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Published on October 15, 2018

Is There a True Measure of Success? How to Define Your Own

Is There a True Measure of Success? How to Define Your Own

Success is an enchanting word. It’s the magical stardust we all want to be touched by. It’s a goal on its own for many too, a motivator, a reason to wake up every day with the drive to take on the world and “have it all.”

Luckily, there is barely a shortage of advice on how you can thrive and prosper. In fact, a simple question to Google on “how to be successful” yields the impressive 815 million results.

Why is success so popular of a notion? Because it feels good to be at the top, to see your hard work pay off, to be smiled upon by the good-fate fairy. It’s a high like no other.

But every so often, success feels like a chimera more than a real thing— a lot like happiness, in fact. We talk, read and write books about it, listen to wise men and women coach us on “how to get there” or of the “habits of the ultra successful.”

And yet—it’s a tantalizing feeling—you are never completely satisfied with yourself, because there is someone who is always more “successful”—richer, more popular, better looking, has more friends.

So, how can you ever know with certainty that you have finally made it? Is there a measure of success?

Does the magnitude of your success depend on the amount of money you have in the bank, the number of friends on social media, the amount of times you have been recognized for something, your GPA score, the university were accepted into, or perhaps—how many lives you’ve changed?

The answer is that it all depends on how you define success for yourself and how you choose to measure it.

What is success really?

Before we launch into exploring the above questions, let’s briefly review what the greates can tell us about the meaning of success.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the most common definition of success is:

“Favorable or desired outcome, the attainment of wealth, favor or eminence.”

But is there more to it than fame and money?

“In my opinion, true success should be measured by how happy you are.” —  Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group

“Success isn’t how much money you have. Success is not what your position is. Success is how well you do what you do when nobody else is looking.” — John Paul DeJoria, billionaire entrepreneur

“The definition of success is waking up in the morning with a smile on your face, knowing it’s going to be a great day.” — Mark Cuban, billionaire investor

“I measure success by how many people love me.” — Warren Buffet, billionaire investor.

“It is also nice to feel like you made a difference — inventing something or raising kids or helping people in need.” — Bill Gates, Microsoft cofounder

What isn’t success

Based on the above ruminations of these truly successful people (according to society’s opinion too), success starts to shape more as an internal feeling, a sense of purpose and of fulfilment rather than the pursuit of accolades from others or a large bank account.

Although all these individuals are undoubtedly wealthy, notice that no one mentions “having millions in the bank” as a definition of success. Nor things along the lines of more followers on social media, making others envious or having an expensive lifestyle.

This is not what success is or how it should be measured.

How success is measured

There are several “common” (not necessarily genuine) measures of success, by society definitions. Although we may not agree with all, accept them or even live by them, they are still worth noting:

Wealth

Money and material possessions are sadly, still a rather universal (although often very deceptive) equivalent of success. If you are rich, then you must be successful, right?

There are many flaws in this assumption which we will review a bit later, but for now, let’s say that wealth may indeed, accompany success—but it should be viewed as more of a consequence of your achievements rather than a goal in itself.

Popularity

With wealth often comes popularity. The two notions are frequently viewed as close cousins, especially when we think about famous actors, writers, or entrepreneurs.

By extension, we also have the online influencers—that is, success may sometimes be expressed by the number of the people who follow you on social media and whom you can reach and impact with your content and posts.

External vs Internal

Wealth and popularity are some of the external measures of success. They are somewhat more tangible and easier to compare.

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There is, however, a whole other universe of success definitions which are invisible, can’t be easily measured and are highly personalized.

Internal evaluators are better gauges of success, though, as they are set by us and thus—follow our own life trajectory. More on this later.

Comparisons

A very common way to know if you have “made it” is to look at your neighbour’s yard and check how you fare against them.

Comparisons are not always bad though, sometimes they can be motivating, depending on who we fare against and to what ends.

The flawed external measures of success

Most of the above-mentioned measures of success—the external ones— although rather omnipresent, don’t quite work to give you a peace of mind that you are really at the top of your game.

Just think about it— how many cases have you witnessed or read about of people who appear to have it all on the outside and yet—they are deeply unhappy, insecure and depressed? And even more— why when we achieve success, say, something that we’ve strived for, the jittery feeling doesn’t last?

One reason is that success is susceptible to the so-called hedonic treadmill.[1] It’s our tendency to adjust to events in our lives rather quickly.

Studies have found that when people through major events—be it winning the lottery, getting a promotion, winning a prize— they report that their happiness doesn’t last long after winning. They feel a temporary high which wears off rather quickly.

Another interesting study has found that bronze medalist are actually much happier than the silver medalists.[2] Although counter-intuitive at first thought, according to the research, such individuals engage in “counterfactual thinking.” That is, they compare against what may have been (not winning a medal at all).

It’s all in the mind and how we perceive the world to be—winning vs. losing, success vs. failure, beautiful vs. unattractive. It’s often all in the eye of the beholder, it seems.

How to find your own ruler

So, an open question still remains—what if you work in, say, a charity organization or a shelter, making a modest salary but are able to help many people? Are you successful or not?

