Five Ways to Define Success

By Dr. Linda Seger

We all seem to want it. We all seem to seek it. “Success” seems to be the magic word for what we chase after, prepare for, choose, desire. It’s how we often define our lives. Money, fame, and power are often what we have been told make up success. If we don’t get it, we’re consumed with envy of those who do.

Some who feel they have lost this golden ring have mental breakdowns, mid-life crises, and get ill just thinking about it. Others give up, and decide that success isn’t all that important; what is important is simply having a job and keeping food on the table. Some, at the end of their lives, suddenly realize they blew it, and what they thought they had, they never had at all.

Worldview Definitions of Success

Americans tend to define success by money, and by what money can buy. We are known around the world as a rather materialistic country, always striving after things and defining success by the accoutrements that money can buy – such as our snazzy cars, the size of our homes and designer clothes. And that’s just what we get – more things. This doesn’t mean more fulfillment or contributing to make the world better in some way. It simply means more things.

Other countries define success more in terms of whether their work supports their family life. If they enjoy their work, and if it gives them an opportunity to spend time with their family and have a balanced life, they’d consider themselves successful.

For example an Israeli screenwriter was asked if she had plans to come to Los Angeles to try to break into the Hollywood film industry. She replied, “Probably not since I can’t imagine being that far away from my family.” For her, success would be defined by her ability to get her film made in Israel, without compromising her family life.

Success and Effectiveness

For some, success is defined by effectiveness. The question is: “Are they making things happen? Are they achieving project goals? Are they contributing in a way that adds value to the project?” Success for them means the project becomes better as a result of their participation. They can see the results, and feel fulfilled by their work, but also know their work fulfills others, either because the product they make is useful, or because the service they provide is helpful.

Success and Joy

Some define success by whether their job suits them and by how much joy they have as a result of their work. They define it by the joy they feel when they do the work; the joy they feel when they’ve finished the work; and by the joy that others feel as a result of their work.

If their work doesn’t add to their sense of happiness and joy of themselves and others, then no matter how much money they’ve earned or how many accolades they receive, they don’t feel successful.

This joy not only comes from their own work, but from the collaboration with other talented people who not only bring their skills to the project, but also bring harmony to the working relationship. Nobody wants to work among discord. For many, if those work relationships aren’t fulfilling and harmonious, they don’t feel good about their work, themselves, or about others.

Success and Balance

Some define success by the sense of balance they have between their work lives and the rest of their lives. For them, work is not what success is about. They believe that life needs to be balanced, and that work is not meant to be the only thing in our lives.

John Woolman, an early American abolitionist, cut back on his successful work as a tailor because he wanted to be “free of cumber.” When his work was getting so cumbersome it was controlling him and left him no time for other things of value in his life, he did not consider himself successful.

If a job is driving someone, demanding all their time, and giving them no balance between their work, physical exercise, time with their family and other relationships, and time for spiritual growth, then the balance is off and many would consider this is not living a successful life. This can lead to a frenetic lifestyle, as well as illness, family problems, and not paying attention to the values that make a good life.

Making a Difference

Ultimately, many define success by how their lives will be summed up at their funeral. Will attendees be talking about how much money the person made or perhaps even say “good riddance” to a failure as a human being?

Or will they be talking about this person’s contributions and how blessed they feel to have known this person as a friend or co-worker? For most, success is ultimately defined by the Good that has been contributed, and by what is remembered about someone who has finished the work. Has the person made a good difference?

Dr. Linda Seger is the author of The Better Way to Win: Connecting not Competing for Success, and Spiritual Steps on the Road to Success: gaining the goal without losing your soul. She began her business as a script consultant in 1981 and recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the film industry. She can be contacted through her website,

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