How do you define success? There are many external indicators of success for which we are socially trained to judge ourselves and others. Many of these result in stress and anxiety as we try to live up to benchmarks that don't always align with our values. Today, let's take a look at what happens when you define success in your own words.
How I measure my success has changed since I started focusing more on what I value; however, it wasn't until I came across this quote from Brene Brown, that I realized that it wasn't just my value system that had changed, but my definition of success.
“Defining success is one of the most powerful things you can do as a family, as a couple, individually. There is a default definition that is, ‘money, materialism, accomplishment, and achievement.’ So if you don’t come up with your own subversive definition, there is a default.”
A Little Back Story
Earlier this year, I found myself sitting in a Starbucks at the Flatirons Mall, in Broomfield, CO. Originally from Colorado, I now live in France. I’d popped home for a short trip to see my family and to consider moving my 9-year-old son back to Colorado to live with his father and step-mom.
My aunt and my cousin are two women I admire immensely. I felt especially grateful for the chance to meet with them on this cold Colorado Day. My aunt came, as she often does, with a new book for me to read. My cousin arrived with a smile on her face, despite living for over a decade with the daily trials and pains of cancer.
As we sat chatting, I mentioned that as I turned 40 this year, I’d set the intention to be a success, finally. To stop failing at things and get IT done. My family tends to be pretty good at hiding our emotions and playing it cool, but when I mentioned that I’d not been successful, both my aunt and my cousin couldn’t help but momentarily lose their composure. I instantly felt silly.
I had to stop and ask, what is success to me? Just as we say that “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder, often, so is our success. And so began my investigation into my evidently unfounded feelings of failure. Why did I not see the successes that other people saw? Why is it that some of us see success where others see failure? Why did I not understand this before?
The Definition of Success in Life
In April of this year I turned 40, and as I’ve done every year since I turned 33, I took the time to reflect on the last year and to set goals for my coming year. Consciously reflecting on my past through the filter of "what is an authentic indicator of success?" I began to realize that just because life can be messy and unpredictable, doesn’t mean that we are not successful.
I now recognize my success not as a chart of achievements to fill out a professional resume, but rather as living life by my values. Taking the time to look within and check-in with myself, but also taking the time to connect with my fellow humans. I accept that being vulnerable to life is being successful, because it means that I am alive and am living, breathing, learning and connecting. I understand that I need to work less at doing it all on my own, and surrender some of my control to a higher power, the universe and my community.
The definition of success in life is not a one-woman show -- that is just lonely and hard.
Unexpectedly, a few days ago, while working on this piece, I received an email from Rob Hatch titled “We Never Do it Alone,” in which he proposes precisely this, that success is a community effort. Although I'd already been going down this path, reading Rob's story, I had another revelation. We often hear that success is measured by the lives you touch, but Rob’s experience and my experience take this a step further. Our success does not happen in a vacuum; it occurs in a community.
Our success does not happen in a vacuum; it occurs in a community.
We never do it alone!
Success is Sweeter Together
No matter how hard you work, your success is not only yours, it is also that of everyone that supported you, be it your mother or your mentor, your priest or the guy that took a chance on you at your first job. Yes, we must take responsibility for our actions, and we must set goals for success, but we don't achieve progress alone, it appears in the form of community.
In the spirit of community, I decided to ask my peer network of Xennial Women for their definition of success in life. I sent them some background and then asked: “define success in your own words.” Each interpretation of success is valid and whole as it stands alone, it is enough.
Living a Purposeful Life: 9 Inspiring Definitions of Success by 9 Xennial Women
#1 - Malia
Success for us is living a life in line with our core values. Our daily choices and habits reflect our values and help us to live out our life and interactions without feelings of dissonance. We have decided our family’s general core values include spending time together, promoting environmental stewardship, and maintaining an active/healthy lifestyle, and supporting our independent passion projects.
We (my husband and I) have worked very hard to live in harmonious accord with these values. We have both selected to be self-employed, so we can attend our kid’s performances and school events. We purchased a home within a mile of the kids’ school, and everything Lafayette has to offer and make it a habit of biking to as many of these places as possible.
We also have made it a habit to select kids activities that are within biking distance, to continue our environmental stewardship (right now we bike to school, piano practice, kung fu, dance lessons, trivia, Spanish class, and the library on a weekly basis). Our healthy lifestyles are evident in the hiking we do with our kids and their relationship with exercise. At ages 10 and 8, they already have over 300 miles of backpacking and lots more of hiking under their belts.
