Defining Success

Let’s play some Jeopardy. Alex, I’ll take “Dubious Definitions” for $400. 

The answer:

Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Beyonce, and Elon Musk

I start tapping on my buzzer incessantly as Alex finishes his sentence. My name lights up and the floor is mine:

“When you think of successful, who comes to mind?”

In this imaginary game of Jeopardy, that $400 would be mine. 

That’s because the four names from the answer all fit the standard definition of success. It’s typically someone who a) is proficient in a particular activity (e.g. sport, business, art), and b) has garnered recognition for this ability. 

I struggle with this commonly accepted notion. We’re leaving out many deserving people and including others not truly worthy.

Derek Sivers, entrepreneur and author, also challenges this definition. “What if Richard Branson set out to live a quiet life, but like a compulsive gambler, he just can’t stop creating companies? Then that changes everything, and we can’t call him successful anymore.” (source)

Moreover, what if someone attained their success by acting like a total jerk along the way? Shouldn’t that also be factored into the equation?

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve developed a new model for defining success:

A person’s level of achievement, using their personal goals as the measuring stick

The way they did it, using your personal moral compass as the barometer

This feels like a more complete rubric to me. It takes into account Derek Sivers’ point regarding goal attainment and also accounts for how the person behaved. 

Unfortunately, like most models, mine contains a fatal flaw. We never really know a person’s internal goals. That information is highly personal and rarely public knowledge — unless included in a memoir or if you happen to be best friends with the person. 

I’m tempted to crumple this equation into a paper ball and channel my inner Michael Jordan by dunking it into the trash. But maybe it’s not totally worthless. Instead of using it to evaluate success in others, maybe we can use it to evaluate success in the most important and critical person of all — ourselves. 

We beat ourselves up over being “successful” and doing everything perfectly. I think a cause of much of that criticality is due to an unobjective analysis of what we’ve accomplished. Let’s change that by adding some objectivity in how we judge ourselves, with a new formula for personal success:

My level of achievement, compared to my goals

How I did it

Using this model, we can look back over the past year, month, week, or day and ask ourselves: Have I been successful? 

Now that sounds like a question for Final Jeopardy. 

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