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How Do You Define Success?

Meeting personal goals must determine the success of one's life.

Key points

  • While ideals are subjective, a chosen and fulfilling lifestyle with which others may disagree can be considered a success.
  • Our particular criteria for success will closely relate to our social, political, educational, and religious values—in a word, our ideology.
  • Most writers employ a business model in talking about success—a model that focuses as much on monetary worth as much as anything else.
Shad0wfall, photographer/Pixabay free image,CCO
Source: Shad0wfall, photographer/Pixabay free image,CCO

Can you call yourself a success if the one thing you feel you’ve accomplished in life is marrying and having children? Or if, despite many failures, at least you avoided ending up on the streets? Or even if you did end up living on the street?

In the homeless instance, it’s unlikely you’d regard yourself as successful, particularly if you were reduced to begging others for loose change to purchase a burger—or beer. Still, it’s crucial to ask yourself who reserves final authority to judge the success of your existence?

And when you ponder this question, you’ll probably grasp that we all have our perspective on what makes a person successful. Further, our criteria will closely relate to our social, political, economic, educational, and religious values—or ideology. And inevitably, such ideals are subjective. Moreover, since people’s assessments of success are tied to their ideals, then it’s the unique experience of the person being evaluated whose “verdict” should be given the most weight.

That said, it must be admitted that the bulk of the popular literature on this subject—I’ve yet to find a single scholarly piece dealing with it—focuses almost exclusively on success criteria as derived from a business model. And this model has mostly to do with the number of one’s earnings or one’s accumulated wealth generally.

Seen more in a family context, success has routinely been estimated along the lines of how good a provider the individual has been for their spouse and children. Still, other writers talk about fame (or admiration) as much as fortune, while comparatively few talk about happiness. And if they do, it’s mostly about how material prosperity eventuates in happiness—a position undoubtedly open to debate.

This post, essentially existential in approach, will make the case that meeting one’s personal goals—whether others approve or not—must determine the (subjective) success of one’s life. At least theoretically, even a person who lives on the street, if consciously their overriding motive was to repudiate the conventions of various societal institutions, would have to be regarded as successful if their chosen lifestyle was somehow fulfilling to them.

Questioning Attempts to Clarify a Topic That Resists Definitive Categorizing

Merriam-Webster’s definition of success is relatively typical of how dictionaries characterize it. It’s indicative of just how subjective the concept is, and I’ll use it as an example of the term’s rich—but unresolvable—complexity.

For many, success means reaching a goal, accomplishing a task, or otherwise accomplishing what they set out to do–Essentially, something is a success when the outcome turns out well, is desirable, or is favorable. Beyond that, the definition of success is personal.

Note Merriam-Webster's hedging through twice employing the word “or.” By stating that “many” people see it in 1 of 3 ways, it extends its definition by talking about its possibly “turning out” in 1 of 3 ways. And then (suggesting it can’t really define it any more specifically) ends its description with the caveat above.

Note, too, that although most writers consider the ethical dimensions of success, Merriam-Webster avoids alluding to this facet, no doubt, because defining what’s meant here by “ethical” is also subjective and personal.

One’s moral system, that is, may not accord with others because they hold themselves to different guidelines and principles. And dictionaries lack the prerogative to make moral pronouncements independent of widespread usage.

Questioning Various Assumptions That Try to “Depersonalize” the Concept

One author, for example, asserts that success is achievable “when you try your best in all aspects of everything you do.” And that’s actually a position several writers take. But logically, why should anyone put maximum effort into doing something not exciting or important to them, or that they don’t care about and in no way are required to?

Perfectionism is hardly a coveted trait—it’s mostly a burden—and, too, it lacks any inherent relationship to people’s experiencing themselves as successful.

Writers generally have advanced their own biases about success, revealing a lot more about their values than making the abstraction tangible. Here’s but one example in a piece entitled “19 Definitions of Success You Should Never Ignore” (2021). I won’t list all the 19 examples offered. Just a few will suffice for what I want to illustrate:

  • Success is always doing your best [the most frequent criterion];
  • Success is having a place to call home;
  • Success is understanding the difference between need and want;
  • Success is believing you can (and this presumably will ensure your success—but I’d add that this position ignores the fact that, realistically, no one can do or be everything they wish);
  • Success is learning that you sometimes have to say no; and
  • Success is knowing your life is filled with abundance (the author’s idealism again, but try convincing someone living in poverty with seriously addicted, abusive parents).

Those who’ve written about success don’t discuss degrees of success. They see it as either present or absent (as they do failure). That orientation also oversimplifies—or overlooks—all involved in how a particular person feels about their achievements or what they believe constitutes those achievements.

Coming Up With Your Definition of Success

It’s vital to emphasize that their genetics and culture heavily influence a person’s notion of success. Consequently, their self-evaluation may not be truly authentic because it may not have resulted from thoughtful self-reflection or soul-searching.

Here’s an excellent example of a writer’s confessing that what she believed defined success was imbibed from messages implicit in our society:

For most of my life, I had a narrow definition of what success meant. It involved people knowing your name, and having enough money—i.e., lots of money—to buy an endless stream of designer handbags and big cars. It wasn’t a definition I had opted-in to, but [was] fed to me from childhood through films, magazines about celebrities, and our education system. And I swallowed it whole.

But to be true to yourself, vs. simply conforming to societal norms, what’s necessary is to discover what—given your inborn predilections, passions, and gifts—you want your life to center on. And then, evaluating how well you’ve accomplished your priorities will verify how successful you’ve been.

To put this somewhat differently, you could view yourself as successful but, in the eyes of the world, be seen as a dismal failure. And this discrepancy could just as quickly go in the opposite direction. Consider, for example, the many instances of distinguished celebrities’ taking their own life.

Yet as one Quora writer encapsulates it: “Living life on your terms and conditions is the most challenging task in the modern world [since] most people spend their entire life living on the terms and conditions of [others]. In his own (admittedly, somewhat exaggerated) words:

In their childhood, they live as their parents decide.
In their schools, they live as their teachers decide.
In their home, they live as their spouse decides.
In their office, they live as their bosses decide.
In their old age, they live as their children decide.

To conclude, despite the “terms and conditions” you may have internalized from your environment. Finally, you alone get to decide how successful you’ve been. And if you feel you haven’t lived up to your specified ideals, you also have the freedom (with or without professional help) to make new lifestyle choices that can transform how you see yourself.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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