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This is Part 2 of the Building the Foundation to Start a Personal Development Journey Mini-Series. For Part 1, click here. For Part 3.1, click here. For Part 3.2, click here. For Part 3.3, click here.
What is Success?
What does success mean to you? How would you define success?
A total of 543 people answered the questions relating to what is success and how they would define it.
Out of all the 8 questions from my survey, this one had the most responses.
I gathered responses not just from people who took the survey, but from other online platforms where I asked the success question.
If you want to know why I did this, click here for Part One.
Originally, my answer for how I defined success was the following:
“Success to me means when your thoughts, desires, and actions are in sync and in harmony together. You do what you believe in and what you say you do rather than just what you want to do. When you are in consonance with yourself. When you have a balance in important areas of your life: your work, your family and relationships, your health and your time to yourself.”
But I have to say that my answer to that has drastically changed. I would no longer say that answer is success. In fact, I disagree with my previous answer now.
When I came up with the original answer—all of the original answers, in fact—I tried to give the answer that I first thought of without putting too much thought (or any research) into it.
Then, once it came time to write this article and reconsider my answer for what success is and how I would define it, I struggled with it.
Not because I didn’t have anything to say. Partly because there are so many ways we can look at success and partly because some believe success cannot be defined by any one person.
Before we get into the answers, let’s look at the statistics for the respondents. Some answers have no demographics because they came from Reddit or Quora.
The respondents were almost half, and half male and female and less than 1% said they were another gender. We will be looking at differences in responses between the genders within this article.
Most of the respondents said that they were between ages 21-29, followed by ages 60 or older and ages 40-49. We’ll be looking at differences in responses between age groups as well.
Most respondents said they lived in the United States, followed by India, Canada, Costa Rica, and the United Kingdom. There were a total of 31 different countries.
The top states were Florida, California, Texas, New York, and Washington. There were respondents from 44 different states.
The top city in the United States was Orlando, followed by Los Angeles, Kissimmee, Denver, and Portland. There were respondents from 252 different cities and towns.
Most respondents, more than 50% said they were employed, working full-time.
Out of those that said they were employed, working either full-time or part-time, the top occupations were in Education, Training, and Library; Sales and Related; Management; Healthcare Practitioners and Technical; and Arts, Design, Entertainment and Media.
Click here to view all of the demographics and stats, if you’d like to see the rest of the countries, states, cities, and occupations.
To view all of the responses with stats tagged to each answer, click here.
The following is a word cloud map of the most used words in the responses to this question.
The most used word was success, but let’s ignore that for obvious reasons. So, the most used word was happy. 26.65% of answers, 146 to be exact had that word in it. That’s more than a quarter of the answers.
That being said, the most common response stated that success is happiness or meant being happy.
Why Success is Not Happiness
We can look at success in many different ways.
We’re going to define success as the dictionary definition of it, for now.
According to the first result on google dictionary, success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.
I think it’s easier for us to simplify when we say that success is being happy or success is reaching your external goals or making a lot of money.
But just like money doesn’t bring happiness, neither does the literal dictionary definition of success.
I think success and happiness positively correlate with each other most of the time. Success as in just reaching goals can and should make you happier, but it’s not always the case. And it shouldn’t be the only thing behind your happiness either.
Take, for example, people who have accomplished so much in their life. But it’s still never enough. They are never happy with what they already have. The things they have always need to be bigger, shinier, faster, and more expensive.
Basically, keeping up with the Joneses.
Or the people who feel anxiousness from their accomplishments. They can’t handle their success. They turn to poor decisions and self-sabotage. Or even worse, they don’t even accept their success. They feel as though they don’t deserve it.
They have imposter syndrome.
These examples are “successful,” yet they are miserable.
Now, let’s look at happiness itself.
Happiness is an emotion. Success is a state of being and living.
Your happiness shouldn’t depend on your success, and your success shouldn’t depend on your happiness.
I can tell you times when I felt extremely happy in life that had nothing to do with success, accomplishment or personal fulfillment.
