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What’s Your Definition of Success?

I saw an “inspirational quote” the other day on Instagram. The author was talking about what it takes to be in the top 1% of whatever it is you do, and said roughly (I’m paraphrasing pretty liberally here, but the main idea comes across):

In order to be the best, you have to ignore what most people do and only pay attention to the best. Further, because people are by nature imitators, this means that you should carefully monitor who you’re spending time with to ensure that they’re appropriately modeling the behaviors you need to be the best.

While there’s certainly some truth in this—people are imitators, and we do tend to do what the people around us are doing—there’s an underlying assumption that I want to challenge. That assumption is that being in the top 1% is the best or most appropriate definition of what it means to be successful, or that it’s the most appropriate goal to have. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with striving to be in the top 1% of whatever it is you’re doing. But, by definition, 99% of the people who do what you do aren’t going to make it there. Does that mean that 99% of people aren’t successful?

Being in the top 1% (or top 0.1%, or sometimes top 0.01%) is usually what it takes to be famous. But, I would argue that plenty of non-famous people are successful. As just one example:

A bit of quick web searching suggests that in the US there are more than 1.5 million companies with more than 10 employees.1 Were the founders of those companies successful? I would argue that the vast majority of them were. Were they in the top 1% of their field? Probably not; that number represents about 10% of the companies in the US. And, even framing the discussion by looking at the employee count of the company is assuming that “success” is about financial stability or long-term viability.

I’m a big fan of the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, by Richard Carlson. In it, one of his ideas is to redefine what we mean by a “meaningful accomplishment”. Instead of the standard definitions of a meaningful accomplishment—getting promoted, graduating top of your class, founding a company, winning an award—he suggests that our definition of meaningful accomplishment should be driven by alignment with our values and priorities.

If my primary goal is to be loving and supportive to the people around me, the financial success of the company I founded is not really connected to that goal, and thus might not be a meaningful accomplishment. If one of my primary values is perseverance, then continuing to try to do something which has eluded me so far is a meaningful accomplishment. If one of my primary values is compassion, then being there for a friend who is going through a breakup is a meaningful accomplishment.

Your primary goals and values, of course, may be different from mine. But, the principle is the same. Unless your primary goal is about money, accomplishments that are about money might not fit the criteria. Unless your primary goal is about prestige, accomplishments that are about titles or recognition might not fit the criteria.

And, this is an opportunity for more loving and compassionate self-talk. If your primary goal is to be loving to the people around you, and you were able to provide support to someone struggling through an emotionally difficult situation, that’s a meaningful accomplishment, and an opportunity for you to give yourself credit for it. If your primary goal is to become a better person, and you were able to learn something, that’s a meaningful accomplishment, and another opportunity for you to give yourself credit for it.

It’s easy to define success by what the people around us are doing, or by what we see on Instagram or TikTok, or by what we think our parents expect of us. But, that doesn’t always align with what we really want. If you haven’t done the work to figure out what’s really important to you, I recommend it. This article includes links to three different values questionnaires, all of which have research backing, and all of which can be taken online for free; that’s a great place to start.

Once you know what your values really are, there are a number of ways in which you can track how you’re living up to them; focused journaling of some form or another is the most common. It also really helps to have a trusted confidant in this process; someone who can help you celebrate your successes, empathize with your setbacks, and hold up a mirror so that you can be sure you’re paying attention to the right things. If you don’t have that person, I’m available.

  1. Data found at on 31 Jan 2023.

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