How Is Success Defined?
What does success mean to you? Does it involve money? Job title? How well you marry? The car you drive? Just keeping your business afloat another year?
To whom do you compare your success to know whether or not you’re successful? To your current peers? To your family members? People with whom you went to school?
I define success based on my terms, biases, experiences, and expectations. Everyone has their own definition of success seen through their lens. My definition of success has changed over the years – what it takes for me to be successful now doesn’t even compare to what my definition was 30+ years ago.
When I was in my early teens, success ran the gamut of getting my mother to say yes to a party I wanted to attend or making enough money babysitting to buy records. Looking back, I must laugh at the teen “me” because I was successful by many definitions as babysitting business turned into a daycare that made more money than my mom’s salary. Why didn’t I consider myself successful then? Because I compared myself to my friends and I used what they defined as success for myself.
As I matured, here’s how the definition of success took on different meanings.
- The Education World (Late Teens). My first job outside my home was working with the New York City Board of Education (actually, it was Burger King but only lasted a day so it doesn’t count.) For me, success was keeping the minimum wage job through high school and then getting hired by them after graduation. I wasn’t thinking further than that. Then, when I got hired, I wanted to ensure that I delivered on all my responsibilities. I wanted a good rating on my appraisal. And I was “successful.”
- The Retail World (Early 20’s). I dared to ask for a $1 raise at the Board of Ed and was told no! I left to work in a top retail corporation when I was 21. My definition of success changed because I now had different levers to pull in a new, larger, non-government corporation. Success meant that I would get to learn all the different departments of the company and get the opportunity to try my hand at various jobs. I was making more money than I did at the Board of Education so I was happy! I had to go to school in the evening and couldn’t go full time but I didn’t consider myself a failure as long as kept going.
I had changed my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was happy with a reasonable pay increase every year. I was very “successful” in retail. I got to work in every department – customer service, collections, capital improvement, accounting, credit authorization, and working in marketing and information management changed my life because I identified what I wanted to do as a career. However, retail was a low-paying industry and I now had bills to pay. I needed to make more money and my friends graduated from college and I didn’t. I didn’t feel like a loser because I didn’t define success by how much money I made as long as I covered my bills. I did realize that a college degree would give me a better job and, therefore, better pay.
- The Financial World (Late 20’s – 40). I left retail because the money in financial services doubled what I was making in retail for the same job. I worked for an organization that offered free tuition as long as the degree was in the area where I worked – marketing. My success now included accomplishing both an undergraduate and graduate degree, both of which were being offered at the company’s expense! I succeeded on that goal.
I started out as a Secretary and used all the knowledge from my previous jobs, starting with information management, to move up the corporate ladder ending my career as a Director in marketing. My success definition once again changed. I found I was now thinking of buying a home, having children, getting married, and traveling the world. Those were high-ticket items! My definition of success included how much money I made to accomplish those goals. Each promotion got me more money, plus stock options. I crossed off marriage and children from my success list. I became very comfortable knowing I could control my destiny by delivering for my customers and getting top ratings. Success!
- Entrepreneurship (40’s – present). After 9/11, I was laid off from my corporate job. I took all the expertise that I mastered in the corporate arena into my entrepreneurial role. Creating a profitable company would be my ultimate definition of success. Having the company make money to support myself and my business partner was imperative to our survival. Our families depended on it!
After creating, scaling, and exiting a multi-million dollar business, I now consider myself a success. Now what? Is this where my success ends? No. It’s where my final definition of success happens.
- Current Life. I help women business owners through coaching and helping them to form advisory boards or get the education they need. I mentor young people to start their entrepreneurship journey and to get into the college of their choice. I help senior citizens to get a healthy meal as well as the care they need. I help my husband to build his church. I help charities by donating or volunteering my service.
In this phase of servant leadership, I will be the most successful I’ve ever been! If I can continue to help others by sharing my knowledge or lending a helping hand, I will consider myself the most successful person in the world. When I look back, perhaps I should have finished college in four years. Or perhaps I should have gotten married early. Should I have had children?
I’m successful because I’m happy with my life, my family, and friends, and might live to collect a social security check soon!
What is your definition of success?