What Does Success Mean To You?

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How do you define success? What makes you feel that you are accomplishing what you should be in your life? The truth is, success is highly subjective – and just like the saying goes for beauty, success, too, is in the eye of the beholder.

We all define success in our own specific way, simply because we set different metrics for it. Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams, professors at Harvard Business School, suggest that we lay down our metrics in order to better understand what we personally see as success.

They suggest that we factor in both objective and subjective metrics for success in both our careers and personal lives. This is the example given:

In one study, students of Harvard Business School interviewed 4,000 senior executives worldwide over a period of five years and a survey of 82 executives in a Harvard Business School leadership course. The results show how subjective success really is.

Factors such as making a difference and working with a good team in a good environment were very frequent for business success, whereas the quality of relationships were by far the most frequent in the personal sphere.

The executives included in the study had come to the conclusion that maintaining both a successful, high powered career and a well-running family needs efficient allocation of their time and energy, and rules out grabbing every possible opportunity that comes along without much consideration on how it can fit in.

What this demonstrates is that if you define success with a list of objective rewards, it may not be realistically attainable, nor really satisfying for that matter.

Defining success for yourself

Success is generally defined as having a great job, material possessions, and a good family. This idea of success, however, is a social construction – an image sketched due to the perceptions and expectations others have for us, and much of it relates to what we do for a living, or, our career (and what material benefits we get from it – i.e. compensation).

Philosopher Alain de Botton refers to this as job snobbery – we live in a society where people judge us on the basis of what we do for a living – hence the dreaded question “What do you do?” at dinner parties or any social occasions for that matter.

And because society in general is so obsessed with what we do, that is why we care so much about our careers, and go through so much career-related anxiety, argues de Botton.

He goes on to say that expectations are set so high, by others as well as ourselves, which forces us to have many high hopes of our career – and therefore envy (towards other, more successful individuals), and anxiety set in.

De Botton explains that envy is linked to the spirit of equality that is so embedded and expected in today’s societies (at least in the West). We expect that everyone has equal opportunities, and we believe in a system of meritocracy that should, in theory, allow everyone “worthy” to become “successful”.

But while we believe that “worthy” individuals – the ones that are smart, talented and of course work hard deserve to be at the top of the success ladder, we also believe that the “unworthy ones” (the lazy, less smart, less talented) deserve to be at the bottom.

That is what makes failure so much more crushing, he explains. It is our belief that failure, as well as success, come to those who somehow deserve it. Hence, our fear of failure and of making mistakes.

De Botton takes this example. In the middle ages, people at the bottom of the success ladder, if there is such a thing, would be seen as “unfortunate”.

In today’s world, the same people are seen as “losers” due to our belief in this meritocratic system. This has led to the fear of failure, or fearing the judgement and ridicule that would evoke from others.

De Botton concludes that his theory of success is that you simply cannot be successful in everything. Any vision of success, he argues, has to admit where the element of loss is. And that is why it is all the more important to find out what our own idea of success is, and own that.

Since the people around us shape us so much, we should be able to distance ourselves from their ideas of success, and see what we feel is success for ourselves.

Sustaining success

Richard St John, marketer and success analyst, explains that success is an on-going journey, in the shape of a circle. It is not a one-way street.

We cannot think that once success is attained, it will be present from then on forever. Once you get there, you cannot stop trying.

He explains that there are certain steps that we need to take in order to reach success, and maintain that state of success.

These include passion; if you do something that you love, the money and the success will come from it.

Another is work; you need to work hard to ensure you leave nothing to luck, but at the same time, since you love what you are doing, you should have fun doing it.

Next on John’s list comes focus; being focused on your end goal and where you want to get will ensure you keep moving towards it.

Then is the push. You need to keep pushing yourself, and surround yourself with people that are willing to push you towards your targets as well.

Ideas are a crucial element. And these do not necessarily need to be ground breaking. Sometimes the simplest of observations can lead to the most brilliant of ideas about doing something phenomenally useful.

Improvement is another key element that leads to success. It involves observation, and continuous practice and tweaking.

Another step is serving – giving something of value to others, something that people are willing to pay for.

The last of the eight steps on John’s list is persisting (through failure, criticism, rejections and pressure).

But as remaining successful requires you to operate in a circle, once you take these steps and attain the success you always wanted, you need to go back and start all over again, revisiting these steps and working even harder on each of them.

What is holding you back

I recently revisited a TED talk by Larry Smith, professor of Economics from the University of Waterloo. His talk was about why you will fail to have a great career.

It’s a pessimistic way of approaching the topic, but what he had to say was very powerful. The simple reason you will fail is that you are scared of failure.

He explains that we all tend to make a lot of excuses about not having the dream career we want.

We tend to think that having a great career needs a lot of luck, that only geniuses have the ability to attain this “luxury,” that we are “normal” human beings that would rather fit into an ordinary job than follow a “utopian” dream, and that if we work really hard we’ll end up having a good career anyway, without risking too much.

With all these excuses, we end up putting our dreams on the side and following a “safer” option, ending up maybe, hopefully, in a good job, but not having the great career we always wanted for ourselves.

Smith’s remedy? Look very hard for your passion. And passion does not equate to an interest.

You might need to find 20 different interests before you find your true passion, then, you need to focus on that and follow your dream.

When you settle for something that it is not really your passion but is merely interesting, you are missing out an opportunity for something great.

You need to dare to follow your dream, you need to dare to do something you are passionate about, and put your fear of failure aside, rather than doing that to your dreams instead.

That is when mistakes are actually worth making – because at least you can say that you tried.

So what does success mean to you? What do you perceive as a successful, wholesome, all-encompassing life?

Define it for yourself, be realistic with what you can achieve, but never be scared to fail or make mistakes, if that is the way to move closer to your state of success.

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