How to Change Your Definition of Success


What does the word success bring to mind for you?

The first image that pops into my head is a motivational poster-style setting with suit-wearing business professionals smiling brilliantly while shaking hands in a pristine office with a dazzling view. This is followed by images of the big house with the well-manicured lawn on the quiet cul de sac. It’s filled with degrees and invitations and awards.

The thing is, I don’t see myself anywhere in these conjured pictures of success. My life doesn’t fit those images. Even more than that, I don’t want it to.

In our society there’s an inundation of messages about what it means to be successful—the job, the title, the house, the car… While this is certainly a version of success, it is only one version.

Success means different things to different people. We can find ourselves in an empty, unsatisfying life when we chase a vision of success that’s not our own.

I grew up thinking success looked like taking the hardest classes and getting perfect grades. It meant getting into a selective college and graduating with honors. My success would be measured by how hard I worked and how much money I made. My position and my bank account would be my way to prove I was smart and capable.

In all this striving and achieving I didn’t develop an understanding of who I am. I thought I hated school, but really I’d let the pressure to achieve overshadow my love of learning. I thought I was lazy or cowardly because I wasn’t motivated to climb the corporate ladder.

It took me a long time to realize that the problem wasn’t that I don’t have what it takes to be successful. The real issue was the disconnect between what I thought I had to do to be successful and what being successful actually meant to me.

When I was trying to achieve someone else’s version of success I was likely to burn out because what motivates them doesn’t necessarily motivate me. It can be exhausting and discouraging to work so hard for something we don’t really want. On top of that, even if I did reach some level of success it wouldn’t be satisfying because I wasn’t pursuing what was meaningful for me.

While it may be painful at times to not share a commonly held definition of success, having a variety of versions of success is actually a very good thing. Holding everyone to the same measurement of success arranges us all into a single hierarchy with everyone struggling for the same place at the top.

When we make space for multiple versions, however, we can celebrate what each person has to offer. Just think how few people could be considered successful and how many needs would go unmet if we were all trying to achieve the same thing.

I’d like to encourage you to take a little time to examine your own definition of success. We are social creatures and can’t completely separate ourselves from other people’s opinions, but for a moment try to set aside everyone else’s expectations. Here are a few questions to get you started.

  • What does the word success bring to mind for you? How do you feel when you imagine achieving that version of success?
  • Who do you most admire? What is it about them that earns your admiration?
  • What do you most want to be remembered for?
  • Think about times in your life when you’ve felt genuinely proud of yourself. What had you done? How had you acted? What prompted that sense of pride?
  • When you get to the end of your life, what will you be glad you’ve done? - Who do you hope to be? On the flip side, what would you most regret?

After answering the above questions, I hope you have a clearer vision of what success means to you. In moving toward our own version of success we need to know both where we want to go and where we are right now. Click here for your free guide.

I’d love to know…What does success mean to you? Has your definition changed? What is one tiny step you can take this week toward your personal idea of success?