We often speak about concepts as if we understand the words we are using, and that there is a general agreement about what words mean. It’s essential to understand the meaning of the words you use, especially when the concepts they represent are important. “Success” is one of the words with a definition we believe we know, with a meaning that offers greater clarity. It’s important to define success.
The New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition) defines success as follows:
- Success: The accomplishment of an aim or purpose. the president has some success in restoring confidence. The attainment of popularity or profit. the success of his play. A person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains prosperity. I must make a success of my business. The outcome of an undertaking, specified as achieving or failing to achieve its aim. the good or ill success of their maritime enterprise.
Aim or Purpose
The first part of the definition of success requires an aim or a purpose. To have an aim or a purpose suggests intentionality. What is missing in most people’s definition of success is that it requires that you have a target, a purpose, a goal. It excludes the idea that one can have success through luck alone.
You cannot succeed without making an effort to achieve your aim or purpose. You must take action towards what it is you want if you want to call it success.
Popularity or Profit
The example in the second definition is the idea that a person’s play was successful. A play that is both popular and profitable is a success.
As it pertains to human beings, one may be popular and still be unsuccessful. Jimi Hendrix was a success as a musician but died of an overdose, as did his contemporaries, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. All three were popular and generated profit from their craft.
A success that results in you harming yourself or others is not real success. It is possible to experience success in one dimension, only to destroy that success by failing in other areas.
Here we come to the third meaning of success and the way we commonly use the word. Prosperous means that you “succeed in material terms; to be financially successful.”
For a time, Bernie Madoff was famous, as was Harvey Weinstein. Both were prosperous beyond most people’s imagination. They each had money and power. At one time, you might have pointed to each as an example of prosperity.
There is nothing wrong with prosperity as a measurement of success. But by itself, it is not enough to tell you whether an individual is genuinely successful. Successful people measure themselves on more than one dimension.
One may be successful at gaining popularity and generating wealth without being successful. Success has a moral component that, when missing, suggests a lack of success, even for those who are prosperous.
The Outcome of an Undertaking
You might want to win a new client’s business, something that would indicate the successful execution of a pursuit plan. This fourth definition, like the others, requires that you start with some intention and that you take action to bring your vision to life.
You cannot be a success through circumstances alone. You have to do something, you have to try, and you must deploy your attention and effort towards what it is you want to accomplish. In sales, taking an order is not the same thing as winning a new client through your effort.
A person who was born to wealthy parents may grow up to be successful, but their existing wealth is not a success. A person who made their wealth can claim it is their success.
What Is Not Success
The worst thing you can believe about success is that popularity alone is an appropriate measure. What you are known for matters a great deal.
In an age when many are famous for nothing more than the image they portray on social media, it’s easy to believe being known as success. That success, however, is fleeting, and it is not true success. It’s shallow, insipid, and vapid.
Measuring success as material wealth alone is also a poor idea, as is defining success in any single area of life. By limiting the definition to one area, the lack of the same focus in other areas sabotages your success in the one area where you are succeeding. You can be popular and rich, and in poor health.
Real success doesn’t require that you trade success on one measurement for success on another. Zig used to say you wouldn’t trade your eyes for one million dollars as a way to prove you are already wealthy. He believed that money alone isn’t the only measure you should consider as wealth. Then he’d ask you if you would give up your legs for a similar amount of money.
The Reason Success is Individual
Your aim and purpose are your own. My goals and my purpose might be wildly different from yours. You might want something for yourself that defines your success, and what you want may not something that interests me. Most people, however, fall prey to The Drift, never deciding what their real aim and purpose are.
Because your aim and purpose are at the heart of success, becoming the person who can reach your goal and live your purpose is necessary for success. The definition of success eliminates aimlessness as a possibility.
Prosperity is also a personal perception. Some people believe that success requires material wealth. Some minimalists define success as not measuring material wealth as an achievement at all. Others find their aim and purpose is to help others, measuring prosperity by the difference they make in the world.
However you find your definition of success, and whatever your aim or purpose, you would do well to discover these things, build your goals around them, and begin to execute your plans to bring them to life. This is the starting point for a successful life.