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.
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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:
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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?
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.
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?
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.
- 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
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