Published on December 7, 2020

The Secret to Success: Defining Success on Your Own Term

The Secret to Success: Defining Success on Your Own Term

Whether we admit it or not, we all want to know the secrets to success. We want to uncover the things that are going to help us achieve our goals—whether they’re in work, finances, our relationships, or even our own happiness.

It’s why self-help and productivity book sales have nearly doubled since 2013.[1] It’s why autobiographies and memoirs have surged 42% in the last year alone.[2] We want to study the habits of highly successful people. We want to know what it was that got them to where they were.

And, depending on the book we pick up, there are infinite answers—networking, investments, morning routines, a positive mindset, or the courage to take risks.

With all of the different—and often conflicting—information out there about the secrets to success, how do we actually know what will work for us, specifically? How do we know whose advice to follow or what actions to take?

Is it possible that we have our own personalized blueprint for success? And, rather than blindly follow someone else’s guidance, can we just tap into our own?

Here’s how to discover the real secret to success—on your own terms.

What Are Your Metrics to Success?

A key part of the secret to success is knowing your end goal. It’s impossible to get anywhere if we don’t have a planned destination in mind. Otherwise, we’re just mindlessly driving, hoping that we’ll magically arrive somewhere we want to be.

So, it’s impossible to have a conversation about success without the end goal and metrics in mind. How else will you know if you’re on track to reach your version of success or if you need to course-correct? And how else will you know when you get there?


Success, itself, just means “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”[3] Therefore, if we don’t have an aim or purpose, it’s impossible to be successful. We can’t achieve success if we don’t define it first. The definition can give us clues on how to go about achieving it.

For example, if I aim to relax on my day off, then mindlessly watching TV might be seen as successful—but if I aim to get a lot accomplished, not so much.

Or, if I aim to spend quality time with my family today, maybe putting off that back-burner work project until tomorrow is the most successful thing I can do.

Life is all about decisions. You are choosing one path over another. You’re sacrificing one thing to get something else. You might sacrifice a night of partying to study for a test. You might sacrifice that vacation with friends to save up some money. Or, you might sacrifice watching TV tonight to finish that work project.

But you can’t make the decisions of what to choose if you don’t know what success looks like. And you can’t know what success looks like if you don’t know what’s important to you.

Success Is About Values

The first secret to success is first knowing what it is about. We measure what’s important to us. I rarely ever remember what my friend ate during our lunch together, but I definitely remember how meaningful our conversation was.

There are infinite things to measure in any given moment. So, what we choose to measure is important because it tells us if we were successful or not. And we’re consistently going to measure what we value in life.

In fact, the life we lead is largely a reflection of our decisions and values. If we consistently choose other people over ourselves, our lives will reflect that. If we consistently choose work over family, our lives will reflect that, too.


Our values dictate our actions. They tell us if we’re actually successful in what we’re really after or not, and then how to course-correct. And that means it’s impossible to achieve any form of success without knowing our values.

If I get a promotion that’s only a little bit more money but a lot more time on the road, and I really value quality time with family, is that promotion really a success for me? If I have tons of fun plans but really value free time for myself, are those plans really a success for me?

Regardless of what the “objective metrics of success” out there say, if something doesn’t align with our values, then it doesn’t measure up to our definition of success.

To define success for yourself, you have to start by knowing your own values so you can be successful at what you care about.

Values Are About Sensitivities

But how do we actually know our values? How do we know what we really care about?

It seems like our values change a lot throughout our lives or in different situations. When we’re young, we might value independence. When we’re older, we might change this and start to value connections more. Or, in work, we value creativity But at home, we value structure.

Furthermore, how can we trust that we aren’t just copying other people’s values like their definitions of success?

The good news is that we have a built-in guidance system that tells us what we value—our sensitivities. Since we were born, we’ve been sensitive to some things but not others.


Maybe we’ve always been sensitive to freedom, and we’re constantly feeling trapped and looking for opportunities to feel freer. Or maybe, we’ve always been sensitive to belonging and feel left out really easily and always want to make people feel like they belong.

We tend to value what we notice and feel deeply. And we tend to feel what we’re most sensitive to because ‘sensitivity’ means we can sense more—see, touch, taste, smell, hear more there than most other people.

Of course, we’re going to have more wants, desires, needs, traumas, and gifts in that area of life because we’re more sensitive to it. Those same sensitivities are going to run through every single experience of our lives, across work and our family life and our friendships—from childhood to the present moment and even our future.

They’re going to show up in our greatest triumphs and painful traumas. They’re going to show up in the best and worst moments of our lives. Every single time we’ve ever been successful, we have felt all of them. Every single time we haven’t been successful, we haven’t felt them.

