Are you tired of being told what success is and isn’t, or counseled how to get it, as though it’s a publicly held commodity? Even when it’s couched in glowing New Age language (“success is fulfilling your destiny…”), the message is that success is a template to fit yourself into or to measure yourself against, rather than an aspiration that arises from within. These observations point to a disturbing conclusion: Unless you define success for yourself, it will get defined for you.
Contrary to media persuasions, the one universal truth about success is that how it’s defined is unique and intimately personal to each one of us, as unique as a thumbprint or footprint. Whether or not we have achieved a publicly recognized measure of success, we often have to strip away layers of mental static, generated by media and family expectations, to find a personal definition. We may even have to work around areas of psychic bruising, those painful places resulting from running into the hard edges of others’ definitions. Many of us don’t even want to enter the “success” conversation because of a belief, frequently born of experience, that it “will lead me away from my truth” and end up in spurious comparisons and evaluations.
Abigail, an astutely self-reflective woman, was such a person. After responding to some probing questions and getting close to what really matters to her, to those moments when she knows she’s successful, there was a painful catch of surprise in her throat. “Oh! By my own definition, I am successful! I’ve always felt slightly ashamed. I thought I should be aiming for something else.”
Does it even matter what I think success is? Yes, I believe it does. There’s the old quip attributed to Henry Ford, “When you don’t know where you’re going, all roads will take you there.” Having a vision of your destination focuses your journey. It gives you the basis for making choices, learning from your actions, allocating your resources. This certainly doesn’t mean that reaching your destination is the only measure of success. Nor does it mean that aiming for a destination should override the value of following the unfolding of opportunity. But striving does seem to be a defining feature of the human animal. Reaching for what matters most to you, walking in your own personal footprint of success, lends incentive, clarity and grounding to the journey.
If you’re among those for whom the idea of success has been more confusing and alienating than clarifying and inspiring, I invite you to try a journaling exercise. Journal about your responses to any or all of the questions below. Dedicate a notebook for this purpose and write twenty minutes daily for a period of two weeks. You may find it useful to “let your fingers do the talking”, writing quickly and without judgment or censoring. Remember that writing things down, even when you “know them already”, makes them concrete and memorable.
• Looking back at your life as far as you can remember, what are the times you felt successful? What was the feeling based on?
• What’s the definition of success that you’re living by now? How did you arrive at that definition? Who and what have been the important influences?
• What’s the balance of “doing” and “being” in your definition of success?
• Do any of these elements have a place in your success vision? How would it show up?
- Creativity- the development or expression of it
- Competition-coming out on top
- Winning recognition
- Giving back
- Personal growth
- Non-work achievements
These are just a few of the many facets of success that make up a meaningful definition for any given individual. What are some other questions relevant to you, as you give voice to what success means to you? You may find a metaphor coming to mind, or you may want to explore by drawing or making a collage. Arriving at a definition is a linear, rational path for some, a matter of stringing important elements together. Others make an intuitive leap at some point, abruptly arriving at their definition. Whichever process – linear or intuitive – comes naturally to you, experiment with the other and see what it has to offer.
To move from the reflections of this exercise into action, here is one final question:
• What are three yes’s and three no’s that you’ll impose on your “business as usual”, to align your life more closely with your definition of success?
Best wishes for an unimpeded and fulfilling journey toward your success destination!