Being in love, for example, with someone I had just met and started dating. Only to be soon blindsided and dumped and then spurred into a state of depression. Or being surrounded by many friends on a birthday. Only to have drama ensue and realize that many were not “true” friends.
And how many of us have felt happy binge watching Netflix? Only to end up feeling lazy and unproductive later.
In the survey, slightly more women than men used the words “happy” and “happiness”, for the success question.
When it came to age groups, use of happy/happiness continually rises, peaks at ages 30-39, then drops at ages 40-49 and steadily rises back up.
Ages 31-39, ages 50-59, and ages 60 or older used happiness-related words the most out of all the other word categories.
I think a better word if I were to define success in one word would be fulfillment.
When your goals and the life you want to live and the person you want to be are continuously being realized.
The Equation of Success
Happiness is a part of the equation, but it’s not what success is.
Now, I like to look at success as an equation. Or better yet, a formula.
Achievements + Happiness/Fulfillment + More goals & growth = Success
Achievements – Have you recently achieved goals and new levels of living and being? No matter how small or big they may be. If not, are you making continuous progress? Are you better off today than you were 6 months or a year ago? If not, are you working towards making changes to be so?
Happiness/Fulfillment – Are you proud and happy with your achievements and where you are so far in life? I’m not saying if you’re good with just that and are settling for that now. Do you feel fulfilled with what you have done with your time? Or do you feel like it’s not enough? Do you reject your achievements? Do you get anxiety from your successes? Do you feel like you don’t deserve your accomplishments? Are your achievements what your parents or society wanted and not what you wanted? Do you still feel empty and unfulfilled inside?
More Goals & Growth – Do you have goals? Are you making plans to achieve them? Are you continually learning? Are you expanding your sources of learning and information? In other words, seeking new and different viewpoints, talking to different people, reading articles that challenge your beliefs? Or do you only listen to information and advice you already agree with from the same friends, the same news, the same sites? Are you seeking to improve and become better than you were yesterday? Are you realistically evaluating yourself and your life? Are you trying out new things? Are you challenging yourself? Or are you stagnant or feeling stuck? Or are you complacent and comfortable in your own little bubble?
Just like any formula in math, depending on what you plug into the equation, the answer is not constant. It can vary and change from person to person, from time to time. And it can also develop into a more complex and advanced equation.
The formula stays the same, but the components and what you plug into the equation doesn’t. The answer to the formula is different and unique to each and every individual.
Goals, however, are required for success. No matter how big or small they may be. And no matter what kind of goals they are. Without goals there is no success. I don’t necessarily mean having classic stated, written down goals. Although I would recommend that. I mean having intentions, direction and purpose for your life and yourself.
When it came to words such as goal(s), achieve, accomplish, the exact same amount of women and men (101) used these words!
When it came to age groups, use of goal-related words is highest at ages 17 or younger, drops at ages 18-20, picks up at ages 21-29, then declines until it rises again at ages 60 or older.
Ages 17 and younger, as well as ages 18-20, ages 21-29 and ages 40-49 used the goal-related words the most, out of all of the word categories measured.
Goal-related and happiness-related words were the top two word categories.
When it comes to measuring success, I think success can be measured in different areas of your life. I also think it should be measured overall as well.
A well-known billionaire may rank in the 90s for success in a financial/work area, but overall may be at about a 50 due to poor relationships and social life. Or due to emotional and mental health. Or physical health.
Looking at different areas of your life is important. Neglecting some areas for too long becomes destructive to your life as a whole.
Success is a spectrum. Sometimes it goes one way and sometimes it goes the other way. The key is to keep it moving forward and maintaining it. It’s not always possible, but it’s the effort that counts for your self-esteem.
Little Person Exercise
If I picture a “successful” person in my mind, the first thing that pops up in my mind is that this person has a lot of money. Maybe they’re a millionaire or billionaire. I’m just being honest. It’s the automatic response.
We are conditioned to equate being successful with money early on. When you hear or read someone mentioning a successful person, that person usually is referring to a person who has achieved great things, or they are very good at what they do. And 99% of the time, that means that they made a heck lot of money from doing the things they do.
