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7 Keys to True Success

Adopting an alternative narrative of success can lead to greater happiness.

Key points

  • Society heavily defines achievement, acquisitions, and upward mobility as success.
  • Research has shown outer-directed measures of success to be less correlated with contentment and satisfaction in life than inner-directed ones.
  • Adopting an alternative narrative of success may be more likely to lead to happiness.
thala bhula/Shutterstock
Source: thala bhula/Shutterstock

By all the usual measures, I have a friend who might be considered an unsuccessful person. In her early 30s, she’s had no career and has never been in a serious relationship. Her professional and personal lives have never taken off, something of which she is keenly aware but doesn’t seem too bothered by.

By a different set of measures, however, I would say this woman is very successful. She’s intelligent and funny and is known in the neighborhood as a kind and generous person. She spends a lot of time caring for her mother, with whom she lives, and walks dogs and babysits to make some money. While she can’t afford luxuries, she’s well-liked, happy, and spends her time as she wishes.

My friend’s case nicely illustrates the complexities attached to the subject of success in America. Our classic narrative of success is heavily defined by achievement, acquisitions, and upward mobility. Those who don’t subscribe to those measures, whether by choice or otherwise, are often (and mistakenly) cast as losers. Those who’ve amassed the primary symbols of success—a well-paying job, a nice home, and traditional family life—are generally seen as the winners.

However, anecdotal and hard evidence shows that the so-called winners are no happier than the so-called losers. In fact, according to several research studies, outer-directed measures of success are less correlated with contentment and satisfaction in life than inner-directed ones. Still, recognized experts continue to prescribe the recipes of and for externally defined success, reinforcing the classic narrative.

I propose an alternative narrative of success that is more likely to lead to happiness than the one we have been taught to embrace. There are seven keys to real success, I believe, which are as follows:

  1. Rejecting the standard model predicated on money, power, and fame. In America, we equate money, power, and fame with success, making it no surprise that many are in hot pursuit of one or more of them. Besides the fact that most of us fail in this pursuit, realizing any of them rarely delivers the kind of happiness we expected them to.
  2. Avoiding comparisons to others. Stacking your achievements, no matter how significant, against those of others is an unwinnable proposition. There is always someone else who has accomplished bigger and/or better things, making it unwise to view success in relative terms.
  3. Taking a holistic view of yourself. Rather than focus on your career or personal life, it’s more productive to see yourself as a complete individual. Each of us is unique in our own way, leading to the unarguable truth that no one is more successful of being you than you.
  4. Celebrating your victories, no matter how big or small. Many of us are hesitant to declare victory when we achieve something worthy, always waiting for a bigger victory to happen. Instead of entering this purgatorial state of success, relish every victory that comes your way.
  5. Accepting failures. Failing to reach the desired goal is entirely normal, as it is the chase rather than the capture that offers more fulfillment. Take comfort in the fact that the average major league baseball getting paid millions of dollars a year gets a hit one in four times and will get into the Hall of Fame if he can do it one in three chances.
  6. Prioritizing relationships with other people. Our model of success is overwhelmingly me-centric, i.e., grounded in individualism and serving one’s self-interests. More than anything else, however, humans are social organisms, suggesting that success should be defined in how we relate to and ideally improve the lives of others.
  7. Leaving something behind. I’m a big believer in legacy, meaning what remains of us after our bodies are no more. In the big scheme of things, we’re here for a relatively short period of time, making it important that our lives continue to resonate for as long as possible.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: thala bhula/Shutterstock


Samuel, Lawrence R. (2020). The Failure of Success: Americans' Ambiguous History of Ambition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.