What about someone like Vincent Van Gogh who produced more than 900 paintings in his lifetime but was only able to sell one? Then, you also have Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka, Stieg Larson, Oscar Wilde—all of whom were unrecognized during their lifetimes. To the world, they were far from thriving.

But what if you applied another measure?

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What if you are Van Gogh and you set a goal for yourself that you will finish one painting per month? You achieve your goal. Are you successful in finishing what you set your sight on? Absolutely.

What if you manage to produce two paintings a month instead of one. Are you successful? Of course—you overachieved.

So, it’s perhaps possible to accept that to himself Van Gogh was a successful painter. He was very productive and focused.

More importantly, though, he was very fortunate to do what he loved, it brought him fulfillment and satisfaction. It gave meaning to his life, although not any wealth or appraisal from others.

The true measures of success

The main reason why external measures of success are flawed is that they were created by someone else. So faring our achievements against these artificial standards means that we evaluate ourselves against a bar which someone else created for us.

Rather, doesn’t it make more sense to measure success according to our own ruler—whether we find what we do meaningful to us, whether it helps others’ lives improve and whether we have more happy memories than regrets at the end of our lives?

Research tells us that people on t heir death beds have the following regrets—have the courage to live a life true to yourself, not to others’ expectations; don’t work so hard; have the courage to express your true feelings; stay in touch with your friends; let yourself be happy.[3]

So, meaningful life and success, by extension, have nothing to do with wealth, fame, number of claps of social media, number of houses or expensive cars one has.

But they have everything to do with working on what makes us happy, with living the way it makes most sense to us and surrounding ourselves with people who bring love and warmth to our lives.

How to evaluate your success the right way

One very important thing to grasp is that being successful doesn’t always have to be measured in tangible terms, especially not the ones created by others.

That is—make your own standards if you don’t want to be stuck in a perpetual “why-others-have-more” spinning wheel.

You will know if you’ve “made it” if:

  • You love your life in general. You have a purpose and what you do is meaningful to you.
  • You are proud of yourself for what you have accomplished so far.
  • You do something bigger than you. You touch others’ lives and make them better.
  • You have people who care about you (and you care about) with whom you share your achievements. You don’t have to advertise your victories to the whole world—just to those who will be really able to share your joy and appreciate your hard work.
  • You see progress. You are not stuck in the status quo, you are evolving and improving.

However, it may be true that you still need some external point of reference to know how you are doing. For instance, how to know how smart you are, or how good you are at math, at managing your finances, or dealing with people?

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One way to answer this is by measuring up against past precedents or to others in similar situations and settings. But external comparisons must be approached with caution—you must be carefully selective about who you weigh yourselfs against and the dimensions you elect to measure up to.

First and foremost, though, whenever possible, you must value your achievements against your past self.

Summing it all up

The best way to measure success is to define what it means and looks like to you, and then assess your progress against these goals.

For instance, success for someone may be to publish their first book. Once you have this aspiration, break it down in smaller bite-size tasks—say, you commit to write 500 words every day. You check yourself against the aim you yourself set for you.

For another person, success may be to become a millionaire—again—figure out the steps you need to take to get there and follow through. Or perhaps you want to finish a marathon. Then commit to run every day, gradually increasing the distance.

And if you fall short, don’t beat yourself up. Remember that success may be also viewed as simply trying, moving, taking action.

Final take-aways:

  • Drive is more important than the outcome for success—or as they say, it’s about the journey as much as the destination.
  • Success may be in the eye of the beholder, but there are some universal ways to measure it—namely, through progress, fulfillment and self-pride.
  • Success doesn’t recognition from the world. If it comes, then all the better. But it’s not a pre-requisite to feel that you have accomplished what you have set out for yourself or that you have made the world a better place.
  • And let’s not forget the good-old fear of failure. It is as Stephen Richards says: “The true measure of success is how many times you can bounce back from failure.” It’s not about never experiencing a setback or a stormy day, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

If what you do makes you happy, content and motivated to achieve more, then, my friend, you are succeeding.

Or, as the great Maya Angelou beautifully said it:

“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

It’s that simple, really.

Featured photo credit: Christian Kaindl via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Evelyn Marinoff

A wellness advocate who writes about the psychology behind confidence, happiness and well-being.

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Last Updated on March 21, 2019

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

“What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

1. Start Small

The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

Do less today to do more in a year.

2. Stay Small

There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

Why?

Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

Peter Drucker said,

“What you track is what you do.”

So track it to do it — it really helps.

But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

5. Measure Once, Do Twice

Peter Drucker also said,

“What you measure is what you improve.”

So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

For reading, it’s 20 pages.
For writing, it’s 500 words.
For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

6. All Days Make a Difference

Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

Will two? They won’t.

Will three? They won’t.

Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

What happened? Which one made you fit?

The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

7. They Are Never Fully Automated

Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

10. Punish Yourself

Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

11. Reward Yourself

When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

In the End, It Matters

What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

“Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

Keep going.

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More Resources to Help You Build Habits

Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
[2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
[3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
[4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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