Several months ago, I met a classmate for dinner. As our evening was coming to a close, my classmate asked, “Who in our class has made
it?” Unsure I understood his question, I asked him to clarify. He then asked, “Who would you say is most
I paused for a moment and instead of answering, I asked, “How do you define success?” He seemed to ponder my question for a minute, and then sounding slightly unsatisfied, flatly stated, “I guess it depends.”
I wasn’t trying to be difficult, but I found his question tough to answer. On one hand, I could have easily pointed to several classmates who had risen to executive roles within Fortune 500 companies. Or I could have mentioned the few classmates who had taken on entrepreneurial pursuits, starting companies from the ground up which they then sold to large international conglomerates. And finally, I could have discussed a few classmates, myself included, who had decided to go the non-traditional MBA route and successfully followed their passions within creative or non-corporate formats.
Our interaction reminded me of my client, Jennifer, who had graduated with honors from a top-ten business school and was a well-respected consulting partner. She always struggled to believe she was truly successful. During our first meeting, I asked, “How do you define success?” Jennifer sat silently, and so I repeated the question in another way, “Jennifer, what would you need to have, be, or do, to feel successful?” She thought about it for a long minute, and replied, “I don’t know.”
Many of us have been taught throughout our lives that success looks a certain way or can be measured using commonly accepted metrics, such as a level on the corporate ladder or a certain salary. But are these standards how we should define success?
While Jennifer was clearly successful on paper, she didn’t feel successful. No matter what promotion she received, or salary figure she earned, it wasn’t enough. And for good reason: she spent a good portion of her life trying to achieve the success that someone else had defined for her. And as she continued to work towards the success that was defined for her, she felt more and more unfulfilled and frustrated.
Over time, Jennifer realized that her own idea of success was nothing remotely connected to her current life. She was living the dream of other people, but not her own. Once Jennifer was able to start defining success on her own terms, her life started to change. She felt less frustrated and started to see things much more clearly. She started reprioritizing her life. And over time, she was happier; less stressed, and felt more fulfilled.
Success comes in many forms, and throughout our lives, may even morph in definition. Although some of us may equate success with making a lot of money, it is just one of countless ways to define it. For instance, some may view success as having a significant impact on their community, while others may see it as following a passion and making a career out of it. And for those of us who are raising a family, being a good role model and raising our children to be happy and healthy may be the measure of success.
The first step to attaining true success is to define it on your own terms. When you can take yourself out of a place of expectation or “have to,” and can reposition yourself in a place of “want to,” success is much easier to identify and to attain. When an individual struggles to establish a clear definition of what success means to them, however, they find themselves chasing dreams and working towards goals that aren’t authentic to them. This can result in a decline in motivation and passion for the work they do. And more importantly, when this goes on for too long, it leads to disappointment, regret, and ultimately, unhappiness.
Defining Success on Your Own Terms
To define success on your own terms, you need to stay true to your beliefs, values, and personal goals. This will set you up to achieve what you want and to be deeply content with your decisions and your life choices. Further, you’ll find greater motivation and a continual natural source of inspiration for those goals and projects you do take on, because they will genuinely be tied to what is deeply important to you.
So, what does success mean to you?
Personally defining success requires a strong sense of self-awareness, not only of who you are today, but also of your past and how it has shaped you.
Getting to Know You: Take some time to understand what has informed and shaped your current definition of success. Look at what has made you the person you are by considering the following:
- Values: Your values run deep and are fairly stable in nature. They represent your priorities and what is most important, and are the driving force behind everything you are and do. They are a result of all of your experiences and influences throughout your lifetime. Identify the five values most important to you. Some examples: Excellence, Family, Happiness, Humor, Love, Money, etc.
- Fears: Fear keeps us from taking risks, managing change and moving forward with goals. The more energy we spend avoiding fears, the less we have to actively pursue what we want. When we let fear manage our thoughts, we tend to choose the “safe way” of doing things. Ask yourself: What am I most afraid of and how has this fear shaped my view of success?
- Passion: Passions bring joy and happiness, and are what we do out of love, not guilt. They are what we are naturally predisposed to do, regardless of money or recognition. Ask yourself: What am I happiest doing and how would I most like to fill my time?
- Failure: Failure can be highly instrumental to success. It provides us with valuable lessons, insights and experiences so we can avoid making the same mistakes or bigger mistakes down the line. Identify your top three failures and the lessons you’ve learned from them.
- Upbringing and Life Experiences: Our upbringing and life experiences have a tremendous impact on who we are, how we behave, and how we think. Relationships with parents, siblings, friends, and teachers, play a huge role in the development of our value system, our priorities and our personality. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your home-life as a child? Your experiences in school? What was the worst part of these times? The best? How have they influenced your outlook of success?
Determine What You Want: Once you’ve addressed what makes you who you are today, think about what you really want moving forward. In Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, his second habit is to “Begin with the end in mind.” This helps us think about what we want out of life without limitations of our current situation, and about what we hope our lives will have encompassed from a deeper place, as opposed to a reactive, superficial or materialistic viewpoint.
Independent of everything and everyone else, ask yourself: When I look back on my life when I’m seventy or eighty, what will I want to have accomplished in my lifetime? What kind of person would I have wanted to be? What would I want my children and/or grandchildren to think of me?
Write Your Personal Definition of Success: Now that you’ve spent some time thinking through what has shaped your current definition of success and what it is you really want, you may see some disconnects and opportunities to redefine success on your own terms. Based on all of your responses from the previous two steps, write down what success means to you. Ask yourself: How do I want to contribute to the world? What kind of influence do I want to have? What legacy do I want to leave?
The Connection with Leadership
When you can define success for yourself, it makes you a better leader. Real leaders don’t follow a path that has been defined for them, but instead, define and follow their own path. The best leaders have a strong sense of who they are, what they want, and what they want to achieve. What’s more, they recognize that each individual they lead and work with is unique and has their own definition of success. This enables them to relate with the people on a more genuine and authentic level, motivating and inspiring people in a much more effective way.
Bio: Brett Blumenthal is bestselling author of 52 Small Changes for the Mind (December 2015), A Whole New You: Six Steps to Ignite Change for Your Best Life (December 2012), 52 Small Changes: One Year to a Happier, Healthier You (January 2012) and Get Real and STOP Dieting! (December 2010). She regularly speaks on topics of change and wellbeing, and has been featured on Huffington Post and Yahoo!, and as well as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Brett has been a regular contributor on NBC, FOX and CBS.
Brett has over 20 years of experience in wellness and almost 10 years experience in management consulting; including change management where she worked with Fortune 100 companies in managing corporate change initiatives. Brett received her MBA from Johnson at Cornell University, where she graduated as a Park Fellow; she also earned her bachelors degree from Cornell University.