What Does Success Really Mean to You?

UPDATED: March 2, 2023
PUBLISHED: March 2, 2023
woman thinking about what it means to be successful

We all want success. We want to be successful and feel successful. In fact, we chase money, fame, power, education, relationships and a thousand other things without ever stopping to ask one essential question: “What does success mean to you?”

Few people pause to consider what it truly means to achieve success in their own lives. As Jim Rohn said, “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.”

If we don’t answer this question, we can end up climbing the wrong ladder and pursuing someone else’s version of success. We get to the top only to discover we climbed the wrong mountain. We achieve our goals only to realize they were the wrong ones. It’s a disaster few people are able to recover from.

In Office Space, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) says to his doctor, “So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.”

How do we avoid a similar fate?

Those who have achieved the greatest amounts of actual success are those who are crystal clear on what it means to reach the top, for them. If we want to follow in their footsteps, we must achieve equal clarity.

What success is not

Before we can pursue success, we need to understand what success isn’t. If you spend just a few minutes on social media, you’ll realize how many people hold a very narrow definition of success. They think it’s about building wealth, having the perfect relationship, launching a billion-dollar business or amassing a large social media following. 

None of these things or people are wrong, but being like them doesn’t necessarily make you successful. Many people have fought and struggled to the top only to feel miserable and burned out once they get there. They’re unhappy because they pursued the wrong definition of success—one that didn’t match their values.

Throughout childhood and early adulthood, we learn various ideas of success from our parents, teachers and friends. Everyone has their own agenda and idea of who and what we should be. Although it’s OK to value the opinions and hopes of others, we shouldn’t necessarily adopt them as our own. No one can impose their version of success upon us. No one can tell us what it means to live a good life.

It’s easy to assume that success means obtaining a specific object, such as a job or social status, and to believe that if we get that thing, we’ll be successful. But some of the greatest successes can result from the worst failures, if you make the effort to learn from them. 

For example, before becoming a U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln

  • …was defeated for the state legislature.
  • …lost in his bid for speaker of the house.
  • …was defeated in the nomination for Congress.
  • …lost in a campaign for the U.S. Senate (twice).

If we rest our definition of success on one or two achievements, there’s a good chance we’ll be disappointed.

What does success mean to you?

We must set our goals, objectives and trajectories based on what we desire, not what someone else wants for us.

Some people find that helping people brings them the most joy, and therefore success looks like a life given to others. Others realize that building a business or product brings them happiness. Some prefer isolation, while others prefer constant activity.

The simple yet profound truth is that what makes me happy doesn’t make someone else happy, and vice versa. My vision of success probably looks nothing like yours, and that’s how it should be.

If we fail to define success for ourselves and try to pursue someone else’s path, we’ll end up frustrated, unhappy and ultimately feeling deeply unsuccessful. Bruce Lee said, “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

The path to success begins by asking yourself, “What makes me happy?”

Figure out how you’re already successful

It’s also essential to understand that in many ways, we already are successful. If we assume that we are failures until we reach a specific goal, we will never be happy. We have to recognize all we have already accomplished.

Ask yourself:

  • “Where have I already seen success in my life?”
  • “How can I continue building on that success?”
  • “What lessons have I learned from those successes?”
  • “What have I learned about myself from those successes?”

Success is both a goal and a journey. Reaching certain milestones is an element of success, but we don’t stop there. We push higher and harder, striving for more and to be better.

Determine what it means for you to be successful

Tony Robbins said, “The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” But how do we find our path? What steps do we take to achieve true success?

We must be able to clearly answer several laser-specific questions:

  • “What truly matters to me?”
  • “What are the things that set me on fire with passion?”
  • “What do I want to make of my life?”
  • “What lifestyle do I want to achieve?”
  • “Who do I want to be?”
  • “What do I want people to say about me after I die?”

The answers to these questions must be ultra-specific. It’s not enough to say, “What really matters to me is happiness.” If you can’t see clearly, you won’t really know what that means, what you’re doing or where you’re going. The same is true of your vision of success.

But before you can begin moving forward, you must assess where you’re at now. This is a time for honest evaluation, not rose-colored glasses. Where are you currently successful? Where do you need to grow? What are your weaknesses and strengths? Try bringing in a friend or colleague to act as a real and unbiased sounding board.

Set specific goals and achieve them

After that, it’s time to set some specific goals. These goals should be achievable and concrete, but still challenging. Your goals should also be measurable. Say you want to read more to be successful; set a goal of 50 books per year, not just “read more.”

If you don’t define success, someone else will define it for you. What mountain are you climbing? Is it the right one? Or are you going to reach the summit and see your mountain off in the distance?

Start on the right path today.

This article was published in February 2017 and has been updated. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock

Alex Jasin

Alex Jasin is the CEO of Metapress, a fast-growing publication to learn new skills, gain inspiration and discover more about what interests you. Alex is also the founder and CEO of X3 Digital, a Google Certified digital marketing and design agency. Alex serves as a consultant for Ai Media Group, a prominent digital marketing agency in New York, working with Fortune 500 clients such as Intel, Allstate and Wells Fargo. Alex has previously been featured on Business Journal, Fox, Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald. Connect with Alex Jasin on Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.