the meaning of success“The starting point of all achievement is desire.” – Napoleon Hill

“Action is the foundational key to all success.” – Pablo Picasso

Although it might seem like a dichotomy, these two bits of guidance offered by a best-selling motivational author and an iconic artist, are fundamental principles that go hand in hand.  In order for someone to achieve a modicum of success, they need the initial spark of inspiration to light the flame that will guide them through the action steps. One therapist refers to it as “putting legs under your dreams.”

This goes far beyond pie in the sky and instead encourages baking the symbolic confectionary treat, finding the right recipe and blending the ingredients until the finished product is both tasty and nourishing.

How Do You Define Success?

An article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled What Does Success Mean to You? by Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams indicates that success can be measured both objectively and subjectively, with the former relating to what seem to be status oriented and the latter, emotionally connected. They need not be mutually exclusive and it is indeed possible to be both financially and emotionally successful.

For some, it means having a certain amount of money in a bank account, designer labels on clothing, vacations to exotic locales, the latest gadgets and a huge home.

For others, it presents itself as having fulfilling relationships, peace of mind, healing from an illness or injury, sustained sobriety or re-creating a life following a major loss.

What Messages Did You Receive About Success?

Early lessons about the concept can have a powerful impact on the trajectory you take as you scale the heights placed before you. A poster in a child’s bedroom, bore an image of steps and the words, “Now climb higher,” were inscribed on it. It was meant to serve as motivation for her to continue to excel.

Sara grew up in a working class home with parents who shared income producing responsibilities as well as upkeep of their home and parenting tasks. Her father held blue collar positions and her mother ‘pink collar’(clerical) as well as a series of part time work from home jobs. She witnessed them skillfully managing all of those realms and making it look simple. As an adult, she modeled her own work-home intentions after theirs, but often felt as if she fell short.

Margaret was told that she was smart and precocious; “a little grownup” who could hold her own in conversation with adults. As a result, she felt compelled to maintain that image and strove to know more and do more in order to feel as if she was sufficient. Competence and confidence were goals for her to achieve. She was the first in her family to earn an advanced degree and work in corporate, medical and mental health settings. Still this wasn’t enough for her. With many decades of experience behind her and even though she is called on as a consultant, she still questions the validity of her abilities.

Joe had a different story to share. He was told by his businessman father that he would never excel in his career of choice as an artist. Fearful that his son would not be able to support himself, his father used manipulative techniques to persuade him to seek success in the same lucrative field with which he had supported the family in grand style. Reluctantly, Joe pursued an education in business and went to work for the family company. At night, he would sit before his drawing table and engage in what truly fed his soul.  Keeping the dream alive, he went on to become a sought after artist whose work has been shown in galleries and even (now proudly) displayed in his parents’ home.

Who Are Your Models for Success?

Family values are key factors in shaping ideas around success. If it is measured in dollars and cents rather than the intangibles of loving relationship and overall wellbeing, it is common for someone to feel like a failure if they are not meeting standards.  

Janice describes her own dilemma, “I grew up in a family in which the role models for financial success were men in mainstream businesses. There were no independently wealthy women. If they had money, it was due to the labors of their husbands, even if they too had jobs. When I look at my own inconsistent financial circumstances, I see that even though I have supported myself throughout my adulthood, sometimes it is paycheck to paycheck.”  

She had a recent revelation that most of her friends are high achievers in the emotional and creative aspects of their lives as artists, therapists, healers, writers and performers, but very few can say that they are well off financially. Repeating the pattern from her family of origin, she sees that many who who are monetarily successful, are doctors, lawyers and accountants.  A few have broken the mold and travel and teach classes that garner them more than acceptable income. She questions what it will take to have her break through that barrier.

In It for the Outcome

A career social worker shared a story about seeing a t-shirt that had inscribed on it “Social Work:  In It for the Outcome, Not the Income.”  She cringed when reading the meaning behind it, since she found that it is what keeps salaries in that field notoriously low. “It is possible to provide compassionate service and be well compensated for my time and education.”

From the Experts

When 62 business women and men were asked what constitutes success for them, the responses were varied.

“To me, success means working toward my dreams. As long as I keep moving in the right direction I feel successful.” – Cara Newman, Editor, Young Money

“Success means leaving the world a little bit better because I was here.” – Mark Black, Inspirational Speaker, Author, Transplant Recipient

“Success is knowing I’m in alignment with my personal integrity no matter the external appearance.” – Jennifer Davidson, Reality Check Coaching LLC

“Success means the accomplishment of your self -defined goals. Once you feel that you have accomplished them, you have succeeded.” – Ben Lang Founder

Does Success Lead to Happiness or Happiness to Success?

A valuable question is “Are successful people happier or are happy people more successful?” It seems to return to the definition of success for each individual. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have time for work and play in close to equal measure?
  • Can I support myself and my family at my current job?
  • Is my environment sufficiently nourishing?
  • Am I taking care of myself as best I can?
  • Have I developed or am I willing to cultivate resiliency skills to keep me steady in the midst of life storms?
  • Can I communicate my needs to those around me and be willing to have them met?
  • Do I feel purposeful in my day to day?
  • Am I mindful of what I do or am I on auto-pilot?
  • Do I live with a sense of gratitude for what I do have, rather than focusing on what seems to be lacking?
  • Am I in integrity and practicing what I preach; walking the talk?
  • Am I open to learning something new every day?
  • Can I seek and accept guidance from those who have succeeded in the areas of my own interests?
  • Am I willing to learn from ‘failures’ and do something different the next time?
  • Can I look the woman or man I see in the mirror in the eye and know that I have given each day my best?
  • Am I willing to forgive myself on the occasions I have fallen short of my own expectations?
  • Can I put my heart and soul into all that I do, regardless of outcome?

“Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.” – Vincent Van Gogh

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