How Do You Define Success?

Success. It is a strange word. It isn’t strange like *absquatulate. It doesn’t sound funny, and we all know what the word success means. If we listen to modern, western society success is having material wealth, high-end consumer goods and financial security. Put more bluntly, money = success.

Or does it?

I certainly thought it did, and I managed my career accordingly. But a funny thing happened along the way. As I eventually tripled my yearly business goals, I found I was not nearly three times happier. Three times busier, maybe, but I wasn’t suddenly living on a beach drinking fancy umbrella drinks all day.

Success as a concept is actually very environmentally dependent. Success in work is different from success in our personal lives, which is again different in terms of our health goals. While I was making more money, I had let my health slide and I often felt too busy to just stop and enjoy things. So clearly, for me, success had to mean more than simply the acquisition of wealth.

So I decided to ask myself what success really meant to me. This exercise taught me  few things.

I would argue that when it comes to our careers, spending some time really thinking about what success means to us personally is important for three reasons.

First, without a clear sense of when we reach our goal we’re likely to end up continually climbing the career ladder long after the benefits have outweighed the costs. This was a lesson I actually had to learn twice. I have two parallel careers- teaching and writing. Early on in my teaching career I thought taking on more and more responsibility was what I had to do. Eventually this lead me to starting on the path to administration. But then I realized that I didn’t have to keep climbing if what I really enjoyed was the classroom. Once I made that decision I instantly felt better. Funny how I had to relearn the same thing many years later as my second career followed a similar path.

Second, while wealth and power can be positives, in and of themselves they are not enough to make us happy. Again, more money and more responsibility were not leading to happiness. Did it feel good to be able to pay all my bills and have some money left over for recreational purposes? Sure. But I also continually raised my standard of living, which basically kept me in an infinity loop. Make more money to spend more money, which in turn meant I needed more money. Rinse, repeat.

Third, often our career goals need to dovetail with other personal goals to be fulfilling. Here is the key; at least it is for me. It is all about a balance between the personal and the professional. When we start to have some success it is so easy to just keep pushing, just keep climbing. What we have to continually remind ourselves is that there is more. For me, this means having clear personal goals that surround my family, avocations and health, as well as professional goals that allow me the freedom to pursue them.

In short, we need to define when enough is enough. We need to remember that we are not solely our jobs, that success means thriving. And we cannot thrive if we neglect other aspects of our lives to simply climb the ever-present ladder.

*By the way, absquatulate means to leave abruptly. Cool word, right?