How to Understand What Success Really Means

Imagine you are walking in the park on warm, sun-filled afternoon when a person you don’t know approaches you with a gift-wrapped box. You don’t know this person, but she’s not creepy or threatening. She’s elderly but lively. There’s a twinkle in her eyes, a smile on her face, and energy in her presence. You trust her instinctively, and you quickly forget about the box until she presents it to you.

What’s this? you ask, taking it into your hands.

It’s a gift for you, she says. It is the secret to your success.

Intrigued, you look down at it, then up again to ask a question. But the woman is gone. You are standing alone with the gift in your hands.

Do you open it?

Who could resist?!

We all covet success, but the secret to attaining it typically isn’t handed to us so conveniently. In fact, there’s a good bit of confusion in our world about the true meaning of success, which can make pursuing it even more challenging and frustrating.

Success, of course, isn’t a singular thing because the specifics differ depending on the context. Success for one organization might look like “meeting Friday payroll,” while for another it might look like “going public.” And success in relationships is different from success on a tennis court, although both could involve love.

But I’m talking about success in its broadest terms. When you review all you’ve done and all that you are, what qualifies the sum total as success? And I’m convinced the secret to that type of success is – drumroll, please – to understand what success really means.

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What is success? Interestingly, there’s a huge gap for most of us between how we say we define success for ourselves and how we think others define it.

In 2019, the nonprofit think tank Populace partnered with Gallup to create a “success index.” They did a national survey that “calculated the extent to which 76 attributes contribute to Americans’ personal definition of success and their perception of how others define success.” Then they categorized the attributes into eight domains: character, education, finance, health, quality of life, relationships, status, and work.

The report includes a pie chart showing the “perceived societal” factors that contribute to success, and “status” got a whopping 45.9 percent of the pie. Success to society, in other words, is all about fame, followers, and likes. Education accounted for 19.8 percent of the pie, and nothing else got more than 8.8 percent.

A separate pie chart illustrated how people personally defined success, and it was much more balanced. Education rated at the top with 17.1 percent, but relationships, character, finance, health, and work all rated between 11.7 and 15.6 percent. Quality of life was next at 7.8 percent and status was dead last at just 5.5 percent.

Meanwhile, 97 percent of those surveyed agreed that they are successful if they have “followed their own interest and talents to become the best they can be at what they care about most.” Only 8 percent felt society viewed success in those terms. Instead, 92 percent said society defines successful people as those who are “rich, have a high-profile career, or are well-known.” And only 3 percent embraced that view of success for themselves.

A couple of other points worth noting: People said they don’t measure their success by comparing themselves to others, but they believe society does just that. And people didn’t believe someone has to lose for them to succeed, but they believe society feels that way.

While our collective perception of how the world defines success might seem a bit depressing, it’s encouraging to know that self-perceptions appear a bit more virtuous. But I also noticed a sad reality when I looked closer at the results: Success, whether personal or in the perception of society, seemed largely to be all about one’s self.

Perhaps that had to do with how several of the questions were worded, but this was the finding that really shook me up: A majority agreed that a person’s success isn’t tied to the value the person adds to the lives of others.

Can we be successful if our accomplishments don’t add value to the lives of others? Sure, but only if we have a limited understanding of success.

In Transfluence, I defined success for a leader as “influencing others to do great things,” because I believe that definition fits within a bigger, broader version of what really matters about life – a type of success that includes significance. You can have success, author Bob Buford noted, by using “knowledge and experience” to satisfy yourself. But significance, he said, “means using your knowledge and experience to change the lives of others.”

When you consider what success really means, will you define it in a way that lifts others and turns your personal successes into a life of significance? Or will you limit your view of success to achieving things for yourself?

It turns out, you don’t even need to open that box and look inside for the key to your success. The gift itself is the key. Will you receive it? And will you give it? Will you settle for a limited version of success? Or will you pursue significance?

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