Anyway, back to the little person in my head that pops up when I think of a successful person. This person is probably well-known. The more I think about this person and am conscious of the thought of a successful person, the more I start to give this little person details.
It becomes less about money and more about the kind of life they live.
What they do in their day to day life, what kind of life they have, how they interact with people. And this is where it probably starts becoming different for everyone.
Try this out as a little exercise. See who this little person turns out to be. Perhaps it’s a public figure you admire or someone you know or your future self.
Better yet, make it your future self.
Where does he/she live? What kind of house do they live in? What does their day look like? How do their relationships look? What do they feel? What do they think? What are they striving towards? What do they plan for? What do their seasons and holidays look like? What do they do in their spare time?
Now that you’ve come up with your little person, feel free to ask yourself more questions and add more details. Bonus points if you don’t just think about this and write it down.
If you decided to make it your future self, how far away into the future do you think it is until this little person is you? For me, when I picture my little person, it’s about 5 years from now.
Try to continue on or even go back. How is this person, this future ideal you, six months from now? One year from now? Three years? Five years? Ten years? Twenty?
Success is a Journey
Let’s look at the viewpoint that success is a journey. I agree with this term. To a degree. Here’s an example. Let’s say…
If I started making $1000 from my blog, omg I would be so happy. I’m reaching a goal and making money from my passion and something that I learn a lot and work hard for. But, if 3 years down the road, I’m still making $1000 a month, I wouldn’t be so happy with that.
But, if I get to a point where like other successful bloggers are making $100K off their blog and 5 years later, I’m still making around that much, I would still be happy and consider myself successful. This is just financially, but let’s assume other areas of my life are at the same level of success.
The reason why is that at that point, I would be living my envisioned life. I would have the freedom to live the life I want to live.
However, at that point, I would still be working and growing towards improving my business, my life and myself in all areas.
Success is a journey, yes, but not any journey is success. Or at least success is not just any kind of journey. And it’s more than a journey.
Success is actually reaching destinations and then moving on to the next destination. It’s not just a single one-way ticket. It’s the many one-way tickets and road trips and hikes to your dream destinations. Even the short walks that get you from Point A to Point B.
Sometimes your ticket is a long economy flight. Sometimes it’s first class. Or it may be a bus or train ticket. Sometimes you miss the original flight or train. Sometimes your destination is not what you expected.
As long as you get to your destination and appreciate it and then buy the next ticket on to the next destination.
And with each flight, you become better at traveling. It could still be economy and not first class (metaphorically speaking, it’s not easy), but you become more equipped to handle obstacles and bumps in the road because of your past flights/successes.
The more you experience reaching your goals, the more you realize what success means to you personally and what you want out of life. What kind of life you want to live.
If you spend years wanting to be a lawyer, and you spend countless hours and dollars toward that, and then when you finally become a lawyer, you suddenly realize that’s not what you want, that’s okay.
Had you have given up on your goals earlier and never become a lawyer, you may have never realized this and lived in regret wishing you would’ve pursued becoming a lawyer, always wondering, “what if?”
You can achieve success in your goals and realize that’s not success to you. But you should still be happy and proud and accepting of your accomplishments. Even if it’s not what you wanted. It led you on the path of realization. Which is a goal for many.
Success and Money
Although the most popular response was happiness, many did mention money.
I don’t think success means having a lot of money or making a lot of money. But it does play a factor. It is a part of it. We can’t deny that.
As long as it’s within the means of feeling fulfilled and living the life you want to live.
For living a successful life, money is required, for adults and future adults. But how much is up to the individual.
Let’s take the farmer and the millionaire. Both are living successful lives.
The millionaire is living his dream life. He is in a fulfilling and healthy relationship with his girlfriend. He creates products that improve people’s lives. He has philanthropic endeavors. He is proud of his accomplishments. He feels that he and his successes are enough, but he still strives to grow and do better.
He continues to have goals and plans. He is working on building up more passive streams of income with his business. He’s planning on proposing to his girlfriend and continue building the life he envisions for himself with kids and being able to spend more time at home. He’s taking more steps to take care of his health as well by eating healthier and going on morning runs.
