How to Define Success (and Why Your Success Depends on It)

What is success?

Sounds like a simple enough question. However, most people even with a well-defined goal don’t know exactly how to define what success is to them. And to make matters worse, until you clearly define what success is to you, anything you do reflects that lack of clarity and focus.

Part of the problem is, while in a way success is different for each person, the universal principles that make up that picture of success are virtually (or literally) the same for all of us. This is because success is based on happiness and fulfillment and what gives us a true sense of happiness and fulfillment is the same for all of us at its core. For this reason, getting hung up on the word success is tricky because if you treat it like the end destination you’ll never get what you really want.

Success needs to be looked at as more of a factor for realizing happiness or a signal which would suggest a greater likelihood or greater amount of happiness and fulfillment. It’s difficult to be happy if we never succeed at anything we attempt to accomplish. This leads to a lack of confidence and the feeling that we’re worthless — obviously big hurdles that can keep you from cultivating happiness and fulfillment. However, it’s not everything.

If you can separate success and see it clearly for what it is, it becomes easier to define. And when it becomes easy to define, it naturally becomes easier to achieve. This is why your success depends on how you define it.

So then, what are the universal principles – the common threads – behind success, and how can we then define what success is to us based on these principles?

How to Define Success (and Why Your Success Depends On It)

How to Define Success (and Why Your Success Depends on It)

Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.

– Anne Sweeney

Before we can figure out what success looks like for us individually, we need to hone in on the foundational principles that define what success is at its core.

Merriam-Webster defines success as:

“Favorable or desired outcome.”

Looking at it this way, we can already begin to gain some clarity. Let’s modify the above definition a bit to better fit the discussion:

“The achievement of a favorable or desired outcome or outcomes.”

Now we at least understand clearly that success, for all of us, is about the outcome of our life. At the end of the day, what do you want the outcome of your life to be? This goes hand-in-hand with the often-quoted Steve Jobs saying, “we’re here to put a dent in the universe.”

This is highly useful because once we know this we can step back and ask, “what do I then need to do to achieve that outcome?” Or, in other words, what work is required of you to accomplish that outcome. In this way we’re being far more efficient with the time we spend each day because we’re crystal clear about what needs to be done to accomplish said outcome (our definition of success).

Exercise: Defining what success is to you

Using what we’ve spoken above thus far, defining what success is to you comes down to asking the right questions and a little bit of visualization. Let’s start with the questions:

1. Brainstorm your desired outcome or contribution with questions


First, start by asking the question or questions, “what kind of dent do I want to put in the universe?” Or, in other words, what unique contribution do you want to make to the world?

2. Reverse the question

Second, reverse the question and instead ask yourself, “what could I not stand to die without doing or accomplishing?”

The reason this is useful is often times flipping a question on its head can elicit a different response than you originally gave that offers additional insights. If you had a hard time answering the last question, this may help uncover a clearer answer.

3. Imagine your ideal life

Once you’ve brainstormed what your desired outcome would be, it can be helpful to fill in the rest of your “vision” by imagining what your ideal life would look like. If your answers have thus far been short or vague, it’s here that you can find greater focus and specificity.

Imagine what your life would look like taking this desired outcome into account. Where would you live? What would you do on a daily basis? How would you feel? This exercise can also be very useful because it can help you chart a course to accomplishing that outcome by way of working backward once you’ve created this vision.

Lastly, another important question to ask yourself is whether success to you is the complete accomplishment of the desired outcome, or if you’d still consider ample progress towards the accomplishment a success.

This all depends on your goal. If you’re shooting for something grand, like helping cure a disease or some other scientific discovery than simply striving to accomplish said goal throughout your life and making meaningful progress that others can then use to reach the goal in their lifetime might qualify to you as a success.

It’s important to remember that it’s the striving towards our goals and the progress we make that in large part instills us with happiness and fulfillment. On top of this, we really don’t know what tomorrow will bring, so allowing for a broader definition of your desired outcome may be the most effective way to define success.

By doing so, you’re not settling or changing your goals. You’re still doing what you love and striving to accomplish your definition of success, but success for you becomes more attuned to the way that life is constantly changing and shifting (it’s more realistic, but not in a bad way). So long as you lived striving fully with all your being towards what was important to you, you lived a successful life.

Perhaps, in this way, success is more about what you do each day throughout the course of your life towards a desired outcome than it is what you accomplished at the end of it.


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