They’re a reliable, predictable formula for success and fulfillment that works in every situation of our lives. They’re our secret to success—how we define success on our own terms.

Now, all we have to do is map your sensitivities to define success for yourself.

Map Your Sensitivities to Discover Your Definition of Success

To start mapping your sensitivities, you need emotionally potent stories from your life—noticing the sensitivities and, therefore, values and metrics for success that are apparent in your stories.

So, below is a quick exercise to guide you through starting to map your sensitivities:


  1. Think of the happiest, most successful memory in your life. Paint a picture in your mind. Notice what you see, touch, smell, hear and taste in this scene.
    Write down every word that you felt at this moment. Maybe you felt happy, elated, powerful, magical, successful, alive, enriched, or emboldened.
  2. Now, think of one of the most challenging or painful memories in your life (that doesn’t feel re-traumatizing to explore)—a moment you would regard as “unsuccessful.” Again, paint the picture in your mind and use all of your senses to bring it to life.
    Write down every word that captures how you felt at that moment. Maybe you felt sad, abandoned, confused, stuck, lost, or annoyed. Now, next to each word, write down what you wanted to feel. Maybe you wanted to feel happy, connected, clear, motivated, at home, or excited.
  3. Go through your two lists—of your happy moment and your challenging moment—and circle any words that show up twice or more. For example, if you felt Connected in your happy moment, and you wanted to feel Connected in your sad moment, circle it. If any words are very similar, you can circle those, too.
    Now, you’re beginning to map your sensitivities. If you felt all of the words you circled, would you consider it a success? Of course, you would. Because they’re what you’re most sensitive to and, therefore, what you value. You can think back to past moments of success and begin to see those words. You can think back to past moments of “failure” and see the opposites of those words.

While this is a very simple but potent introduction to defining success for yourself, mapping sensitivities can be a lot more in-depth and insightful than this.

The Secrets to Success

We all already have a lifetime of experiences that define success for us. They tell us the things that have been successful for us—from our best friendships to our biggest accomplishments. And they also tell us the things that have been unsuccessful for us. All we have to do is connect the dots between all of those experiences and understand the sensitivities that define success for us.

The real secret to success is following the blueprint that’s already proven to be successful for you. Your entire life already has that evidence. Maybe every single time you’ve connected deeply, been playful and fun, put out strategic ideas, and been unapologetic with your opinions, you’ve been successful. If that’s been true for you, then you already know your secret to success. You’ve seen it in the past and know that it will work in the future.

It’s success on your own terms.

I’ve helped hundreds of people discover their sensitivities, and I can say with certainty that, at the end of the day, we each have our own unique secret to success. And we don’t have to copy anyone else’s formula because no one else has the exact gifts and experiences and sensitivities that we have.

So, map your sensitivities. Discover your own secret to success. And define success on your own terms.

Featured photo credit: Samuel Clara via


[1] The NPD Group: Self Help Book Sales are Rising Fast in the US
[2] The Guardian: Why Real-Life Memoirs Are Such a Hit
[3] Oxford Languages: Success

More by this author

Mike Iamele

Mike Iamele is a writer, life purpose expert, and brand strategist who helps people map their sensitivities to discover their purpose.

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Last Updated on January 21, 2021

10 Willpower Hacks to Help Achieve Your Goals

10 Willpower Hacks to Help Achieve Your Goals

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“Willpower is essential to the accomplishment of anything worthwhile.” – Brian Tracy

“Just do it.” – Nike

The most important and satisfying things in life usually aren’t the easiest ones.

The good news: In today’s hyper-connected world, we have access to all the information we could want to help us achieve our future goals. We know what foods will make us healthier (would kale or quinoa be as popular without the internet and Dr. Oz? I think not). We can also estimate for ourselves the benefits of starting retirement savings early – and the implications for the lifestyles of our future selves (that boat at 65 means fewer vacations in your 20’s).


We almost always know what we should do thanks to endless knowledge at our fingertips. But actually doing it is an entirely different kind of challenge. Most of us can relate to that feeling of inertia at the start of a big project, or the struggle to consistently make good, long-term choices for our health, or saving for the future. This mental tug-of-war we experience has evolutionary roots. While knowing this might bring comfort, it doesn’t help solve the problem at hand:

How can we flex our willpower to become better, faster, smarter, and stronger?

The bad news: you can’t Google your way out of this one.

Or can you? A fascinating body of research (much of which you can turn up online through popular press and academic articles) sheds light on how to hack your willpower for better, easier results in all areas of your life. The Willpower Instinct, a great book by Stanford prof Kelly McGonigal, provides a deep dive into these and more topics for anyone keenly interested.

