Will I Know it When I See It?
Merriam-Webster defines success as “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.” The problem I have with this definition is that it’s hogwash…It does not give any latitude for forging your own path.
My definition of success is intensely personal and clearer now than ever before. It hasn’t always been that way. For years I borrowed the conventional definition of success that floats out there in pop culture, put my name on it and called it my own. It looked something like fame 🤩, fortune 🤑, and happiness 🤪. It’s empowering to look at that definition and see how limited it is. The way I think about success now is so much more colorful and rich. It’s not a simple collection of words, chosen for me. It is multi-faceted. It is not fame. It is not fortunate. It is not happiness. Though, parts of those appear in it.
Let’s step back. I believe that to Draw My Dream Map I need to know what I’m aiming at. I mention a “conventional” definition of the word success. What do I mean by that and why is my definition necessarily different? Let’s get literal.
The By-The-Book Definition of Success
The one thing the different dictionaries I checked can agree on is that “success” is…a noun. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.” The problem I have with this definition is that it’s hogwash. It’s a) simple, all-or-nothing, and b) it’s severely limiting in scope. It does not give any latitude for forging your own path.
Let’s try another dictionary. Dictionary.com describes success as “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals.” While I appreciate that this one is less limiting in its scope, I take issue with that word “termination.” Success as the “termination” of efforts? For me success isn’t success if I burn everything down getting there. The secondary definition on the same site is “the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like,” very similar to Merriam-Webster.
Next I looked at Oxford Languages. Per Oxford, success is “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” This is a definition I can get more behind. It defines success more generally, recognizing that the “aims” and “purposes” can differ from person to person rather than telling me where to aim.
I didn’t intend for this to become a referendum on the art of diction, but here we are 🤓. Before I move on, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Wikipedia. Wikipedia coming in hot describing the concept of success as “the state or condition of meeting a defined range of expectations.” This is just the first sentence of the current iteration of the webpage and Wikipedia has the unfair advantage of having paragraphs for nuance, but this, like Oxford is the closest I saw to a slam dunk 🏀.
So, voila, that’s what success is. It is the state or condition of meeting a defined range of expectations.
Now What Does That Mean in Practice?
We’ve waded into the abstract semantic corners of the internet, let’s pull ourselves out back into the read world. How do I figure out what “expectations” I should set my sights on? Well first let me consider…
Is Success the Journey or the Destination?
Let’s pretend for a moment that I live in New York, but I have a disdain for the cold, the Atlantic ocean, the rain, and that I have a Hollywood sensibility. In that life, I might decide that one part of success for me is living in Hollywood, CA. Let’s pretend for a second that I have to Oregon Trail it out to California, i.e. no flying (it’s an analogy, bear with me). Whichever way I go let’s say I avoid the dysentery and I’m able ford the rivers and make safe passage to California. My claim would be that success is for sure the destination. But, does the route I took to get there play a part? Of course it does. It’s a lot easier to get from New York to California if I take the shortest route with the fewest mountains on the biggest and fastest highways (in this alternate universe where we have all modern technology except planes 🤷♂️).
Like those Coke Zero commercials where where Coca Cola pushes zero calories AND great taste, I can have both! A quality, real-world definition of success should consider the journey and the destination. Considering this is my life that I’m talking about, I agree (with myself) that I don’t want to put all my apples into the future basket only to die before I get there. I want to be successful all along the way.
An Intimidating Proposition
So if I know that success is a measure of how my life goes compared to expectations and it accounts for the destination (i.e. life at 80) and the journey (i.e. life between now and then), where do I start? No big deal, I’m just defining what I want my life to look like 😳. It’s a problem so intimidating that, for a long time, I didn’t try to define success for myself. I just latched onto the conventional definition of success and took it as my own like I said at the top. Again, is the conventional definition of success bad? No. Was it wrong for me? Yes. Why? It didn’t reflect what’s important to me.
My Definition of Success
We’re zeroing in on my definition of success. If I know that the conventional definition of success is wrong because it doesn’t include what’s important to me, then if I take the negative, it holds that a good place to start defining success for myself is by figuring out what’s important to me. If I sit down and I outline my personal priorities what does it look like if I take each of those priorities and run them through to their logical end point? For instance, if health is one of my personal priorities, what does a healthy life look like? How can I influence a healthier future?
Starting with my personal priorities makes so much sense to me for these reasons:
- Wealth, fame and respect may be among my priorities (as the dictionary definitions suggest), but what about relationships, ambition and contentedness? For me, the traditional definition isn’t wrong, it’s incomplete. Starting with my personal priorities ensures that in defining success for myself, I shine light on areas of my life that may seem less obvious in the context of convention.
- Secondly, my personal priorities are very unlikely to change in the future (near or far). The details of the priorities may change, but if I care, say, about family, money, career and health, those things aren’t likely to change with time all that much.
So that’s it, my definition of success is…
The nurturing and fulfillment of each of my personal priorities today, tomorrow and for the rest of my life. A life optimized around my personal priorities as a system rather than optimization around a single metric like “wealth” or a another vaguely-defined metric like “happiness” (spoiler alert, happiness isn’t one of my personal priorities).
Before If beam out of here, a few closing thoughts on my definition of success…
Having a multi-variate definition of success changes the game from black and white to shades of gray. If I have 8 personal priorities, I may be successful in 7 areas and lacking in one. Adding the additional terms of success softens the impact of failure (temporary or otherwise) in one area. It takes the narrow definition of success from convention with its pitfalls and widens it with gentler slopes to either side. If I miss out on my final destination, or stumble off the path, I land softly and am better positioned to get back on track.
So, now that I’ve laid out my definition of success, the logical next step is to start working through what success looks like for me. What are my personal priorities? How do I pick them? Once I have them where do I go from there? More on that next time 🔰.
This is part of my Drawing My Dream Map series. For more, follow along here as I work towards my dreams publicly and in real-time.