How Do You Define Success – The Surprising Truth You Need to Know
What does it mean to be successful? The definition of success is highly subjective, personal, and multifaceted. Success can encompass achieving goals and accomplishments across many areas of life, including financial, career, creative, athletic, and personal fulfillment.
There is no universal formula or measurement of success. Rather, each individual must determine their own definition of success based on their values, passions, and priorities.
This article explores different perspectives on defining success, metrics used to quantify it, and keys to achieving it.
Discover how to define success on your own terms.
- Success is subjective – It means different things to different people based on personal values and priorities.
- It changes over time – The definition of success evolves as we grow older and life priorities shift.
- It’s individual – Rather than chasing others’ definitions, create your own meaning based on self-understanding.
- It’s multifaceted – Integrate external tangible metrics with inner fulfillment for a holistic perspective.
- It’s a journey – Success is not a destination but a way of traveling through life.
- Passion and purpose are key – When work aligns with inner values, it becomes intrinsically fulfilling.
- Relationships matter – Human bonds may be the most accurate measures of success.
- Happiness is vital – Overall life satisfaction and wellbeing underpin authentic success.
- Grit enables growth – With persistent effort, progress can be made step-by-step.
- Comparison traps joy – Avoid pegging success to others’ standards. Only you can define your path.
By striving to understand yourself and live purposefully, you can lead a richly successful life defined on your own terms.
Beyond the Finish Line: Unraveling Your Personal Definition of Success
1. Different Perspectives on How People Define Success
Success is a universal quest, sought after by human beings across cultures, geographies, and time periods. Yet it is a highly subjective construct, meaning very different things to different people.
One person’s benchmark for success may be another’s definition of failure. Let’s explore some of the most common perspectives on how individuals and societies define success:
For many, the pursuit of wealth and material prosperity is core to their concept of success. Financial success is often associated with:
- Accumulating high net worth – Having valuable assets and resources
- Earning a high income – Making a lot of money through business, investments or a high-paying job
- Achieving financial freedom – Having passive income to cover living expenses
- Gaining financial security – Having enough savings and assets to be financially stable
Societies and cultures often idolize and equate the accumulation of money and possessions with meritorious achievement.
However, some argue that money should not be the primary metric of success. There are many wealthy people who are deeply unhappy, while many with modest incomes live richly fulfilling lives.
“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.” – Will Rogers
In the professional domain, conventional markers of success include:
- Climbing the corporate ladder – Attaining promotions and advancing to higher positions in an organization
- Achieving greater job titles and responsibilities
- Gaining awards and external recognition for professional excellence
- Accumulating skills, credentials, qualifications and expertise in a field
However, critics point out that career success is not limited to hierarchical progression. It could involve finding meaningful work, positively impacting people’s lives, or aligning work with personal values.
“Am I climbing the ladder if it is leaning against the wrong wall?” – Stephen Covey
For individuals like artists, musicians, writers and innovators, success is judged by:
- Producing original, high-quality work
- Gaining critical acclaim and external validation from experts
- Achieving mainstream popularity and audience appreciation
- Being recognized by awards platforms or inclusion in the canon of great works
Yet history shows us that some pioneers were under-appreciated in their time, gaining fame only long after death. Measuring creative success by external benchmarks alone discounts the joys of creativity as an end in itself.
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” – Albert Schweitzer
In sports and physical pursuits, success is determined by metrics like:
- Winning competitions – Coming first in contests of speed, strength, endurance and skill
- Breaking performance records – Surpassing existing boundaries of human athletic achievement
- Overcoming challenges – Pushing past perceived physical and mental limits
- Displaying virtues like dedication, perseverance, and hard work in the pursuit of excellence
But sports scholars argue that the obsession with quantifiable metrics like timing and scores loses sight of more profound athletic achievements. Mastering a skill, facing fears, or using sport for self-actualization can be deeper measures of success.
“Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” – John Wooden
For some people, success is simply about:
- Achieving happiness and life satisfaction
- Having strong personal relationships
- Living with integrity and finding inner peace
- Following one’s passions and finding purpose
- Making a positive impact on others
- Lifelong learning and self-actualization
This view highlights that success is not about material gain or public recognition. It is realizing one’s human potential, being able to look back with pride, and finding contentment in simple joys.
