The Meaning of Success

This is a topic that has meant various things to me throughout the years,  and one that I have pondered over many times.  I can remember very clearly in my younger years in undergraduate school just how concerned and frightened I was on whether or not I would succeed.  I had these notions in my mind about what success meant.  Indeed, it was what I thought others viewed as success that guided me instead of listening to my own intuition.  I have found repeatedly that when we place control outside of ourselves, when we place others in control of our happiness, then we ultimately will “fail.”  It does not matter how much money one makes or how outwardly successful one may appear; if we do not listen to our own intuition, if we are guided by the perceptions of others, then happiness and a sense of success will elude us.

Success is something that is extremely difficult to quantify.  I believe that success is highly subjective; what one individual views as success is certainly not indicative of everyone else in his/her social class or position. During my undergrad years, I kept worrying about what “success” would mean.  Did I have to earn a certain amount of money?  Did I need to become famous to experience success?  What if I never found success?  Repeatedly in various courses ranging from Psychology, Sociology, Literature, Economics, Advertising, Marketing and many others, Erik Erikson’s psychoanalytic theory was discussed. It was so highly popular then that every time I came across this theory I experienced a kind of dread.  I remember thinking “Oh no, not the eight stages of personal development all over again!”  And I was fraught with anxiety about whether I would achieve success or fulfillment through the wrangling of each stage in personal development posed by Erikson.  Finally, as I experienced life and became more well-grounded and “successful” in my own eyes, then I became less anxious about my prospects of self-actualization.  Yet, I believe that the continual search for success and meaning within our work lives and within our lives in general is the hallmark of the modern struggle to find purpose within our often-chaotic environments.  Recently, I listened to a TED Seminar video in which Alain de Botton spoke on this very subject. I believe he is very much on target when he states that we must view our definitions of success through our own lenses.  Our fear of being judged by others often prompts us to make decisions so that we will not feel that sense of inferiority in relation to others.  Yet, when we act from this perspective, we often create needless problems. I have seen it occur in corporate sales environments, where the focus is not on solving customer issues or encouraging collaboration between team members, but on the soul-less pursuit of “winning” at the expense of others.  Healthy competition always has its place within the corporate environments, but when individuals act out of balance within these settings, doing so creates an atmosphere of mistrust rather than cooperation.  And when this happens, the corporation ultimately loses because not everyone is operating within the appropriate framework to bring their unique contributions to the company.  They are focused more on out-performing others instead of the more important tasks of solving customer problems, increasing efficiency, and working together to create unique solutions that benefit everyone.

So, a healthy work environment is very important. When we operate within a supportive, healthy atmosphere, then our efforts are more focused on bringing about the objectives that are going to create success, vs. pillaging over the backs of others to be the number one salesperson or to sabotage the success or experience of others due to jealousy, fear, and misunderstandings. Does this mean that we always act perfectly in relation to one another?  Certainly not.  No one is perfect and no one should pretend to be, but you can certainly feel a difference within the work environment where the leaders are visionary and provide all employees the operational framework and corporate culture to bring their unique gifts to the table to advance the company’s goals and objectives.  Any actions by individuals to thwart this open environment certainly can lead us to a sense of frustration.  Even during this frustration, we must stay focused upon our inner uniqueness and the contribution we can bring to the table.

Success is going to mean something different to everyone – and certainly, monetary compensation and wealth building are vital sources of some perceptions of success.  Others focus on the advocacy of the marginalized and disenfranchised, and receive an enormous amount of satisfaction by helping others in need or furthering a societal cause. Who is one to judge what is more powerful or more important?  I think that Botton’s point is very well taken, that we should view our lives through our own lenses, not through the perceptions of others, if we are to achieve a sense of success within our work environments.  Our perception of “what we do” often permeates throughout our entire perception of ourselves and creates either the feeling of accomplishment or the despair of not having achieved our innermost goals and desires.  While we may need the support of others to achieve our own sense of success, we should not rely upon the acceptance or non-acceptance outside of ourselves.  The compass of our achievements is within our hearts and our own unique perceptual framework.

Suggested Material:

de Botton, A. (2009). A kinder, gentler philosophy of success. Lecture presented at TEDGLOBAL 2009, Oxford, England. [Video].  Retrieved from