How Do You Define Success?

What is success and how do you define it? Who gets to define it? Is there a single definition to what it means to be successful? Those are some of the questions I’d like to talk about today.


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A couple of podcasts I listened to recently both brought up the topic of success. It wasn’t a major topic on the first, The East Wing, but it came up for a few minutes. It was the focus of the second podcast, The Weekly Briefly. Listening to both naturally had me thinking about success and I wanted to share some thoughts.

Success is More than Financial

I think too often success is seen only in terms of money as if success in general only equals financial success. I don’t think that’s true. Success can be about the money, but it doesn’t have to be.

There’s really no single way to determine success for all. You can’t objectively confine success to one thing. Success has to be seen in context. It gets defined by the person who’s later measuring it. We each get to set our own goals and only we get to decide if we’ve been successful.

Success can be short term of long term. You can fail in the short term to accomplish something, but that failure helps you learn and contributes to some longer term successful outcome.

Success can be delayed. You can fail now and repeatedly in order to get better and succeed later. For example years ago I was studying the craft of writing fiction. I took writing courses and read every book I could find about the craft of writing. In the process I lost the passion for both writing and reading.

Instead of being able to enjoy a novel, I would notice the craft. I’d realize a character was introduced for a specific plot point or I’d find sections of the book that could have been removed without loss to the story. Instead of losing myself in a good book, I was focused solely on how the book was made.

For a time I didn’t read much. I stayed away from it and even had trouble watching a movie. In time though I was able to come back with a renewed sense of passion, a better understanding of what makes for a good story, and even a bit more skill as a writer.

My study seemed like a failure at first. It was failure in the short term, but in the long term it’s paid off many times over.

Success as a Freelance Designer

What makes for a successful freelance business? There were a variety of reasons for why I chose to become a freelance web designer/developer. I have varied goals for my business and my role in my business.

Money is certainly one consideration. I do need to eat and I need a place to live. I enjoy having some of the niceties of life as well. Some measure of the success of my business will be about money, but for me other things are more important and will contribute more as to whether or not this is a successful business.

  • Lifestyle — I want to be able to work when and where I choose
  • Freedom — I want to choose what I work on and who I work with
  • Challenge — I enjoy the challenge in running a business
  • Responsibility — I want success to be on my shoulders and get credit for success as well as take the blame for failure
  • Creative — I enjoy the creative component to my business and can measure success through my creative output

Others might disagree and judge this business differently, but in the end only I get to decide of my business is success, because only I set the criteria for its success. In your business you set the criteria and you get to judge.

Success can be seen on a smaller scale. Does a specific project fulfill you creatively? Financially? Did you enjoy working on it? Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes it’s no. It’s possible you take on a project mostly for financial reasons, but it doesn’t fulfill you creatively or you don’t work well with the client or feel the freedom that’s important to you.

Success can also be seen on a larger scale. You can ask the same questions above, but over a longer time frame and over many projects. A single project over the year may not have been successful when viewed in isolation, but the mass of projects for the year could have been.

It’s possible that projects that weren’t successful for one reason were for another. I’ve had projects that weren’t financial successes, but were creative successes. I’ve had projects where I didn’t really enjoy working on them from start to finish, but in the end think they turned out well as did the client and we were both happy with the ultimate price.

Again there are many ways to define and measure success and no one is more right or wrong than any other.

Success in Life

Thinking even larger and beyond a business, what makes for a successful life? That starts to get into the meaning of life and I think this is also something we each have to define for ourselves.

Maybe a successful life is simply earning enough to afford the necessities and a few luxuries for you and your family and leaving your children in a better place than where you started.

Maybe a successful life is building a fortune 500 company, making you rich, providing for thousands of employees and helping make their lives and their children’s lives better.

Maybe success is changing the world long beyond your lifetime and influencing and enriching generations of people you’ll never know.

None of the above is really a better or worse to measure success than the others. They’re just different. The world needs all kinds of people with all kinds of goals and measures of success.

For some the end justifies the means. For others the means justify the end. These are just two different ways of measuring success.

The first group will measure success on the result. It’s not so important how they got there as long as they accomplish exactly what they set out to accomplish.

The latter group might have a goal they want to accomplish, but how they work towards that goal is more important to them than whether or not they complete it. They wouldn’t see the result as successful if they had to cheat their way there or going against things they ethically believe in pursuit of the goal.

I’m more a reward is in the journey sort of person. I have goals that I want to accomplish, but how I arrive a them is important. Ideally I’d like to have successful results and be able to say I got to them the right way, but the latter is the more important part to me and is in many respects my end goal.

The world needs both kinds of people. Sometimes I’m glad others reached goals even if I might not approve of how they got there.

If you’ve read biographies of many artists, musicians, writers and creative people in general, you’ll know they weren’t always the nicest people to those around them. Everything around them was consumed in their fire as long as they were able to create the things they wanted to create.

Take Steve Jobs for example. He helped lead a technology revolution. He dented the universe in his own words. Plenty has been written though about him not treating others all that well along the way. Still, I’m writing this on a Macbook Air and I recorded this podcast in Garageband. I’m using a number of tools that wouldn’t exist without Steve Jobs. I’m certainly a beneficiary of his end justifying the means success.

The world needs both kinds of people. Someone focused on the end might create the next wave of technology. Someone focused on the means might push for the social good. Both the end and the means are important. They’re just different ways of defining and quantifying success.

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