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” – Herman Cain
As we have seen, definitions of success are deeply personal, and evolve over a lifetime. Finding your own version of success requires looking within, and being faithful to your authentic values and dreams.
2. Measures and Metrics Used to Quantify Success
While the meaning of success is highly subjective, many attempt to quantify and measure it using concrete benchmarks. Some common yardsticks used to evaluate success include:
Wealth and Income
- Net worth – The total value of assets owned minus debts. This encompasses property, investments, cash savings and possessions.
- Annual income – Especially for salaried individuals, the amount of money earned each year. Higher earnings are associated with greater success.
- Financial freedom – Having passive income from assets that covers living expenses without needing employment.
|Net Worth||Total assets – total liabilities|
|Annual Income||Gross annual salary + other income|
|Financial Freedom||Passive income ≥ Cost of living|
However, some argue that money does not equate to success beyond a basic level of comfort. Studies show higher earnings do not proportionately increase happiness after income reaches ~$75,000/year.
- Organizational level – Higher levels in a corporate hierarchy are seen as more successful. E.g. entry vs. senior vs. executive.
- Job responsibilities – Managing more people and overseeing larger budgets conveys greater success.
- Promotions – Faster vertical progression in an organization represents success.
But critics argue that job titles reward conformity, not necessarily merit or impact. They also change frequently and mean different things across organizations.
Awards and Recognition
- Performance awards – Employee of the Year, Salesperson of the Year, etc.
- Industry awards – Especially peer-recognized awards for excellence. E.g. Pulitzer Prize, Michelin Stars.
- Media coverage and publicity – Being featured positively in the media spotlights success.
- Celebrity or influencer status – Being famous denotes success in the public eye.
However, critics point out awards measure a narrow set of conventional metrics, not true human achievement. Fame and publicity often depend on luck and marketing, not merit.
- Credentials and qualifications – Degrees, certificates, qualifications etc. demonstrate development of in-demand skills.
- Expert status – Being recognized as an authority/expert in a field is a marker of success.
- Competency and output – What skills you gain and what you can produce also quantify success.
But over-valuing formal credentials ignores the fact that real-world skills are often developed outside academia. Expert status may require social exposure more than real skill.
- Completing tasks – Consistently meeting deadlines and deliverables.
- Hitting targets – Attaining measurable goals and KPIs.
- Completing projects – Shipping finished products/services.
However, goals are sometimes arbitrary and poor proxies for actual success. Focusing too narrowly on predefined metrics can also undermine creativity.
Legacy and Impact
- People impacted – Improving others’ lives in a meaningful way.
- Contribution and influence – Being part of important projects or movements.
- Lasting change enabled – Creating value that endures over time.
Impact is hard to quantify objectively. True influence sometimes only manifests long after someone’s death. Prioritizing legacy also risks valuing posterity over present happiness.
There are no absolute metrics that can universally quantify human achievement or success. Meaningful success measurement requires nuance – valuing progress and contribution while recognizing innate human worth.
3. Keys to Achieving Success
While definitions of success vary, there are common traits and strategies shared by those who many regard as successful. Here are some key factors that often enable success:
Passion and Intrinsic Motivation
- Loving what you do – Finding work you are genuinely passionate about that provides a sense of purpose.
- Intrinsic motivation – Being driven by internal fulfillment rather than external pressures or rewards.
- Engagement – Being absorbed in your work and losing track of time.
When you love what you do, work doesn’t feel like work. Your passion fuels persistence through obstacles and rejects burnout.
Persistence and Grit
- Bouncing back from failures – Viewing failures as learning experiences rather than the end.
- Sticking with difficulty – Tenacity and refusal to give up despite challenges.
- Daily discipline – Building habits and rituals of consistent effort.
Grit enables persevering through plateaus, dry spells, criticism, and self-doubt until meaningful success is achieved.
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge
Self-Confidence and Belief
- Self-efficacy – A belief in one’s own abilities to accomplish tasks and achieve goals.
