People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
— Thomas Merton
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are two basic definitions of success:
- Accomplishing an aim or purpose.
- Having achieved popularity, profit, or distinction.
Life can become very disorienting if you are not clear about which definition you are using.
You may accomplish many of your aims and purposes in life but not achieve great popularity, profit, or distinction. You may achieve great fame, profit, and distinction but not accomplish many of your aims or purposes. Either one of these may be intentional or by accident.
Upon seeing someone’s expensive car or large ornate home, people might raise their brow and quip, “Well, apparently they’ve been quite successful!” But no one makes the same raised eyebrow quips at the happy family enjoying a pleasant picnic at the park.
But why exactly? Why is it that someone might remark with admiration about the success of a person who has gained extraordinary wealth, but not the success of the individual who as built an extraordinary family?
I don’t want to make a false distinction here. It is quite possible to enjoy popularity, profit, and distinction while accomplishing subjective aims and purposes. Perhaps that would be the idyllic combination — or maybe not. Not everyone wants fame and notoriety.
The reality is that success is subjective and this is often overlooked. You have to define what success looks like for you or it will be difficult to know when you’ve arrived wherever it is you think want to go.
You May Already Have What You Want
Instead of jumping right into the workforce out of college, I spent a couple of years abroad doing non-profit work. That means I’m technically a couple of years behind in my career when compared to my similar-aged peers.
Of course, career growth isn’t always linear, but being in the workforce for those years could have increased my earning potential and access to more senior-level positions. As a result, I’m sometimes prone to feeling like I haven’t been successful. But that is because I focus too much on the “having achieved popularity, profit, or distinction” definition of success.
When I focus on the “accomplishing an aim or purpose” definition of success, my outlook totally changes. My dream to live abroad was birthed in high school. I wanted to experience a new culture, learn a new language, and broaden my worldview. And I worked hard to make that happen.
My wife and I got married after college and ended up moving to central Vietnam. It was one of the best experiences of our lives. We went on so many adventures together, met wonderful friends, and became more complex and interesting individuals as a result.
And while I may not be as financially successful as I’d like, or as the people I compare myself to, I have three healthy children, a humble home, and a job that allows me to eat breakfast and dinner with my family and to be home on the weekends. I’m not suggesting that these things would change if I were to become more financially successful (although they often do), I’m only reminding myself that so much of what I have is what I always wanted.
I should be calling this success.
My aim has been to be the type of father that has a lot of time and availability for my children. I value large blocks of unstructured time. I want to live a slow-paced life where I have time to think, read, take pictures, and observe things.
I often feel unsuccessful because I allow that secondary definition of success to take primacy in my mind, but when I define success by whether or not I’m achieving my subjective aims and purposes, a wave of contentment flows over me.
If Life Were A Map, Where Is Your X?
As I see it, one definition of success is objective.
- Are you popular?
- Are you wealthy?
- Are you notorious?
The other definition of success is subjective.
- What do you want? What do you value?
- Are you making progress in those areas?
- Do your days reflect your aims and purposes?
Again, it isn’t always an either/or question. Many people have become famous and wealthy through the pursuit of their subjective aims and purposes. My observation, however, is that there are many accomplished individuals who cannot see their successes because they do not show up as fame or fortune. And there are many people who have achieved fame and fortune but have neglected many of their subjective aims and pursuits. Who is more successful hinges on which definition you choose.
This has been an important area of reflection for me recently. I want to get clear on what success means for me because I don’t want to miss it when it shows up. I also don’t want to spend time and energy chasing after things that don’t fulfill my criteria for success.
Where is the X that marks the spot on the map of my life? Where do I want to go? What am I navigating toward?
And I don’t just mean lifetime success. I’m also thinking about all the micro-successes that make up my days, months, and years. What does it mean for me to have a successful day? What actions and activities will make me feel successful this afternoon? What can I do today that will allow me to lay in bed at night feeling pleased with the successes of my day?
If I’m not clear on the answers to these questions, then how will I know if I’m making progress or spending time on the right things? Do I just hope that the random things vying for my attention will result in me feeling a sense of peace by the end of the day? How can I make progress if I don’t know what I’m building? How can I expect to arrive somewhere if I don’t know where I’m going?
I offer this reflection back to you. What definition do you use when you think and talk about success? What does it mean for you to be successful?
These are questions that only you can answer and judge for yourself.