What’s Your Definition of Success? (and how to achieve it)


We all want to be successful in life.

But, what exactly does that mean?

Success was defined for me from a young age. You may have been given a similar definition:

Get an expensive education + get a good job that pays well + work hard & move up the ladder + make lots of money = Success.

While this is a perfectly acceptable formula for success, it just isn’t for everyone. It certainly wasn’t for me.

Living for the weekends while working an unfulfilling, soul-sucking 9-5 job day after day just to make someone else richer and hopefully enjoy what’s left of your life once you retire is not my idea of success.

What about you – has success been defined for you and not by you?

If so, just remember that you don’t have to be stuck trying to live up to someone else’s vision of success.

You can cultivate the mindset, develop the habits and build the confidence necessary to pursue your own. 

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Your Definition of Success is Unique

Three things come to mind for me when thinking about the conventional definition of success – money, power and position.

Do any of those things mean success for you?

What about other things like:

Define Success for Yourself

  • living a low-stress lifestyle
  • having close, supportive relationships
  • being able to spend time with your kids
  • having creative outlets/cultivating your creativity
  • getting more done in less time (being productive & efficient)
  • helping others
  • achieving your big goals in life
  • being respected/viewed as an authority in your niche
  • being happy and healthy
  • having time to go on vacation
  • being able to look back on your life with pride
  • reaching your goals without getting stressed out
  • doing what you love every day
  • being a good spouse/parent
  • personal development & fulfilling your purpose
  • If you're not sure about your definition of success, maybe these non-traditional definitions will inspire you ... 

    Here’s How Some Successful People Define Success: 

    “True success should be measured by how happy you are."- Richard Branson

    "To live the lives we truly want and deserve, and not just the lives we settle for, we need a Third Metric, a third measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving." - Ariana Huffington

    "I measure success by how many people love me." - Warren Buffet

    "Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it."- Maya Angelou

    "Success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realization of worthy goals”- Deepak Chopra

    "For Barack, success isn't about how much money you make. It's about the difference you make in people's lives."- Michelle Obama

     Ask Yourself These "What" Questions

    If you’re not sure what your vision of success is, ask yourself:

    What:

  • ... would you do if you didn't have to work?
  • ... would you do if you weren't afraid (or if you could turn your fear into fuel for success)?
  • ... does your ideal life look like? 
  • ... is most important to you?
  • ... are your unique strengths?
  • ... makes you happy?
  • ... do you want to be remembered for?
  • The answers to these questions will help guide you toward your definition of success.

    And once you define it, you will be better able to achieve it because you’ll know what exactly you are working for.

    What's your definition of success?

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    Your Definition May Evolve

    Also, remember that your definition of success may evolve over time, alongside your shifting values and goals.

    Several years ago, success for me was graduating law school and passing the bar exam. Now, success for me means being a work-from-anywhere freelance writer and blogger and hopefully inspiring others to turn their day jobs into their dream jobs!

    But if you’re constantly chasing the next big thing because you’re never happy or satisfied for long, even after you’ve achieved your current definition of success …

    Beware the Hedonic Treadmill

    The “hedonic treadmill” (or hedonic adaptation) is a term used to describe relative happiness. Psychologists Brickman and Campbell first discussed the concept in their 1971 article, “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society”.

    The idea is that people tend to return to their baseline level (genetic set point) of happiness despite external events. We become desensitized to both good and bad things that happen to us.

    Think about the last time you got a raise or promotion or anything else you wanted and were super excited about.

    Chances are, you were really happy initially but over time, that happiness waned. That’s hedonic adaptation.

    Changes in our external circumstances don’t stay fresh and exciting forever; they become status quo. The thrill wears off and you set your sights on something new – happiness is relative.

    Happiness Pie Chart

    Happiness (like success) Requires Consistent Effort

    In 1978, the concept of hedonic adaptation was further investigated in a study called, "Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?". The researchers found that both lottery winners and paraplegics typically returned to their baseline happiness levels after the initial impact of their extreme events.

    So, one great event will not make you permanently happy forever and one traumatic event will not make you permanently depressed forever. You will eventually return to your genetic set point.

    But, remember that your genetic set point only accounts for 50% of your happiness. Only 10% is determined by life circumstances, such as how much money you have, your health, what you look like, whether you are married, etc. The other 40% is up to you

    You have the power to decide how you will perceive, react, think and feel about things that happen in your life.

    Happiness (like success) is something you must consistently work on, cultivate and nurture through your intentional actions.

    In “The How of Happiness”, Sonja Lyubomirsky gives us several scientifically proven strategies for increasing our happiness and success:

    Strategies for Increasing Happiness & Success

  • Express gratitude
  • Be optimistic
  • Don’t ruminate
  • Don’t compare yourself to others
  • Be kind to others
  • Cultivate relationships
  • Let go of grudges and learn to forgive
  • Be mindful and enjoy the little things
  • Embrace religion or spirituality
  • Practice loving kindness meditation
  • Eat healthy and exercise
  • Laugh often
  • Set and pursue goals
  • Experience “flow”
  • How to Experience Flow

    The term “flow” was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, author of "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience".

    He noticed that artists often get so engrossed in their work that they lose track of time, they don’t eat or sleep. They are completely consumed in the task at hand.

    This phenomenon is not limited to artists; it can happen to anyone. You can experience flow while playing an instrument or playing a sport – any activity in which you are completely immersed and focused on what you are doing in the moment.

    I think the best way to describe flow is “being in the zone”.