- Self-esteem – A sense of self-worth and competence.
- Growth mindset – Viewing abilities as learnable and improvable through effort.
Confidence sustains motivation when progress seems halted. Belief in growth keeps you continually learning and self-improving.
Planning and Goal-Setting
- Defining success – Envisioning what success looks like for you specifically.
- Charting the path – Outlining step-by-step plans to attain your vision of success.
- Establishing milestones – Creating measurable markers of progress along the way.
Aligning daily efforts with a clear roadmap channels energy efficiently towards success. Milestones partition the journey into manageable chunks.
“Give me a stock clerk with a goal and I’ll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals and I’ll give you a stock clerk.” – J.C. Penney
Hard Work and Effort
- Consistent daily effort – Regularly investing time in progress.
- Maximizing use of time – Finding ways to fit progress into busy schedules.
- Energy and intensity – Applying full focus and mental energy when working.
Meaningful success rarely comes through luck or overnight. It requires putting in the hours of focused effort on a sustained basis.
- Practicing fundamentals – Mastering foundational skills required for excellence.
- Learning from others – Studying those who have already achieved success.
- Cultivating mentorships – Finding mentors who can provide guidance and feedback.
Success is underpinned by a pyramid of learnable skills built through regular practice. Mentorship accelerates skill development.
Creativity and Innovation
- Novel approaches – Questioning conventional thinking and trying new solutions.
- Turning weaknesses into strengths – Using setbacks as opportunities for growth.
- Iterative refinement – Continuously improving upon ideas through creative iterations.
Innovation requires the creativity to find unconventional paths and willingness to fail forward.
Networking and Seeking Help
- Building relationships – Nurturing win-win connections with those who enable success.
- Mentorship and coaching– Learning from those ahead of you on the path.
- Collaboration – Working with others who complement your strengths.
Seeking help broadens capabilities. Networks provide support during difficult times.
While the keys above require individual effort, lasting success is a community endeavor enabled by those around you. Your achievement paves the way for others’ success.
4. How the Definition of Success Changes Over Time
The way we define success often evolves significantly over our lives. While external accomplishments may shape early definitions, deeper fulfillment typically emerges as the priority later in life.
In childhood, success is viewed through the lens of:
- Having friends – Being liked and included socially.
- Achieving good grades – Getting praise from parents and teachers for academic performance.
- Winning games – Coming first in various contests and competitions.
- Gaining skills – Learning to ride a bike, swim, draw etc.
At this life stage, success is determined by positive feedback and approval from authority figures. The focus is on accumulation of credentials and demonstrable achievements.
In the teen years, peer validation gains primacy. Success is seen through metrics like:
- Popularity – Becoming known, admired and influential among peers.
- Relationships – Attaining intimacy and romance.
- Individuality – Establishing identity, status and reputation.
- Freedom – Gaining independence from parents’ control.
During this phase of self-actualization and nonconformity, success is a social construct judged by belonging within a peer group.
In our 20s and 30s, careers and comparisons often dominate:
- Career advancement – Getting your foot on the corporate ladder.
- Wealth accumulation – Earning and saving more money.
- Milestones – Social milestones like marriage, home ownership.
- Status – Projecting an image of success and achievement.
At this life stage, social scripts about prestige and materialism have an outsized influence on how we define success.
“Careers and relationships – these are the new religion for young people today.” – James Altucher
In mid-life (late 30s onwards), inner purpose becomes more central:
- Living authentically – Aligning life with core values and beliefs.
- Pursuing passions – Capturing dreams deferred by conventional script.
- Helping others – Making a positive impact on people and world.
- Ongoing learning – Intellectual and spiritual development.
The mid-life shift often dramatically reorients life away from ego-driven external metrics of success to inner fulfillment.
In later life stages, success is synonymous with:
- Relationships – Close emotional bonds with family and friends.
- Gratitude – Appreciation for life itself.
- Integrity – Living and acting according to principles.
- Equanimity – Inner peace and acceptance of what is beyond control.
The evening of life brings a simpler, more settled definition of success beyond surface achievements or striving. Living in alignment with values and savoring relationships take precedence.