As for passion projects, my husband enjoys music and is starting to get back into the DJing scene for non-profit galas in Lafayette, and I am trying to determine if there is anything that could compete with real estate in making me excited to get up in the morning. We have worked hard, and saved money, and will be financially independent by next summer, and will have more time and opportunities to continue to craft a life in line with our values, living our version of Success daily.
#2 - Sarah
Two years ago, at age 35, I was in a depression after a minor surgery turned into proof that I was unable to have children. In the aftermath, I also found myself unable to sustain the endless cycle of increasing hours and accomplishments I had set up for myself in my career.
I needed physical therapy, long-term hormone replacement options, and time to grieve. I found I had built a false narrative about how I could prove my worth by earning accomplishments and being the best at whatever I was doing. But the best was always just out of my reach.
The big achievement I craved as something I could point to and say “I am worthy because I did that” was always a fleeting mirage, something I couldn’t catch. I had no proof of my worth, and now I wouldn’t be able to have a child of my own and say, “This is the value I have given to the world.”
Fortunately, I had my faith. God’s message is that He doesn’t require results, only faithfulness. And grace is called grace because you can’t earn it – it’s a gift. Success is a worldly imitation of grace; it looks like a distant oasis where you “achieve” all the things you think you wanted. But just when you think you’re about to arrive, it moves. Frankly, I found it exhausting.
Grace is counter-intuitive, you can’t chase it because it’s already there. You can’t earn it by being worthy – grace IS what makes you worthy. You can only accept it. Radical acceptance. And so, I come to success by riding on the coattails of grace.
Now, my measure of success is not feeling the need to explain or prove myself to the world. I show up every day; I try to accept the condition of my body on good days and bad. I try to count the number of times I belly-laugh. I let myself feel what I need to feel, grief or gladness or pain. And I work on accepting the grace given to me.
#3 - Anna
Defining success does not feel challenging for me. Perhaps that’s because I was raised by parents who didn’t suggest I use their definitions and encouraged me to ask questions and pursue my own interests. (I was also fortunate not to feel the need to strive for a hefty salary, which I believe – right or not – was partially a function of growing up feeling financially sound and partially a function of being a woman, which meant I felt less pressured to support my family). Or, perhaps it’s because I landed upon a path that feels good and suits my personality well.
In my twenties, the word ‘success’ would conjure up images associated with money. At forty, that definition strikes me as unsatisfying. Successful people aren’t always wealthy, and the rich aren’t always shining models of success. To that point, I’ve come to largely disassociate the word wealth from success (though I think an individual’s basic financial needs have to be met to fulfill the journey of pursuing broader goals).
In my mind, success is finding a role that provides deep personal satisfaction, serves a purpose beyond one’s self (this often heightens the feeling of personal satisfaction), and fits squarely within an individual’s nature.
After recognizing that I had an affinity for the outdoors, and paying particular attention to the fact that human health is directly affected by the state of the environment, I began dabbling in the field of “environmental health.” Down a winding road I went – starting with an introduction to environmental health through the world of nonprofit grant-making, followed by a Master in Public Health, and then working with several nonprofits.
When I became a mother, my concern for the future health of my children amplified my desire to protect the environment. One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had yet was having grown into the role of an environmental activist. After recognizing a local threat (an outdated, dangerous nuclear power plant), I dug deep and extricated personality skills I didn’t know I had. Because of this, I was able to organize communities toward action.
Now, though my work as the Manager of the Speakers’ Bureau for Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility is only part-time, it is entirely fulfilling because the goal of the organization is also a goal of mine: limiting the threats of large-scale environmental catastrophes on the human population. How fortunate I am to be able to tie my life goals into my work goals.
#4 - Afsheen
Growing up in the East and completing my education and then settling down in the West, I am amazed at the fact that even with opposing end goals, the measure of success is universal and always a value judgment by others. How the world perceives us and our accomplishments is somehow more important than what we think and feel about ourselves.
My definition of success has evolved over the years, and the current version is that “success is how we value ourselves.” Being content is bliss to me and contentment comes from inside. We are so used to viewing ourselves through the filters of society and judge our successes via these filters as well that we forget who we are, and the discontentment causes a sense of failure.
We all have different callings in our lives and only if we follow what our heart desires are we able to be successful. The idea is to be happy with whatever you are doing and taking pride in doing it. This idea about following your passion has been out there for a while, but we still fall into the trap of the default definition of success which relates to materialism and accomplishments. I’m certainly not against any of these things and hope to accomplish my goals in life, but I strive to have this sense of validation from within because if I start to look at others there are twice as many opinions and reasons to doubt myself.
