The Best Definition of Success Is the One You Never Use
March 14, 2013
By: Jeff Haden
Forget kaleidoscopes, forget people are like snowflakes, forget we’re all individuals (bonus points if you got the last reference without following the link.)
There is only one real way to define success.
Granted success in business and in life means different things to different people, and should mean different things to different people. Whether or not you feel successful depends on how you define success — and on the tradeoffs you are willing to not just accept but embrace as you pursue your individual definition of success.
Still. Determining whether you are successful is based on answering one question: How happy am I?
Your level of success is based solely on your answer to that question.
How Happy Are You?
Extremely successful people — at least in terms of how “success” is typically measured — tend to work impossibly long hours as they focus almost exclusively on building their careers or businesses. In many cases (some would argue most cases) their personal and family lives are to some degree a casualty of that focus.
Is that a fair tradeoff?
Fair or unfair is beside the point, because tradeoffs are unavoidable.
If you’re making serious money but are unhappy on a personal level, you haven’t embraced the fact that incredible business success often takes a heavy toll on relationships. Other things are clearly important to you besides just making money.
If on the other hand you leave every day at 4 you can pursue a rich and varied personal life yet you’re unhappy on a material level, you haven’t embraced the fact — and it is a fact — that the profession you’ve chosen and the way you’ve chosen to pursue it will not make you wealthy. Personal satisfaction is nice, but for you it’s not enough.
That’s because your profession, your family and friends, your personal pursuits… no aspect of your life can (or should) ever be separated from the others. Each is a permanent part of a whole. Putting more focus on one area automatically reduces the focus on another area
Want to make more money? You can, but something else has to give.
Want more time with family? Want to help others? Want to pursue a hobby? You can, but something else has to give.
Think about what motivates you. What do you want to achieve for yourself and your family? What do you value most, spiritually, emotionally, and materially? Those are the things that will make you happy, and if you aren’t doing them you won’t be happy.
Sounds simplistic… but think of all the people you know who complain about the results of a path they purposely chose to follow. For example, a friend of mine constantly complains about his salary. He feels his pay doesn’t reflect his education and experience and in no way recognizes his true value to society.
While I agree, there’s a problem: He’s a teacher. You know what teachers make. He knows what teachers make. He knew before he went to college what the average teacher makes. Fair or unfair, his income is almost exactly what he knew it would be.
Still, it drives him crazy and he spends a ton of emotional energy on the subject. So occasionally I say, “If feeling underpaid bothers you this much, I think you owe it to yourself to do something different.”
“But I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love teaching!” he always replies.
“Yeah, but not enough,” I always think. If he truly loved teaching he could better accept the inevitable — and it is inevitable — financial trade-off.
So, Are You Happy?
Defining success is important, but taking a clear-eyed look at the impact of your definition matters even more. As in most things your intent is important but the results provide the real answers.
If helping others through social work is your definition of success, you may make a decent living but you won’t get rich… and you must embrace that fact. If you’re happy, you have.
If building a $100 million company is your definition of success, you can have a family but it will be almost impossible to have a rich, engaged family life… and you must embrace that fact. If you’re happy, you have.
So forget traditional definitions of success. Forget what other people think. Ask yourself if you feel happy — not just at work, not just at home, not just in those fleeting moments when you do something just for yourself, but overall.
If you are, you’re successful. The happier you are the more successful you are.
If you aren’t happy it’s time to rethink how you define success, and start making changes to your professional and personal life that align with that definition, because what you’re doing now isn’t working for you.
And life is way too short for that.