Few words are as emotionally charged as the word “success.” And this is partly due to the current definition of success, which centers around achieving goals or acquiring some form of upward social mobility or wealth. The implication is that anything less is a failure, yet many people who are technically successful still feel that something is lacking. So, perhaps it is time to consider redefining success or, at least, redefining what success means to you.
What Does it Mean to Be Successful?
If you dig into the history of the word success, you’ll see that older definitions were synonymous with outcome, regardless of whether that outcome was positive or negative. However, if you look up the meaning of success as it stands today, two words stick out: accomplishment and attainment. In many respects, this shows how influential culture can be on our perspectives – we receive messages from the world around us about what success means and internalize them.
Why does this matter? Because our perspectives affect how we feel, not just about our actions and behaviors, but about the actions and behaviors of others. And these judgments, which are often subconscious, affect our ability to feel fulfilled.
The Role of Culture in Defining the Meaning of Success
In general, culture, and popular culture in particular, defines which behaviors are significant enough to warrant attention – something we all crave in one form or another because we are social animals, and our survival depends on it. We need other humans to see us and accept us.
In many Western cultures that place importance on individual achievement, we pay particular attention to the successes of music or sports superstars. Yet we often overlook the accomplishments of the researchers and scientists who work as a team to develop life-saving medical treatments or the public servants who keep a society functioning. Of course, these are all successful people, but who and what gains our attention is driven by our cultural norms and supported by our communication channels, such as social media, news, television, etc.
What’s crucial to note is that our definition of success evolves as cultures evolve. Similarly, our personal definition of success may shift throughout our life. The conventional wisdom is that when we are young, our world is primarily limited to our family, friends, and community and that as we gain new experiences, we shift how we define success.
However, social media has disrupted how we view the world and what we think it means to be successful in life. If everyone is heavily filtered and posts only their most optimistic stories, it feels like the whole world is “successful”…except you. Therefore, it should be no surprise that researchers found a link between social media use and signs of depression.
However, the good news is that redefining success for ourselves is entirely doable. And it is something I highly recommend, especially if you are unfulfilled and worry that you have essentially chosen success vs. happiness.
How to Redefine Success
I often work with clients who have achieved a conventional idea of success (either through their work or the accumulation of material goods). Yet, they feel frustrated because they don’t “feel” like a successful person. In other words, they feel disconnected from their vision of success. With these clients, we typically start with a discussion about the cultural influences around us and identify strategies to separate ourselves from these influences – to look at the unique intersectional lens we have formed and how it compares to popular culture’s definition of success.
But I wouldn’t recommend doing this all at once; it’s better to take it in stages. For instance, we might spend a coaching session separating true success from the “symbols of success,” such as:
- Expensive depreciating assets (cars, boats, etc.).
- A home in a highly aspirational neighborhood.
- Membership in brand-name institutions (expensive country clubs or private schools).
- Designer clothing that will be out of style in six months.
These symbols of success only signal a person’s willingness to spend money or ability to take on debt, sometimes both. But, unfortunately, it’s a competition that no one wins because while you may find some satisfaction from buying such things, there will always be someone willing to spend more.
To be clear: I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for symbols of success. I’m saying we must get in touch with what these symbols represent to us and build a conscious understanding of why they are important. When I ask clients what meaning these symbols carry, I see a range of emotions and connections with these symbols – everything from:
- “I earned it; therefore I deserve it” to;
- “This is what everyone else is doing” to;
- “These things control all the decisions I make in my life.”
Then, we insert a cultural lens, and I ask them to consider how they have seen this symbol of success throughout their lives. Usually, there is a cultural connection in that the item or experience embodies “success” somehow. When I ask if this remains the case for them given their current value system, some will answer “yes” and others “no.” But the difference is that those who say “yes” now have a new awareness around what that symbol represents. And, those who say “no” can release themselves from the bonds of guilt or frustration of trying to “keep up.”
I’ve also worked with people whose cultural values place high importance on family and community. Yet, they abandoned those values to pursue what they perceived to be a “better” existence. The resulting tension can become all-consuming for such clients, forcing them to redefine what success means in the context of their life. Consider the following example:
Redefining Success: An Example
Lara (not her real name) grew up in a small town along the Pacific Ocean, where she was part of a tight-knit community where everyone knew each other. When she was young, she felt constrained by the community and dreamed of going to college far away from home. Her dreams came true when a large, top-tier research university accepted her.
After attending university, Lara completed a doctorate and was later recruited into an organization that had a fantastic reputation in her field. From the viewpoint of her classmates and her supportive family, she “made it.” She had reached the pinnacle of her professional and personal life, but other wonderful life events followed. She met and married a fellow scientist, and they had their first child. She had what many would define as an ideal life.
Despite her successes, Lara felt something was missing. She enjoyed her work but lacked control over her schedule, making parenthood difficult. Then, the pandemic hit, and everything (including childcare) moved online. The boundaries between Lara’s personal and professional life evaporated, and she needed support.
Lara’s parents and siblings seemed further away than ever, and she began to miss the cohesiveness and interdependence of her small town.
Lara brought her concerns to her partner, and the couple realized they had a choice. They could stay in the large city knowing no one or move back to her hometown where they knew everyone. It wasn’t long before their moving van pulled back into Lara’s hometown.
When we worked together, Lara and I discussed what it meant to achieve success. She realized that the definition of success can evolve and that it is normal (even necessary) to revisit that definition from time to time to rebuild alignment.
Lara now feels that her life reflects her evolved definition of success. She has regained the connection and community she missed and can be more present for her child, who is flourishing in the presence of aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Lara re-negotiated her role with her organization and continues to work virtually. She feels like her life is more in alignment with her values, and she couldn’t be happier.
Success Redefined: Questions to Ask Yourself
Are you ready to reimagine what success means to you? First, consider one topic or aspect of your life that is important to you. Then, take your first steps toward finding your truth by thinking through the following questions and jotting down your answers.
- How do you define success in that aspect of your life? For example, maybe you grew up thinking that things needed to happen in a certain way, that there were milestones to meet or symbols to obtain that would represent success.
- What cultural influences have affected your worldview to this point? For instance, what cultural expectations have you absorbed from your family, friends, workplace, or even your affinity groups?
- If you had the option to redesign that aspect of your life, how might it be different?
- Has your view of success evolved concerning that original topic? If so, how?
- What actions could you take to align your current state with what you want around this topic?
- Who could you partner with to make this happen?
Then, once you are clear on the changes you wish to make, develop plans to implement them. And be sure to document your progress and celebrate each success along the way.
The Bottom Line
The word success carries a lot of weight in our society, and there are many expectations about what we should and should not do in our quest to be successful. But from time to time, we must look inward and consider redefining success as it pertains to our individual lives. After all, what’s the point of success if you can’t enjoy it?
To learn more about how the world around you can influence your belief system, I’d recommend reading our blog post on cultural conditioning.