Defining success

What does every person on earth want? To be happy. But how people define happiness and therefore how they define success is partly the reason that so few people are, in fact, happy.

We are conditioned to accept the definition of success that society puts out there. And because our acceptance is so unquestioning, it seriously affects how we make decisions. How long do people stay in jobs that don’t make them happy but meet society’s criteria of success? Society’s criteria become personal criteria and then it gets much harder to extricate yourself.

I was so there. I had a box – a set of definitions I subscribed to that were universally accepted. And because so much of how I defined myself was tied to my job, the decision to quit and the process of adjustment afterwords was hard.

Alain de Botton has an interesting talk on this topic –

It gets better with time, but it’s still not easy. I consciously put blinkers on to exclude outside opinions when I think about my definition and how I am doing against it.

Would love to hear how do you define success…

22 thoughts on “Defining success”

  1. Ashok Khosla says:

    IMHO, success is setting a goal for yourself and then accomplishing it.

  2. padmanabhan says:

    Thanks for sharing that gem of a video.

    I have spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to come up with a definition for success, and I don't think I have one yet.

    I mean, as you would know, you can define success for individual events that can have a specific goal, like taking an exam, completing a task, etc at a micro level. But when you think about success in life, well, who knows what the goal or purpose of life is? When we know what that is, we can say success is achieving that particular goal or purpose. When that is not the case, we can only have our own limited aims, based on our own perceptions and experiences whatever.

    One can come up with incomplete definitions like being happy about oneself, or something domain specific – like winning an oscar or nobel, or something like being financially free to be able to do what we want/enjoy etc etc but none of those can be a complete / real definition according to the definition of the term 'definition'.

  3. erikstuart says:

    “But how people define happiness _and therefore how they define success_ is partly the reason that so few people are, in fact, happy.”

    Interesting that you assume this connection (btw happiness and success). I'd say they're mostly independent concepts, with minor-to-moderate correlation depending on the person and the domain in which they're succeeding or not.

    I'd also offer that happiness is something _experienced_, not _defined_; it's such a fundamental and personal emotion that, while it can be described (often crudely and/or circularly), it's very difficult to define satisfactorily.

    I suspect that when you say “success”, you're combining some notion of achievement with some other notion of happiness and satisfaction. It's probably cleaner & clearer to separate these two, though having a good sense of which kinds of achievements (under which conditions) lead to happiness is certainly valuable.

    Given that separation, defining “success” probably isn't that hard (likely something about meeting a goal, as suggested by another commenter).

    For happiness, I wouldn't worry about defining it; I'd concentrate on learning _what leads to it_ – which is probably the most important and personal thing anyone can do.

    I've been having some vaguely similar conversations with a newly-Buddhist friend of mine lately. Perhaps worth a blog post…

  4. Shripriya says:

    Yeah, I realized I was doing that. Success for me though has morphed beyond work. So, when you say I am combining a notion of achievement and a notion of satisfaction, you're right.

    Again, you've hit the nail on the head with your statement about happiness – I used define very loosely. To be able to figure out what makes one happy is more appropriate. And again, on this, I think it is something that we often use the outside world to guide us instead of looking internally.

    Look forward to your post. Please do write it.

  5. rickychang says:

    good post.. I hope you would share your definition too.

    It just as helpful to define failure and/or what success is not… I think for some people that is a lot easier because we all have a very strong emotional response to the fear of failure. Where as the positive happiness seems to be much more elusive.

    Failure is when I stop listening or seeking good ideas
    Failure is when I worry about being right for other people
    Failure is when I don't care.
    Failure is when I care more about the end result then doing something I believe in.
    Success is not a goal and it's not the achievement.
    Success is not a process.
    Success is not about being right.

    Success is the mental and emotional engagement to the attempt to reach the goal. Success is being passionate about trying to reach that goal. I can completely fail to reach the goal and still feel that I succeed. I'm rarely bothered by the fear of failure as long as I'm mentally and emotionally engaged. I can be wrong and I'm wrong often. I'll acknowledge the wrong and try to make it right. I don't need to wait until the end some long process to measure my success. Every night, I can ask myself did I have a successful day. Every moment I can ask myself is the choice I'm making now a successfully one.

    I want live a purposeful life (measured by goals and achievements). And I want to live a passionate life (measured by success vs failure). When someone can find a way merge the two, I believe he/she will be on the road to happiness. I'm sure you're on your way since you're asking these deep questions and searching for answers.

  6. Parmanu says:

    I'm wondering – why define success at all? The moment you define it, you've fallen into society's trap, isn't it? (This is not merely a rhetorical way around the puzzle.)

    To me, being interesting seems better than being successful. If I'm interesting, I have better chances of having good conversations with other interesting people. In the end, in terms of relating to society, that seems a better indicator of a life well-lived.

    I do not know if this is representative in any way (of if it makes any difference to you), but still: as a filmmaker you are much more interesting to me than you would have been in your previous role as Vice President in a technology company. (I meet such VPs every day at work; they are efficient, but mostly boring.) I'm not sure I would have stopped here to look around if your bio had stopped at the VP role.

    UNTITLED was fascinating, and very promising. I look forward to more! (By the way, who is the 'unnamed' artist of the 'untitled' picture(s)?)

  7. TGFI says:

    My definition of success is being able to cross off every task on my daily to-do list.

  8. Shripriya says:

    Thanks for the comment and the blog post, Ricky. As Erik says, I've kind of mixed up success and happiness – and they don't have to go together. My definition will come soon as I let all the feedback seep in and make me think about it more 🙂

  9. Shripriya says:

    Hmm… interesting is a slippery term. If I'd stayed in technology, I might not have been as interesting to you (or myself!) but perhaps to others I'd be much more interesting. Plus you are defining it based on profession… I'd argue that interesting people are those that are curious, open to learning and open to listening irrespective of what their chosen profession is.

    Thanks for the feedback on UNTITLED. The artist is Nick Rosaland is credited at the end of film. What do you mean pictures?? He only painted one. 😉

  10. Shripriya says:

    Ah, you have hit upon the key issue and the reason why I have mixed success and happiness. When i define 'success' I don't mean work success at all. I mean success in life. And what is success is life… it is a huge question and covers so much…

  11. Shripriya says:

    Very straightforward. So what would you say the goal of your life, then?

  12. Shripriya says:

    🙂 Count on you to simplify. How's that to-do list coming? Put a weekly WOMM on there, will you?

  13. nrispot says:

    Like happiness Sucess is a state of mind. I am not sure if one could measure happiness in concreate terms.

    You cannot be sucessful all the time….so my question is how many times you got to be sucessful to call yourself a sucess 🙂
    For example Lincoln failed in all the elections he contested except the last one….was he sucess or a failure…?!?… Between 1977 and 1989 for almost 13 years DMK and MK were never in the race in Tamil Nadu. Now after 20 years look where he and his family is…

  14. Ben says:

    I think the interesting question is not, 'am I successful', but 'do I have enough conditions to be truly happy'. From a quick look around your blog, bio etc, it seems you do – you have children, have done well with work, and by having taken your own direction in life, you are able to express yourself creatively for the gratification of others.

    By any measure (and hopefully by Alain D B's “make sure our ideas of success are our own” yardstick) these conditions would seem to suggest a very successful life, and hopefully, more importantly, means you are indeed happy.

  15. Yeah,I agree with you,that means success!

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  18. stevekong says:

    nice post, thanks for sharing

  19. r4i software says:

    Nice post. I felt success doesn't have any terms or definition. different people think different thoughts on success. My friends thinks if someone earns money then he reaches successes. But i want to just to do some great thing for make me proud.

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