How Do You Define Success? Understanding The Meaning of Success

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How do you define success? If you can’t easily answer what success means to you on your own terms, it’s time for some self-reflection. 

All too often we adopt other people’s versions of success without really questioning our own version. This can lead us down a path of achieving things that look like success to others but don’t bring lasting satisfaction or fulfillment in our personal lives. 

The first step is to ask yourself how you define success. 

The definition of success

Merriam Webster defines success as any of the following:

  1. the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame
  2. the correct or desired result of an attempt
  3. someone or something that is successful (ie., person or thing that succeeds)

American culture certainly relates success to financial stability, or achieving wealth, respect, or fame. For most of us, fame isn’t likely something we’ll achieve, respect can be earned and lost, and wealth, well, we all have different definitions of that, too.

Consider asking yourself if your own version of success is based on someone else’s example? Perhaps you can identify a person, like a parent or a best friend, or a group of people (real or fictional) you model your own success after. Consider this person your inspiration. Now ask yourself, are these the same ways you would measure success?

Align your definition with your inner truth

There are some signs your definition of success isn’t aligned with your inner truth, which you should watch out for.

  • A main focus in your life is achieving new personal records or breaking ever-moving glass ceilings
  • You’ve experienced sadness, grief, disappointment, or emotional numbness after achieving major life milestones like graduating school, getting married, purchasing a home, winning a certain award, etc.
  • You regularly wonder and/or question if you’re in the “right” career field, relationship, marriage, school program, apprenticeship, contract, etc.
  • You have difficulties making decisions and feeling good about them
  • You don’t see yourself as having a positive impact on others

Your own definition of the word success 

Coming up with a definition of success that really reflects your personal values can be an exercise in unlearning! Here are some questions that can help you uncover your existing beliefs about success and whether or not they sit right with you. 

(fizkes / Getty)

When you’re able to identify originating thoughts around success – and if you feel that way right now – you can better focus on the things that matter to you. This is the way toward a truly successful life. 

Personal questions to ask yourself

Taking a moment to answer these personal questions can save you a lot of stress and prevent missed opportunities to feel satisfied with your life. 

  1. Who can you think of (real or fictional) that you consider successful?
  2. Write down 1-3 reasons why you consider this person successful. 
  3. Circle any words from your reasons that stand out to you. 
  4. Ask yourself what these words reflect, mean, or bring up emotionally for you. For example, if you circled something like married, rich, or thin, sit with the word for a few moments. How does it feel?
  5. Are these the things you want for your life moving forward? 

Another way you can create your own definition of success is to take five minutes to write down or draw as many words or images that represent success. 

If you really want to dive deep into your feelings on this, do this same exercise for the word failure. Understanding how you view failure can also give you greater insight into what your own version of having a successful life looks like. 

Be careful when chasing great success

Goals are healthy ways to make progress in life, but if you find yourself obsessing over being better, no matter how much work you put in, consider taking a step back. 

Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied the connections between happiness and wealth, says research has shown people ask themselves two questions when determining if they’re satisfied with something in their life: 

  • Am I doing better than I was before?
  • Am I doing better than other people? 

Since many things that really matter in life, like being a spouse or parent, are hard to measure, Norton says people tend to look for other, more quantifiable ways of measuring success. 

Money and business deals, zip codes, weight, grades, and more can begin taking priority because we can measure their success more easily than in other areas of our lives. 

define success
(Rattankun Thongbun / Getty)

These numerical ways of instantly evaluating ourselves can lead us away from the deeper and more meaningful personal successes we truly desire. 

A successful life starts with having a plan

Successful living requires successful planning. 

Do you want to know how to be successful? First, understand this: achieving your version of success isn’t going to happen overnight. Consider this a long distance run rather than a sprint. 

Start by considering how your current life is either contributing to or detracting from seeing success. Ask yourself this question for the different areas of your life including your health, romantic relationship, friendships, and business partnerships. 

Then, ask yourself what steps you can take to:

  • Remove anything and everything that is actively taking away from, limiting, or preventing your success. This may include toxic work environments where your potential is not being realized and fostered, or abusive relationships that are destroying your self-esteem.
  • Make certain changes that support your version of success (even if it doesn’t make sense to others). 
  • Add some deadlines or benchmarks to keep yourself accountable and to give structure to your plans. The more specific you are about what you want, when you want it, and what you’re willing to do to achieve it, the better you’re able to go the course and stay the course! 

Success is about staying in motion

What goes into motion stays in motion. 

It can be challenging to maintain motivation, even with the help of motivational quotes for success at your fingertips. After all, enthusiasm isn’t something you simply pick up or put down. Doing something small every single day, however, helps move things more in alignment with your goals, which can lead you toward success. 

success definition
(Tempura / Getty)

For example, if your goal (or SMART goal) is to write a book because you see success as being a published author, but you only ever sit down to type when the mood strikes, you’re not going to get far. 

How much success is too much success?

When great success becomes greatly disappointing, you’ve had enough. 

So, going back to our original example, say you finally get the inspiration to write, publish, market, and bestsell that book. You’ve never been so successful by your own definition. 

However, instead of celebrating, embracing the achievement, or reflecting on all your hard work, you find a problem with the printer’s proof copy and convince yourself you’re a complete failure. This is another sign it’s to reassess what success means to you (yes, this can change with life experience!). 

What was successful to your younger self and what is successful to you today may look entirely different, and that’s entirely okay. 

How to answer the ‘define success question’ in a job interview

This is probably one of the hardest questions to answer in any job interview. You may think how you define success may not be what the interviewers want to hear. 

Here’s what to do: Answer honestly anyway. 

Just be sure to slant your answer about defining success toward the job in some relevant way. To use the same example from above, if you want to be an author and are interviewing at a publishing house, be sure to mention how this goal can benefit them, too. 

what is successful
(AleksandarGeorgiev / Getty)

In other words, sell your interviewer on the idea that your version of success means success for the whole company (and you have a plan in place to achieve it!). 

Success is about emotional freedom

Fear is the enemy of success.

Those that think about success eventually experience the progressive realization that fear can actually be good, in the sense that it challenges you to explore new emotional places and push past your comfort zone to grow. 

But when fear starts clouding your judgement, making your decisions, and dictating your path in life, it’s become the enemy of success. Gaining emotional freedom from fear steers you toward succeeding. 

The best way to do this will differ for everyone, but you can try a simple activity that involves naming your fears. 

  • Give yourself 20 minutes or so each week (or better yet, a few minutes each day) to acknowledge your fears. Write them or draw them. 
  • Do you notice a theme? Examples include: losing money, being abandoned, hurting others. Write it all down: every last fear. 

For some, writing this list in a structured timeframe and in regular frequency will release the pent up fears they’ve been carrying with them. If you’re not a list person, you can also meditate on the meaning of fear in your life while considering the following questions:

  • Is fear motivating you or stopping you?
  • Are your fears realistic attached to failure?
  • Can you release whatever fears are no longer serving you?
  • In what ways can you work toward preventing your fears from becoming reality? 

Success is in the eye of the beholder

Success is easier accomplished when you have help and support from others. This is why you may find others trying to pull you away from your path toward success to join theirs. 

what is success to you

While this can be a thrilling offer at times (who doesn’t want to help others achieve their goals?), you must be careful not to spend more time on someone else’s definition of success than your own. For more tips on how to be happy, check out our article on the subject! 

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