The most challenging thing for me at this point in my life is how to teach my kids to be content. In this ever-growing world of digital and social media where the success is measured in ‘likes’ and ‘number of followers,' how do I teach my kids to be happy with themselves. The only way I can think of doing this is to be a role model for them, and it’s not easy. Like most people, I’ve had many challenges in my life. To start each day with this sense that it’s going to be better than yesterday is an uphill task but I am adamant about making it work to the best of my abilities and satisfaction, and that to me is a success.
#5 - Elly
To me, success is about living a purpose driven life. It’s about actively striving to make a positive difference in the world, making conscious decisions, and enjoying the journey along the way. If I can learn and grow, and make a positive impact on the lives of others, I’m meeting my definition of success.
Living a life without regrets or ‘what if’s’ is an integral part of my philosophy. Seeking opportunities and adventure are key components of my life, and I love to inspire others to follow their dreams. For me, it’s not about having a nice car or a big house, and I’ve consciously opted out of that lifestyle in pursuit of freedom. Instead, it’s about feeling fulfilled, excited and happy about the choices I am making each day.
In our family, we’ve set the values of ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘meaningful relationships.' When we make decisions, we try to ask ourselves whether those decisions fit with both of our family values. This 'freedom of choice' helps us to work together as a unit and decide whether to move forward with a decision or think of an alternative.
As a holistic health and fitness coach my goal is to inspire people to make positive, sustainable changes to their health, fitness, and lifestyle. By empowering someone to take control of their health and step by step make decisions that support their goal of a healthy lifestyle, I’m achieving a small milestone in my overall picture of success.
As a family, our current focus is on building a location independent lifestyle. We didn’t wait to make it happen: we simply packed up and took a one-way ticket from our home in New Zealand to South East Asia. We’re working on making our dream a reality and have launched two new websites this year to support our vision. We still have a way to go, but we are super excited to see it all unfold. We’re enjoying the new adventure just because we allowed ourselves to take that first step and go for it.
#6 - Amy
My definition of success revolves around a handful of things in my life: my family, my mental and physical health, my marriage, and my creativity/business.
When I think about my definition of success, the family immediately comes to mind. As a mother of two kids ages 10 & 13, my life has revolved around these now not-so-little people since they were born. Raising healthy, adjusted, happy kids has been my biggest priority, and often my biggest challenge. I feel successful when I know that I'm helping my children navigate their way through this complicated and sometimes scary thing we call life.
Having open and positive relationships with my kids and my husband is of great importance to me. Interpersonal communication has never been my strong suit, so it's something I have to work at regularly.
Spending time together as a family is important to me. We all have our own things that we enjoy in life, but, especially as my children get older, making sure that we come together regularly is a goal.
In addition to family, my personal health (physical and mental), as well as feeling fulfilled creatively also defines my view of success. It is very important to me to take time almost every day to exercise, spend time outside (even if it's in my own yard), and work on my jewelry business. Making earrings, which is in large part my creative outlet, also helps me contribute a bit financially to our family.
My biggest current challenge is a bit personal in nature as it involves helping one of my children with their mental/emotional health. I also have the ongoing challenge of working on my communication with my husband. In addition, I am always trying to expand my earring business -- by making more designs, reaching out to local businesses and growing my online presence via Etsy and social media.
#7 - Natalie
Success for me means the freedom to follow my professional passions while also creating a fulfilling personal life. I have always been a creative thinker who yearned for wide open spaces, fresh writing pads, and the ability to share my voice with the world, so it's no wonder that I didn't go down the traditional college-business suit-retirement track.
In my early 20s, I wanted to be a lawyer, so I enrolled in law school, and promptly realized that it was not the career for me. Ten months (and lots of soul searching) later, I enrolled in an English master's degree program and fell in love. From there, I honed my skills as a college adjunct professor, a job that I loved and one that gave me the flexibility to still travel and spend plenty of time with my husband.
After I found out that I was pregnant with our first child, I wanted something that was even more flexible: I'd always considered working for myself, but making that transition was tough without a motivating factor. Tentatively, I began to look for freelance writing work and was able to start bringing in a few jobs here and there. After my daughter was born, I began to focus on ways to include my then-hobby blog into my writing portfolio and spent countless hours reading about how to build and grow a blog.
I now have two young kids, a growing travel blog, and more work than I can generally handle on a daily basis, both from a parenting perspective and from a business standpoint. The struggle to balance these two portions of my life are my biggest focus in my quest for true personal success: I ultimately would love to have a career that allows my family and I to travel around the world together. Having the financial security to give those experiences to my kids, my husband, and I while simultaneously writing about it would be the ultimate way that I would define success.