Here’s the short version: we can make the most of our willpower through two types of hacks. First, there are ways to turbo boost your willpower. Second, there are ways to hack the system so you make the best use of whatever (sometimes infinitely modest) willpower you have.


The following 10 tips draw on both of these toolkits.

1. Slow the heck down.

Most regrettable decisions (the splurge at the mall, the procrastination on the project, the snacks in the break room) happen when one part of our brain effectively hijacks the other. We go into automatic pilot (and unfortunately the pilot in question has a penchant for shoes, Facebook and cookies!). Researchers suggest that we can override this system by charging up the other. That is, slow down and focus on the moment at hand. Think about your breathing. Bring yourself back to this moment in time, feel the compulsion but don’t act on it yet. Try telling yourself, “If this feeling is still just as uncomfortable in 10 minutes, I’ll act on it.” Take a little time to be mindful – then make your decision.

2. Dream of ‘done.’

Imagine yourself handing in the big project, soaking up the appreciation from your colleagues or boss. Or crossing the finish line for the half-marathon you’ve always wanted to run. The rush, the aliveness, the wind on your face, the medal …

That’s a lot more fun and motivating to think about than how much work it is to get out of bed for your long, Sunday morning run!

Re-orient your brain by summoning more motivating feelings than just “not running this morning is more enjoyable than running this morning.” If your goals are meaningful, this will help.


3. Make your toughest choices first.

Scientists have found that willpower is like a full bathtub that’s drained throughout the day. So, why not start your toughest challenges when you have a full reserve? Get that project started or fit that workout in before you even check your email or have breakfast. Bonus: the high you’ll get from crossing off your hardest ‘to-do’ will help you sail through the rest of your day.

4. Progress = commitment, not a license to backslide.

A lot of times people will ‘cheat’ right after taking positive steps towards their goals. (A common version of this trap is, “I worked out three days in a row, so I deserve this cookie.”) Most of us can relate to this thinking – but it’s totally irrational! We’ll often trick ourselves into setbacks because we think we deserve them, even if we don’t really want them and deep down we know they’ll work against us in the long-run.

How can you counteract this effect? Research finds that if you use your positive streak to recommit (“If I worked out three days this week, I must be really committed to my health and fitness goal!”) rather than an excuse for wiggle room, we don’t take the same cheat options. Cool, right?

5. Meditate.

Meditation is an expressway to better willpower. Bringing your attention to your breathing for 15 minutes, or even five, flexes your willpower muscles by applying discipline to your thinking. It does this by working two mental ‘muscle groups’: first, the set of muscles that notice when your attention is drifting, and second, the set of muscles that bring you back to your task at hand. Over time, even small amounts of meditation will help you build the discipline to easily do what was once hard – like pushing through a long stretch at work.

6. Set mini-goals.

Which seems more doable: committing to three 20 minute runs this week or a half-marathon? Mini-goals are brilliant because they’re easier to achieve and boost your commitment to continuing. When we size them up, we see them as achievable rather than daunting. Each time you succeed at one, it boosts your sense of efficacy and personal integrity: not only are you capable of doing what you set out to do, but you followed through on it. Nice.


The beauty of mini-goals is that over time, mini-goals – and the momentum you’ve built by doing them – can quickly turn into super-goals. So that half marathon might be more likely to happen, and sooner and more easily than you think!

7. Eat.

Low blood sugar decreases your ability to make tough decisions. If you’re running on empty physically, you’ll also be running on empty mentally. (Yes, this one’s somewhat ironic if your goal involves changing food patterns – but even so, letting your blood sugar drop too far will only sabotage you over time.)

8. Sleep.

Research shows people who don’t get enough sleep have a tough time exercising their willpower. Sleep is critical for a healthy brain – along with just about everything else. So to optimize your willpower muscle, make sure you’re catching your zzz’s.

9. Nix the self-sabotage.

Making yourself feel bad hurts, rather than helps, your willpower efforts. Researchers have found that compassion is a far better strategy than tough love – telling yourself “It’s OK, everyone has setbacks sometimes,” will help you bounce back more quickly than negative self-talk.

10. Take the first hard step.

As a new behavior becomes a habit, it is more natural. You have to use less and less willpower to ‘make it so.’ When you’re starting a new pattern that feels hard, remind yourself that the first steps are truly the hardest. It will probably never feel harder than it does in those first few choices. In the case of repeated behaviors, like exercise or saving money, it takes weeks for new habits to take hold. By that point, the habit will be so ingrained, you’d have to try hard not to do it.

Featured photo credit: Kym Ellis via

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