Defining Your Own Version of Success: How and Why to Reject the Default

I spend a fair amount of time thinking and talking about what it means to be a leader and how to lead effectively; however, it’s important to say that not everyone is headed (or should be headed) toward leadership. Sometimes, especially in the corporate world, we forget that there are different trajectories for success, and for some people, their path doesn’t lead to, well, leading. Whether you never intended to lead or you discovered along the way that it wasn’t for you, great! Always define (and re-define) success for yourself, and know that your definition can change over time. 

Defining your success is powerful and sometimes, unpredictable. It usually requires us to quit one thing to pursue another, or to put ourselves above our jobs. For example, Simone Biles recently made the decision to pull out of the Olympics to focus on her own mental health, and guess what, that was success. It takes an enormous amount of courage to live by your own standards of success.

Reject the Default and Define Your Own

In many cultures and contexts, success tends to have a default definition. It usually involves money, materialism, achievement, commercial success, promotions, or gold medals. It’s not bad to consider or even want these things — but to only consider them can be limiting and often leads to burnout. Plus, in doing so, you might be missing but on other, more meaningful metrics of success. 

One model of success, the Kaleidoscope model, conceptualizes success by breaking it into categories: happiness (i.e., pleasure and contentment); achievement (i.e., accomplishing goals); significance (i.e., feeling like you’ve make a positive impact); and legacy (i.e., using your success to help others find success). Like all models, it’s just one way of seeing things. The truth is usually more complex and it’s definitely more personalized. 

I believe that true success (meaning that it’s true to you) is a balancing act between quantity and quality, objective and subjective, career and personal life — however you want to phrase it. As Maya Angelou said, “Success is liking who you are, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” This implies that you need to know a bit about who you are, what you like to do, and how you like doing it.

3 Dimensions of Success

You can think of success as having many dimensions, including values, strengths, identity. So, in order to define what success means to you, it only makes sense that you spend some time thinking about these three things.

1. Clarify your values — values aren’t necessarily static, but they are pretty stable by our mid to late 20s. Even though they play a big role in our lives, we aren’t always crystal clear on what they are. Clarifying your values can help you define success. To start the process, ask yourself a few questions and interrogate your answers:

  1. What are you most proud of?
  2. Who are your role models?
  3. What would make your life unbearable if taken away? 
  4. Why excites you most in life

What themes emerge from your answers? What insights do those themes give you about what you value most?

2. Determine and develop your strengths — Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson, authors of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classificationdefine strength as being “a combination of talents (naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior), knowledge (facts and lessons learned), and skills (the steps of an activity).” To better recognize your strengths, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do you enjoy doing?
  2. What do you receive praise for?

Your strengths are often at the intersection of these two answers. But try to go beyond what might be considered a typical strength.

  1. When did you contribute meaningfully to achieve an important outcome?
  2. What do people ask for your help with?
  3. What do other people think your strengths are?

3. Think about your identity — Identity is a fusion of intrinsic factors (e.g., memory, experience, beliefs) and external variables (e.g., race, socioeconomic class, appearance, etc.). Reflect on moments of joy and shame that affirm different aspects of your identity. Consider the tension between your best and worst moments. Imagine yourself 30, 40, 50 years from now. What do you want to say that you experienced? How do you want to be remembered? What do you hope to have contributed to the world?

Success is Personal

Once you better understand your values, strengths, and identity, then enriching and enduring success is mostly a cycle and balance of choices, movements, and reevaluations. Choose a path that most satisfies the unique dimensions of your vision for success. That will lead some people down a path to leadership, management, ownership, etc. For others, the path will lead toward specialization, excelling in a specific field, functioning as a part of the whole, or going out on their own adventure.