What if the reason we don’t feel successful is because we are judging ourselves by someone else’s definition of success? What if it’s not that we set the bar too high or too low, but too specifically? What if it’s possible to redefine success in a way that propels us toward our future dreams without making us feel presently inadequate?
Have you ever thought about how you define success? Maybe you have, but I know for me my understanding of success was an accident at best. It came from what I saw applauded in my environment. “Sherry got straight A’s.” “Jeff is a National Merit Scholar.” “Did you hear that Mary’s daughter graduated with a 4.0 and is heading to Princeton in the fall?” “I heard that your classmate that became a doctor—you know the one who married that lawyer—they’re having twins! Oh, and they just moved into a 5 bedroom mansion in L.A.” Throughout most of our lives we’ve received subtle, and not so subtle, hints about what success looks like. As we’ve observed the words and reactions of our family members, teachers, siblings, and society, we have learned what is and isn’t success.
The interesting thing about the word success is that it is more a concept than an actual physical thing. It’s not tangible, though many may define it by status and acquired possessions. Success is an idea. Ideas differ from person to person. You could ask one hundred people, “What is your definition of success?” and you’d likely get an equal number of answers. For some, having a million dollars is how they define success. While others feel successful if their family is happy and healthy. Some will feel successful if they can afford an apartment and pay their utilities. While others don’t feel successful because they don’t have a vacation home.
There are perceived norms of development that society uses to define what successful looks like at each stage of our lives. From birth ‘til death, we are taught to compare ourselves to others of similar age, gender, religious affiliations, and so on. We contrast our “progress” and feel that we are a failing student, an irresponsible adult, a terrible spouse, an unessential employee, or the worst parent. However, since we all have various experiences, natural tendencies, priorities, responsibilities, skills, etc., if we evaluate our worth by some broad definition, or worse, hold ourselves to a standard that feels unattainable, we can go our whole lives feeling unsuccessful.
The reality is that everyone is different and that means that we each need our own definition of success. For the longest time, being rich and married, with two kids and a huge house in the suburbs was my definition of success. Having a steady paycheck as a doctor, lawyer, nurse or government employee, my own home, and no debt was my parents’ definition. Graduating with honors, tons of scholarships, and a bazillion Ivy League acceptance letters was the definition I learned in high school. At every stage of my life, there has been an implied meaning of success that was devastatingly out of reach for me. And it made me feel horrible about myself. I kept trying but I was often pursuing goals that didn’t matter to me or weren’t aligned with who I am. They just felt really important to everybody else. I wish I knew then what I know now.
Presently, I am a 42-year old single mom, who is rebuilding her life from the ground. What I recently realized is, if I don’t set my own empowering definition of success, I will never attain it. I cannot afford to give another second of my life toward pursuing other people’s goals for my life, nor attributing my self-worth to what I do or have. For the rest of my life, I choose to define success by who I am and how I show up. I am willing to change my definition as often as needed.
I currently have a note to myself on my wall that states, “I choose to believe and accept that SUCCESS is believing in who I am today and who I am becoming.” That’s my current definition. So all I have to do is believe in myself—my present and my future—and I’ve had a successful day. That’s success that’s attainable. That’s success that empowers me to feel good about myself and to move forward.
Our definitions of success often do us more harm than good. It is essential that we take the time to make them empowering. I challenge you to take a few minutes and think about how you define success. Does it empower you? Is it aligned with your truth, your priorities, and your current beliefs? Does it make you feel good about yourself? If not, give yourself a chance at success. Create a new and empowering definition, today.
Want to share your new empowering definition of success? Share it in the comments below.