#8 - Amanda
Success, to me, is not measured by a bank balance, or by becoming Prime Minister or the head of a huge company. It’s much more complicated, and something that changes form pretty regularly.
On the whole, however, success to me is a feeling that I’m making a difference with my work. I like to juggle a few hats - it keeps me enthusiastic - so I tilt into several differences over time. In my job as social media and blogging consultant and trainer, success means I help the clients I work with to feel confident about sharing their business online and doing it in a way that is a win-win for everyone. As a travel podcaster and blogger, success means I encourage people to travel more and to reflect on the many amazing personal development benefits that traveling can give you.
While I might find it hard to define precisely what success means, I know how it feels. When I’m successful, I get so excited inside, and sometimes outside, and I jump and squeal. I’m not kidding. When I finish putting together a great podcast episode that I know will help change someone’s attitudes to travel, I hop and skip around the house with genuine glee.
When I wrap up a workshop where I can tell that I’ve reached someone in a way that will completely change how their business goes, I hop in my car and scream with joy. I really do! If I don’t get this feeling for a while, I know it’s time to adjust my goals. I guess if I can continue finding and reaching for goals that give me this ecstatic feeling of success, then that will be a life well-lived.
#9 - Daisha
My definition of success began with learning the hard way that I couldn’t let others define it for me. At the time in my life when I was most “successful” by external standards, I had a job related to my degree that paid more money than I’d ever made before and included a fancy “director” title. What it did not include was joy, not for me or anyone I cared about.
In the middle of all that, a friend died after a long illness. She didn’t have a prestigious career that paid well, but hundreds of us showed up to her funeral because of how deeply she’d impacted our lives. It was jarring to realize that so much of what I was investing in didn’t matter too much when it was held up to the light of something that did.
Shortly after her funeral, I gave up my job with no idea what was next. It was humiliating and hard, and I felt like a failure for tearing it all down. Ultimately, though, tearing it all down has made room for other things to grow, including a new way of defining success. Success, now, is when I am well and when I contribute to the wellness of others. Success is nurturing, success is generosity, success is practice, success is continuing to grow. Success is still hard work, but many of my old metrics (e.g., completing projects or achieving goals) now seem like side effects of success rather than its essence.
This has been fertile ground for some good things. One of my current projects is helping to fund a land preservation project that will permanently protect 300+ acres of historic farmland, forest, and wetlands for generations to come. Another thing I’m doing is putting time each day toward writing a book, and all those words are finally adding up! Perhaps most importantly, I’m actively supporting each of my three kids in reaching a goal they have. Just touching these things counts as success for me; and they all include joy, which is a pretty great bonus.
GRIT VERSUS COMMUNITY
Of the many things that I find so satisfying about these nine insider looks at success, are the common threads of environment, health, and community. Especially, community. Be it an inner circle of family and friends or the broader circle of spirituality and the world.
When we see our success as part of a community effort, we feel greater happiness and connection. We connect with each other, and we contribute to our collective success. Stronger together. Community success is something that not only women but that our world desperately needs.
As an American, my upbringing taught me to value rugged individualism. And as a parent, I am infatuated with the concept of GRIT, because I want my kids to be successful. But let's look at this idea of success a bit further. You may have heard of the marshmallow test. When first carried out the researchers decided that kids that could wait for a second marshmallow already had the personality traits that led to success.
The Marshmallow Test In Community
More recently they redid the study in Germany and Cameroon. Do you know what the new results show? The kids that could wait for a second marshmallow grew up in environments that taught them to trust their community -- to trust the adults in their lives. The kids that ate the marshmallow right away? They didn't believe they'd get a second one. In other words, by the age of 3 or 5 years old, kids' success is already influenced not just by their GRIT, but rather by their faith in their community.
Humans are social animals and from birth we rely on other humans to succeed, while also contributing to the success of our family. We never do it totally alone. And so, when you are feeling down and out, and wondering how you can do it ALONE, find a way to reach out to your community instead. In community, in service to others, you will receive the support and the strength to find and define success. No one should have to "go it alone."
And so, my dear friends, I'll confess that this has been a bit of a deceptive exercise because our "personal" success is not truly personal, is it? Our success relies upon our community of support and we contribute to the success of those around us.
Success is an inclusive, not an individual experience.
Success is an inclusive, not an individual experience.
I am aching to know, after reading this has your definition of success changed? Do you see yourself in a better light? Do you now envision ways that you can increase your sense of self-contentment by cultivating your community?