    Flow: Get in the Zone

    There are three general steps to experiencing flow - you must:

    1. Engage in an activity for which you have the skills to do but that is challenging for you: Not too challenging, mind you. For example, a runner might experience flow when running a marathon but someone who is out of shape would not. Your skills and the activity must be a good match.
    2. Be completely focused on the task, without interruptions: If you are multi-tasking, you are blocking flow. For example, if you are engaged in an activity but you are stopping to check your phone or simultaneously watching TV, you will not experience flow.
    3. Have an end goal BUT be focused on the task itself and not that end goal: Although there must be an end goal to what you are doing (i.e. create the sculpture, win the game, play the music), the reason why you are doing it should not be solely for that purpose. Your main focus must be on simply engaging in the task and living in the moment.

    You are more likely to experience flow if you have an “autotelic” personality. Autotelic comes from the Greek words, autos meaning “self” and telos meaning “end” or “goal”.

    Autotelic people tend to do things for their own sake and find the activities themselves rewarding. In other words, they do things for intrinsic reasons rather than to satisfy extrinsic goals.

    So, one way to experience flow – thereby increasing your happiness and success through your own intentional actions – is to pursue intrinsic goals.

    What's Your Definition of Success Pin

    Intrinsic Goals vs. Extrinsic Goals

    Intrinsic goals are motivated by inherently satisfying things like personal growth, relationships and helping others.

    Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are focused on things like money, image and status or popularity (their value lies in something other than yourself).

    People who are more oriented toward extrinsic goals report being less satisfied with their lives, less energetic and more depressed.

    According to a study published in Social Indicators Research,

    “… [a] focus on intrinsic goals is associated with greater well-being, while a focus on extrinsic goals is associated with poorer adjustment and mental health …”

    “ [t]he pursuit of happiness is best engaged through pursuing intrinsic goals that concern self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling rather than extrinsic goals focused on financial success, appearance, and popularity.”

    Karoshi

    Japan is a good example of the consequences of extrinsic goals. It is a country that places a huge emphasis on economic growth. 

    Japanese people literally work themselves to death. (So many people have died from overwork that they’ve come up with a name for it: “karoshi”). It’s no coincidence that it Japan is the least happy of all the wealthy, industrialized nations.

    Gross National Happiness

    Contrastingly, one of the happiest countries in the world, Bhutan, developed the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH), based on the principle that the value of a society should not be measured solely by material indicators. GNH is defined by nine domains:

  • psychological well-being
  • health
  • education
  • time use
  • cultural diversity and resilience
  • good governance
  • community vitality
  • ecological diversity
  • resilience and living standards
  • Know the "Why" Behind Your Definition of Success

    So, think about why you want what you want.

    Is your definition of success simply making money (extrinsic)? Or is it actually the things you could accomplish with that money like traveling, spending more time with your family or donating to charitable causes (intrinsic)?

    Once you know the why behind your goals, focus on what you are doing to achieve them

    Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals

    We tend to set vague, general goals like, “be rich”, “get more social media followers” or “lose weight”.

    But, we are more likely to achieve specific goals like, “make $10,000 a month”, “get 500 followers on Pinterest in one month” or “lose 20 pounds in three months”.

    Also, we usually can't achieve big goals in just one step; they require repeated efforts over time.

    To boost your chances of success, break your big goal down into mini goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound (S.M.A.R.T.)                                                           

    For example, let’s say that your definition of success is being able to work from home and spend time with your family and your big goal is to make passive income from your blog.

    Think about all the little steps you will have to take to accomplish that big goal. For example, you will first need to start your blog (duh).

    So, one of your mini S.M.A.R.T. goals could be to come up with a name for your blog and register your domain today.

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    As you accomplish each mini goal, you are building confidence, keeping yourself motivated to reach your big goal and increasing your chances of succeeding all at the same time!

    Keep Things in Perspective

    Keep in mind that you will not succeed in every pursuit. That’s not what matters. What matters is that you learn from each experience and keep moving forward, thereby increasing your chances of eventually succeeding – be persistent.

    If you are not attempting something because you are scared of failing, you need to …

    Redefine Failure

    Society really screwed us on this one.

    We were taught that failing is bad, that failure is something to be ashamed of and something to fear.

    We don’t get rewarded for trying, only for winning. And we’re expected to get it right the first time.

    The problem is, no one goes through life winning everything, doing everything right the first time.

    So, after failing a few times, we become too scared to try new things because – gasp! –what if we fail?

    We let that fear hold us back from chasing our dreams, from being our authentic selves, from living.

    But, the truth is, we’ve been looking at failure the wrong way. It's not bad. It’s not final. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    Failure is Just a Part of Success

    Failure is an inevitable part success. 

    Failure is an inevitable part of success. 

    Click to Tweet

    When you fail, it means two important things: 1.) you tried and 2.) you learned.

    Looking at failure as a learning opportunity (and not as a negative reflection of you or your abilities) increases your chances of succeeding. Remember that the thing most successful people have in common is not intelligence or luck or talent. It’s persistence.

    When you perceive failure as part of success, you are more likely to persist and consequently, you are more likely to succeed.

    Pursue and Achieve Your Own Definition of Success

    Not everyone has the same definition of success. Identify what success means to you and pursue that vision.

    I used to be an attorney and now I am a freelance writer and blogger because I chose to pursue my own definition of success. It was one of the best decisions I ever made!

    Over to you – what’s your definition of success? Let me know in the comments!


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    About the Author

    Kalliope Archondis, JD, LLM. 👋Hi! I'm Kalli, lawyer turned freelance writer and founder of 3dsuccess.org, a personal development blog dedicated to helping you reach your goals and achieve your definition of success - without all the stress & anxiety. You can read more about me & 3D Success here.