Redefining Success

For some reason, the topic of “success” has come up in conversation a lot lately. It started with a party a few weeks back. My ever-controversial friend, Royce, thought it’d be a good idea to rank our group of friends from the most to least successful. Probably not the most sensitive thing to do. But it did get me thinking about our conventional definitions of success.

The typical formula for success in North America looks something like this:

How much money you make
+ how many “achievement hoops” you’ve jumped through
= how successful you are

By achievement hoops I mean those socially acceptable milestones that we are traditionally raised to pursue. These include things like:

  • Highschool diploma
  • College/University degree
  • Car(s)
  • House
  • Bigger house
  • Fancy stuff in your bigger house
  • Nice clothes
  • Girlfriend/boyfriend
  • Marriage
  • Children
  • High-paying job
  • Retirement
  • Grandchildren

By this measure, I rank pretty, pretty low on the ol’ success scale. I don’t own a house. Much of my clothes are unfit for a hobo. I’m single. No kids. I work in the non-profit sector. I don’t even have a full head of hair. Or even a half-full head of hair for that matter.

So perhaps that’s why I’d like to offer an alternative approach to measuring success.

The traditional formula is narrow. It fails to make room for those people who deviate from the “socially acceptable” path. It discourages and negatively judges alternative lifestyles (like simple living). It pressures people to jump through achievement hoops they don’t really want to jump through or aren’t ready to jump through (how many people do you know who got married because they thought they should and not because they were ready?).

It also fails to account for things like life experiences, wisdom, character, the quality of our relationships, how closely we’re following our dreams, compassion, etc.

As Henry David Thoreau said, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

I prefer to define success as the degree to which you are satisfied with the core priorities in your life. I’m sure it’s not a perfect definition but it’s working for me.

And being a visual learner, here’s how I map it out:

How it works:

  • Identify the priority areas in your life—the things that matter to you—and divide the circle into that many segments (there are many other areas in my life that I haven’t included in this example).
  • Mark how satisfied you are with each segment of your life. The closer to the center of the circle, the more satisfied. (Red circle = unsatisfied; yellow = somewhat satisfied; blue = satisfied; green = very satisfied).
  • With this visual, you’ll be able to see what your outliers are and identify areas of dissatisfaction. Take note of these and put together some action plans to help you address them.

I prefer this model because it’s subjective and customized for the individual. It relies on internal, qualitative assessments rather than external, quantitative measurements.

We all want to live “successful” lives. I just think the “income + hoops” definition is a wee bit too narrow.

Anyway, that’s my two cents on success. What’s your definition?


Funny stories. Good advice. Josh Martin is the author of the book “Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments.” Click here to learn more and to purchase a copy.

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9 Responses to Redefining Success

  1. Damien says:

    Something for your “I never…” quest.

  2. Mandy says:

    Fantastic post Josh. I’d like to say, on official blog record, that all of our friends are frickin’ successful. We’re a pretty smart bunch of goons, each in our own special way 😉

    I really like the visual for the areas success measurement. Would be a useful tool to help set personal goals. I also like it because it looks like a crokinole board, which I now deem as the crystal ball of success measurement AND a fun & somewhat painful game.

  3. Amy says:

    I like to replace ‘success’ with ‘significance’. When I die, I hope people are able to discuss the significance I made in their lives, and in the lives of others, and to society instead of my ‘success’, or even my personal ‘satisfaction’. In an individualist and “more-ish” society, we are never satisfied. If we live our lives striving to achieve our own personal satisfaction, it’s a slippery slope because we can fall into the trap of equating that satisfaction with what the world defines as ‘success’ in those areas, and then we fail to look to our neighbours to and focus on satisfying their legitimate needs. Do we want our gravestones to read “S/he felt good” or “S/he made other people feel good”? Great blog, thanks for brining up the question!

  4. Bryna says:

    Amy’s answer is so good! I wholeheartedly agree. I think for me, success is also defined by being able to provide a “better” life for my son than the one that my parents were able to provide for me. They’re amazing people, but had very little money. To be able to provide financially for my son – to take him on trips, to pay for his education – that would define success for me. And on top of that, as Amy said, living a significant life above a stereotypically successful one – I’ve already blown that chance by doing everything in life backward. Lol. But I’m happy, and I have a great kid who loves other people – that’s enough for me.

  5. Pingback: True Cost Economics and Decision-making | Josh Martin Ink

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