“If one wishes to know how much he has lived, he must ask himself how much he has loved.” – Albert Einstein
The shape of success constantly changes throughout our lives. With self-awareness, we can define it on our own terms in each moment.
5. Subjectivity and Individuality of Success
Defining success is an intrinsically personal and subjective process. Universal formulas inevitably fail to capture the diversity of human goals and values. Authentic success stems from looking within.
Our personal value systems deeply shape our success ideals:
- Achievement values – Drive for visible accomplishments like fame, status, power.
- Growth values – Self-improvement, learning, actualization.
- Relationship values – Intimacy, belonging, compassion, service.
- Stability values – Safety, predictability, risk-aversion.
Priorities like fame, growth, connection, or security entail very different versions of success. Values are individual, hence definitions of success differ.
“No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Upbringing and Influences
Aspects of our background mold our success perspectives:
- Family – Parents’ aspirations and examples. Sibling rivalry.
- Community – Cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic environment.
- Education – What skills and worldviews were cultivated.
- Life experiences – How past endeavors shaped perspectives.
Someone raised by artists in Bohemian San Francisco will likely view success very differently than an immigrant raised by entrepreneurs in Shanghai.
Self-Definition vs. Comparison
Do you define success based on:
- Personal standards – Goals based on your own values, detached from others’ expectations.
- External benchmarks – Comparisons against peers, cultural stereotypes, social media, etc.
Basing success on our own terms leads to intrinsic fulfillment. Linking it to others’ achievements breeds extrinsic insecurity.
“Comparison is the death of joy.” – Mark Twain
Objective Metrics vs. Subjective Fulfillment
Is success best measured by:
- Tangible metrics – Quantifiable achievements, measurable results.
- Subjective feelings – Inner contentment, pride, self-worth.
Objective metrics provide structure but miss nuance. Feelings capture meanings that numbers cannot. Integrating the two is ideal.
In sum, authentic success requires:
- Knowing your values
- Recognizing your influences
- Defining it yourself
- Allowing subjective fulfillment
While external models abound, real success is an inward journey of self-understanding and ownership.
Conclusion – How Do You Define Success
Defining success is a highly individual and subjective process. While many seek external markers like wealth, fame, and status, true success must resonate with one’s inner values and ideals.
1. There is no universal blueprint. Rather, success requires self-definition based on passions, relationships, and growth. It is a compass to orient life’s journey, not a destination to be arrived at.
2. Genuine success comes from living purposefully, actualizing one’s human potential, and feeling pride in the path chosen. The specific shape will evolve, as our priorities reflect inner changes over a lifetime.
3. At the end, success is not the mere accumulation of credentials, riches, or accolades. It is found in the small moments of integrity, love, and peace.
By looking within, and being true to your deepest self in each moment, you define your own success. Be guided by what fulfills you, not abstract societal standards. Your authentic path awaits.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you measure success?
Success cannot be measured by any single metric. Look at holistic indicators like achievement of goals, financial stability, strong relationships, personal growth, and inner fulfillment. Quantify where possible, but also value subjective elements like happiness.
Does success make you happy?
Success and happiness are interlinked, but not identical. Success striving without inner purpose breeds emptiness. True success aligns outer accomplishment with inner contentment. Happiness is vital for success to be authentic.
Can failure lead to success?
Failure is often an indispensable step on the path to major achievements. Each setback provides learning to fuel growth. Grit consists of persisting through failure on the road to success.
Does success require sacrificing relationships?
Not inherently. However, pursuing external success at all costs can destroy relationships and inner wellbeing. Maintain perspective by nurturing human bonds amidst striving.
When do you know you have “made it”?
A: Defining an end-point to success breeds complacency and restlessness. See success as a lifelong endeavor of meaning, enrichment and growth. The journey is the destination.
Can anyone become successful?
A: Yes, but it requires passion, grit, courage and lifelong learning. Success is not preordained, but available to those bold enough to define and strive for their own vision. Believe in your abilities.
How do you stay successful?
A: Success requires ongoing dedication. Set new goals, keep growing your skills, build habits of consistent effort, stay patient with yourself, and nurture focus and motivation over the long-term.