successful, if you’re not able to truly enjoy it? Unfortunately, most people let the present moment pass by, while they’re focusing all their attention on the pursuit of wealth and happiness.
Being courageous and overcoming opposition
“Success is not measured by what a man accomplishes, but by the opposition he has encountered and the courage with which he has maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.”
Usually, we make the mistake of judging our successes based on our accomplishments in life. What we do not take into consideration is the amount of opposition we’ve encountered, while pursuing success. Consequently, some people are considered to be extraordinary successful in life, even though many of their successes came without effort. They were literally handed down to them. Yet, at the same time, shouldn’t someone who was able to overcome the greatest opposition be not considered successful? Shouldn’t someone who always got back up, no matter how hard life pushed them to the ground, be not regarded a success in life? Sometimes, not those who stand in the brightest sunlight of the most successful. But the ones who were confronted with the most daunting challenges without ever giving up are the ones who are truly successful in life. Be courageous, face the opposition and overcome the obstacles that lie in your path. And never forget to add these accomplishments to your list when you’re judging your success in life.
Even more ideas about what success means:
- Treating people with dignity and respect
- Attaining mastery
- Creating a life of abundance
- Having a family
- Truly getting to know yourself
- Always giving your best
- Putting your heart, mind and soul into everything you do
- Getting to know yourself
- Pursuing truth and wisdom
- Helping others succeed
- Confronting your fears
Adding to your definition of success the various ideas shown in the above might not make you the richest personal this planet. But it will enrich your life with happiness, fulfillment and purpose. It will create balance and harmony, which might be more worthwhile to pursue than wealth and tangibles alone.
I hope you enjoyed this exploration of what success is.
What does success mean to you?
We’re excited to hear from you in the comment section below.
I enjoy a lot with the articles about “Success “…
Great read! Insight is right on!
I often hear the old cliche “money can’t buy you happiness” and my reply is neither does poverty. Why do I often wonder if it’s people who have failed in “society’s definition of success” who like to redefine success to fit themselves. There’s a reason for “society’s definition” and that’s because the majority feel that is the real definition of success. There’s nothing wrong with striving for financial success as long as you strive for the other success goals like loving family, friends, etc. etc.
This is so wonderful. I am just writing about success and came here to get inspired. Such a great insights about being truly successful. Read it!
Very enlightening! I found this article very meaningful with great insight.
Would you grant me your permission to use, share, etc? I promise, ‘I WILL NOT SELL for any commercial purpose. Success is a topic I often discuss with the young and I find this article perfectly fits my thinking or definition. It will help me present the topic with more clarity.
Could you elaborate on the web under Criticism of the mainstream definition of success?
I am unclear with the interpretation.
May I make one suggestion though: Happiness may be substituted with satisfaction.
Thank you for this enlightening article.