There is a wide gulf between the literal definition of success and how successful people describe success.  Shown below, the top two definitions per describe success as an identifiable moment conferring discrete benefits.

  1. The favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals
  2. The attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.

Compare this to how two cultural icons define success.

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

“Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill

Both figures describe success as a process or a state of mind.  What explains the disconnect between the dictionary definition and how individuals understand success?

The issue is the difficulty of judging others’ success.  Outside of close friends and family members, we must resort to outward symbols.  However, these external markers (“wealth, position, honors, or the like”) may or may not have personal meaning to the person in question.  Because of this, we must separate how society will judge us and how we will judge ourselves. is defining how others judge your success.  Personally defined success, if it is to have any meaning, must be fundamentally different.

This misconception is the core of early 20s confusion.  Tossed into a maze of opportunities and people, you are overcome with excitement at the simple idea of just being a credible adult.  But then, before intentionally defining it, you begin craving success.  This version of success is shrouded in relativity.  Relative to your friends.  Relative to your co-workers.  Relative to your parents.  Relative to your own expectations.

This realization motivated me to personally define success.  An instructive exercise was to remember a time when I felt successful and tease out what made that period feel successful.  For me, it was as an adolescent.  I was passionate about basketball.  Don’t be fooled, I wasn’t any good.  I just had a strict set of rules I followed each day.  Make between 300 and 500 jump shots.  This seems like a monotonous task, and it oftentimes was.  However, I was focused and the process felt rhythmic.

For all the drudgery, I cherished the few moments a day where I felt like an NBA player in training.  I was engrossed in the work.  My priorities were sparse.  Finish enough chores and homework to keep my parents off my back and shoot the basketball.

As an adult, it is more difficult to pare priorities down to a few essentials.  However, I did find a useful tool.  The guys over at The Minimalists ask people to make a list of priorities you must attend to each day.

My list is simple:

I must write.

I must exercise.

I must study psychology.

I must actively date.

I must declutter my living space.

I must be meaningfully employed.

I must spend time outside.

I must stay connected to my loved ones.

Creating this list jumpstarts the process of examining daily activities and determining whether they support your priorities.  If success is defined daily through purposeful action, then you have a better chance of “liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”


One thought on “Success

  1. Pingback: What is meaningful work? | Disposition Disposal

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