For the farmer, he is successful with what he does. He is good at the meaningful work he does. He makes enough money for his means. The life he wants is the life he lives. This is the successful life he envisioned for himself. He lives in his ideal little house, secluded and far from society. He is successful at taking care of his daughters.
He is a loving and caring husband to his wife. He is a friendly and giving neighbor. He contributes to the community. And he is always seeking to improve his life and how he can be a better farmer, father, husband, and neighbor. Whether it be by trying new things in the field, reading the Bible, or reading books like, As A Man Thinketh. and implementing what he learns.
So, essentially, money is not success, but it is vital to living a successful life. Just like happiness, money is only part of it. Money aids in allowing us to live the lives we want to live.
If you ask many well-known figures that have made a name for themselves how they would define success, you will most likely find that most of them rarely mention money. Their answers go beyond money.
When it came to the use of finance-related words in the survey question, more women than men mentioned money in their responses. However, more men used finance-related words as a whole than women did.
Use of finance-related words was reasonably constant throughout ages but shows a gradual decline overall until it starts rising at ages 50-59.
Success and Power
A lot of times we can even equate success with how much power someone has. Not a lot of people mentioned power but, I wanted to address it anyway. Many of the people that are considered “successful” have a lot of power attached to their name.
Success is so much more than having money and power.
Arianna Huffington, co-founder of Huffington Post, says, “To live the lives we truly want and deserve, and not just the lives we settle for, we need a Third Metric. A third measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.”
Success and Work
Let’s look at what work has to do with success.
As far as the responses, more men used work-related words, in total, than women did. However, more women mentioned the word career than men did.
For age groups, use of work-related words peaks at ages 21-29, significantly drops at ages 30-39 then gradually rises until it falls again at ages 60 or older.
I don’t think anyone can consider themselves successful without work. And I don’t mean just a job, work can mean work in school and community service.
Work should be done in all areas of life. Effort should be put in. I’m not saying tireless, stressful, hard work, but you should try to the best of your abilities in everything that you do and in every area of your life.
Child or retired, work is essential to living a successful life.
For the child, it’s learning how to walk or studying for a test. For the retired, it’s relationships, social groups, and community service work.
Work means doing service to others, contributing in one way or another.
Even if it’s to your relationships. Relationships whether it be to your family, your friends, your significant other, your religious or work groups.
Any relationship IS work.
Everything good in life, you have to put work and effort into it.
Once you stop working, once you stop trying, you stop living.
Success and Relationships
More men mentioned words such as “love,” “relationship,” “family,” and “social” than women did.
From ages 18-20 to ages 21-29, relationship related words significantly dropped, then steadily began increasing as age increased.
Relationships are one thing that should never be neglected. Yes, you should always consider your relationships toward your success.
When I mention relationships, I mean every type of relationship. Any kind of interaction you have with another human being.
It goes without saying, a life that neglects relationships is not a fulfilling nor successful life.
When the area of your relationships suffers, the other areas of your life are bound to suffer. Relationships affect your finances and work. They affect your mental and emotional health and even your physical health. Relationships affect your overall being and state of living.
And forget about transactional relationships. Those are ineffective and end up hurting both parties.
Like I mentioned above, work and effort should be put into every relationship. Your part in any relationship is your responsibility. Both sides contribute to the success of a relationship.
Success that just focuses on money, number of clients, number of sales, number of likes, etc. is short-lived and neither fulfilling nor meaningful.
Why Success is NOT about Harmony
In my previous answer, I mentioned how success is about how in harmony you are with your thoughts, emotions, and actions.
I would say now that yes, that can be success, but it’s not always the case.
What if your thoughts and emotions are poor, bad, or toxic? What if you have unethical beliefs such as “Lying and cheating is the only way to success.” Or limiting beliefs such as, “Money is the root of all evil.” Or “Success all depends on how talented, lucky, smart or privileged you already are.”?
And who wants their feelings of anxiety to be in harmony with their actions?
We should focus first on developing ourselves on a deeper level and then the harmony should naturally follow.
Why We Should Define Success
I noticed an answer that I thought I should talk about and share my perspective on.
“Success is when you stop caring about anyone’s definition of success, including your own.”
