How to Define Success on Your Own Terms

UPDATED: May 23, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 21, 2019
Success on Your Own Terms

A wise person once said, “Nothing has meaning except the meaning we give it.” Pretty simple, yet profound. Fortunately, this idea can be applied to virtually any hypothetical imaginable. Acts or omissions. Unsolicited advice. Unanticipated outcomes. Even how we define success.

When Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, he did far more than chronicle his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. He also provided a powerful way to identify one’s purpose and motivation in life—how we confer meaning on events and outcomes determines the “reality” of those events and outcomes.

According to Frankl, metaphysics played a huge role in a prisoner’s survival: However he or she imagined the future affected physical and mental endurance. As an extension of this psychotherapeutic method, he effectively modeled how we, as individuals, could experience success on our own terms.

How we view success and our access to it is often limited by someone else’s definition. We feel badly when we feel we haven’t measured up to an external standard. In doing so, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to define and appreciate our unique experiences and how they impact our lives for the better.

If you’ve grappled with what success means to you, it’s time to take control of the narrative and determine what it means for you—on your own terms. Here’s how.

Related: What Is Success?

Intimate Relationships

The hashtag #relationshipgoals has been around on social media for a while now. It’s used when someone feels enamored of a couple who exemplifies what looks like a successful relationship. Most often the “labeler” doesn’t even know the couple and is making a judgment call based on superficial and limited information.

When assessing your relationship, instead of comparing its net worth to the assets of the couple next door, ask: “What is the value of this relationship in its own right?” and “How do we mutually contribute to make our lives better?” You’ll see rather quickly that a successful relationship is one best defined by you and your partner.


Parenting isn’t easy and it doesn’t come with a manual. Most parents admit they’ve experienced both highs and lows as they’ve grown through the process. But when some parents seem to execute the role like a scene from Leave It to Beaver, it’s easy to become a little discouraged.

Instead of criticizing yourself (or your children) for not being “more like them,” give yourself credit for being the best parent you can be. Appreciate your child for their own attributes and efforts. And be honest with yourself. If there are areas where you can do better, focus on those things and give them your best shot. The successful parent is one who realizes that love and commitment matter. If you are willing to give of yourself unconditionally to help your children thrive, you’re doing OK.

Professional Achievements

You’ve worked hard to get where you are. But with modest professional real estate reflecting your efforts, it can feel like you haven’t achieved much. This is especially true when your friends and colleagues are laying claim to a litany of professional accolades in comparison. John is working for a Fortune 100 firm, situated in a prestigious corner office with a view. Elaine has continually climbed the corporate ladder, recently making it to the C-suite, with a handsome salary and competitive annual performance bonuses.

Instead of comparing apples to oranges—and the problem truly lies in comparing anything at all—consider the magnitude of what you have already achieved. Take time to appreciate your unique and hard-wrought professional trek. Then, best yourself in the next round of your journey. The most successful professionals know that they are their competition and strive daily to become better than they were before.

Material Possessions

Material wealth can be an enticing motivation for working hard. And showcasing status through “things” is certainly an individual’s prerogative. After all, people should enjoy the fruits of their labor. However, if you view material possessions as the overwhelming proof that someone has arrived—maybe you’ve got it wrong.

If you are not able to “keep up with the Joneses,” ask yourself why you are competing in the first place. Better to get things because you enjoy them, rather than to impress and compete with others. The most successful people see acquiring material possessions as benefits of the labor bargain, not a method of competing with phantom rivalries.


Happiness is a subjective concept. What makes one person happy may not satisfy the next. That said, consider overall happiness as a fundamental component of your success. When determining whether you are “successful,” also ask yourself whether you are happy. The answer might surprise you, as the concepts are not mutually exclusive.

Success is truly a function of how you define it. Whatever the next person has amassed or achieved is none of your business. Instead of comparing and contrasting your wins against others’, focus on finding the light in your own life, and success will no doubt illuminate it.

Related: 5 Ways to Avoid Social Media Envy

A leading authority on leadership development and organizational performance management, Karima Mariama-Arthur brings more than 25 years of comprehensive, blue chip experience in law, business and academia to every client engagement. A shrewd advisor to distinguished organizations from DC to Dubai, her expert insights help clients to successfully navigate today's ever-changing and competitive global business environment. Karima is the author of the internationally acclaimed and 2019 NAACP Image Award nominated leadership guidebook, Poised For Excellence: Fundamental Principles of Effective Leadership in the Boardroom and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan), which launched at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As an extension of her work, she speaks regularly both nationally and internationally in her areas of expertise and serves in an advisory capacity on select corporate boards.