I can understand the first part, but the last part strikes me as odd.
I noticed a few other responses that also believed that you shouldn’t define success.
Why shouldn’t you define your own success?
I’m not saying that you should let others define the specifics of living a successful life for you.
I think everyone should have a defined view of what success is to them. How can you achieve something you can’t define? How can you reach a target you can’t identify, explain, or visualize?
How can you make being successful a goal if you don’t even know what that means or don’t even put much thought into it?
Although I said earlier that I disagree with success being happiness, having that belief is not a bad thing. But it should be reconsidered and expanded upon with more detail.
If you were among the respondents that said success is happiness or being happy. Or you would, too, say that success is happiness. Expand upon that. Don’t worry about what success means to other people or having a one-size-fits-all definition. What’s your own personal definition of living a successful life?
Check out the success formula above or try out the little person exercise.
When it comes to defining success for ourselves, it’s important to be realistic.
We should aim to avoid getting into the limited mentality of “everyone gets a trophy.” As in everyone is successful because of their own opinion. That becomes ineffective for individuals and for a functioning society as a whole. If I’m already successful from doing very little or something that has nothing to do with success, then there is no value in becoming successful. All it does is it raises my own ego and puts me in pretend land where I have little incentive to try and to make goals for myself. Because I’m “already successful.”
Most important of all, if you truly want to know how to define success for yourself personally, answer this:
What do you want others to say about you at your own funeral?
Before we get into what my answer to what success is now, the following are some of my favorite responses to the question, in no particular order.
- Being completely satisfied and fulfilled by whatever path you are walking in your journey through life. – Christa Bruno Cruz
- Having the means to live the life you desire while learning and growing along the way. – Anonymous
- Achieving the goals a person sets for themselves, whether daily, weekly or periodically and being happy with the progress a person has made even when not all the goals set were achieved. – Zippy
- when every dream becomes reality in every aspect of life – Sam Turl
- Success is being able to realize and actualize that every day, there is a reason to be great. – She Costa
- When you feel fulfilled for some time in a row – Ana
- Feeling fulfilled within yourself, completing the goals and projects that you set for yourself that are either career or personal – Carly
- Earning a perfect amount of money and spending time with loved ones – Sanjukta
- designing my dream life and living it – Anonymous
- An internal sense of accomplishment – Doreen Edwards
- To me, success is a state to reach and maintain, in which you realize what happiness looks to you (leaving aside what society says it should look like), and you come to a peaceful feeling in which you embrace the place you are at the moment, understanding your past as a path towards this moment, and the future as something you are going to build with all that you have learned and discovered until now. It is a state in which you know which are your goals, which goals have you accomplished now, and you get a positive mindset that allows you to enjoy the journey. To me, it is not a destination, like, “once I am rich, I have succeeded in life”. – Marta
- I would define it as having a sense of fulfillment and an ability to have been able to pursue one’s passions in life – Brian Benson
- Success is the state of accomplishment whether it applies to oneself, others, or an organization. – Anonymous
- To live the lives we truly want, and not just the lives we settle for – Enrique Caballero
- Success to me is being content with life. Being happy with the job I have, surrounded by the people that bring out the best in me and actually care about me, and having a partner that has the same views as me in life but challenges me at the same time. Success to me is not defined by making a lot of money because at the end of the day, that can all disappear and you’re left with nothing. – Andrea Mendoza
- Success cannot be achieved but rather an act of growing and more importantly having a chance of growing, for example you can be CEO of an MNC earning $200k if your expenses are also $200k you won’t have enough to invest and grow your net worth, but if you are earning $50k and have expenses of $30k you have a chance to grow, invest in stocks, businesses and other places, hence in my definition you are successful cause you can grow – Anonymous
- Success is feeling like you are making a difference in the world. – Anonymous
- Personal fulfillment – Anonymous
- Feeling fulfilled at the end of the day, knowing in some way you made a difference to someone. – Anonymous
- Success is very hard to define in a single statement. Success is like connecting all the successive dots to make a picture. Where the dots represent the day to day challenges one would encounter in their lives and the picture represent the goal/goals achieved. At the end of the day success is all about how content and happy you are in life. – Barath Dasari
- Living a successful life means that you, as a good person, you are doing something great with your time. Whatever you want. Living in abundance and impacting people and sharing your story and changing lives. Like that would be just… I would feel so successful. Obviously, that comes with wealth and making money. Like, that’s just a part of it. There’s no number value on what successful means. You know what I mean? It’s like that those aspects will come and then the money just like follows, however much, whatever vehicle you use or industry you’re in. – Francesca Gura
- I feel like success is the.. it’s the progressive realization of a worthwhile dream or goal and I mean that as in like you continuously find out what success really is the more you pursue what you’re going after like that is success is like being in the pursuit of something. – Thalia Guajardo
- Success is not becoming the richest person or being a celebrity. It is not about wealth or physical acquisitions and not about gaining knowledge either. Success depends on how one defines their life. When a person reaches a high in a particular field but lacks in other areas, he may be successful in one field but not as a person. A person who understands all his responsibilities, makes reasonable efforts to fulfill them, is satisfied with what he achieves after reasonable efforts and who realizes that this birth is a unique opportunity to improve his character and is constantly working towards it even while fulfilling his worldly responsibilities is actually performing his role ideally. – Tangirala Venkata
- Success means to me: a balance of your own personal being. Your close relationships with the people that, you know, your family, your immediate friends. The contributions that you make to the groups that you’re associated with be it with work, religious groups, any kind of different groups that you have. Your overall contribution that you have to mankind, as a steward and pilot. – Greg Gura
- Being your most authentic self – Anonymous
- Being happy and self sufficient while expressing my creativity and contributing to society and helping others – Anonymous
- I believe in two conditions for the success in life. There should be a fixed starting line There should be a fixed ending line. From my view, both are lies. The truth is Life is a kind of race where everyone is not standing at the same starting line. i.e., Starting is different for everyone. Finishing line is also different for everyone. Then, What is Success? Basically our success is defined by the distance covered from our starting point. If at any moment we would like to know how successful we are, do this: Turn around and see how far we have come. Let me reinforce what I am saying with a small example A well respected teacher, whose father used to work as a manual scavenger, is more successful than the CEO of the company who got it in inheritance, apart from money and power. Thanks – Arun Balasubramanian
There were so many other great and insightful answers that I really wanted to include in the list! These were just the first few picked that stood out to me from a list without identification and in no order.
To see all of the answers to this question along with stats tagged on each answer, click here.
My question posted on Quora and its answers were merged with other similar “what is success?” questions and their answers. Click here to see the answers on Quora which sometimes include helpful images within the answers.
What is Success? Final Thoughts
So what is my definition of success now? I’ll sum my answer up into this conclusion.
Success can be defined in so many different ways. You don’t have to take my or anyone else’s definition of success to be or feel successful, but I do ask that you keep an open mind and stay realistic.
So, for me…
Success is living a fulfilling life, where you are continually learning and improving.
It’s living a rich life. Rich in experiences. Rich in education. Rich in health. Rich in relationships. Rich in love. Rich in what I have to give and contribute.
Success is what and how much you have to contribute to the people around you, your work, society as a whole.
It’s knowing and getting to know who I am by always learning about myself, reflecting, and evaluating.
It’s having and discovering an identity within myself beyond the stuff I have, the clothes I wear, my physical appearance, the house I live in, the groups and social circles I belong to, etc.
Success is having respect for both the present and future as well as appreciation for the past. Whether it’s past successes or lessons learned.
It’s when you give yourself independence and freedom to pursue what YOU want in life.
It’s how good you are at living and dealing with what life throws at you. You have the competency of being able to face life’s challenges.
It’s not about what happens to me. It’s about my reactions to everything in life. How proactive I am. How in control of my life I am. It’s how I use my experiences, both positive and negative, for good.
Success is when you’re living the life you envision for yourself and expanding on that vision.
It’s living intentionally.
You are living with purpose and mission and fulfillment.
My definition of success will probably change as I get older.
But for right now, that, to me, is success.
What is it to you, now?
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