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What Do We Mean When We Say Someone Is "Successful"?

04/01/2015 01:07 EDT | Updated 06/01/2015 05:59 EDT
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How successful are you?

No, really. Take a minute to think about it.

Now, what criteria did you use to evaluate your success? If you're like most, you probably considered your income, job title, degrees, accolades, and some material things like your home, car, and maybe even your collection of designer shoes, bags, or watches. Maybe you considered your physical health or your marital status.

If I'm being honest, these are the things that first cross my mind, too.

Do I consider myself successful? I do. I created a pretty awesome business, I'm well respected in my field, and I have a bunch of degrees. I love my home, and my relationships are strong.

On the other hand, I don't own my home. I sold my condo when I divorced. I'm also overweight, which doesn't exactly paint a picture of success, especially for a woman. Oh, and I quit my PhD 93 pages into my dissertation. From the outside, that certainly doesn't look like a smashing success.

What do we mean by "success," anyway?

A friend and colleague, Ryan Coelho, says the word "success" is like the word "god." If you ask 100 people what it means, every one of them will have a different answer. He's right.

On one level, we understand that real success is about happiness. We know this. We're not shallow and superficial. And yet...most of us (ahem, even those of us who help people get happy for a living) easily confuse success for happiness -- at least until we wise up.

Look up the word "success" and you'll find a definition like "the attainment of wealth, position, honours, or the like," and synonyms like "accomplishment," "prosperity," and "fame." I have nothing against the word success or even it's traditional definition. It's just a word, after all. But let's call it what it is. It's a benchmark for performance and attainment -- a measuring stick.

Tangible metrics are important and have their place, particularly in the business world. But if you're looking for personal fulfillment, it's not likely that traditional measures of success are going to get you there.

As a society, we have come to believe that success -- stuff and status -- is the yellow-brick road. Follow it and we will most certainly arrive at the Emerald City of happiness. While there's nothing inherently wrong with wanting stuff, status, wealth or acclaim, it's a mistake to assume that they pave the way to happiness and fulfillment.

The word success has been thrown around so frequently and in such varied contexts that we have forgotten what it really means. It is vague, all encompassing, a catchall.

Success dangles the things we think will make us happy (status and stuff). But in actuality, we don't want the stuff and status. What we want is the way we think the stuff and status is going to make us feel. BIG difference.

Success, when you boil it down, seems to be about the stuff we think will make us happy. It's a lure, shiny and seductive, but there's a hook: You can do everything right in the pursuit of attainment of traditional success, but happiness and personal fulfillment are not guaranteed.

Personally, at the height of my "success" I was pretty miserable. I'm not saying there's an inverse relationship between success and happiness, just that there's not necessarily a positive one. They are two different things.

A popular formula for success and happiness that is guaranteed to fail is the following: When I have (insert measure of success here) I will be happy. It will fail because one doesn't necessarily lead to the other.

How you personally define success and how you personally define happiness is entirely up to you, but recognize the difference.

Wishing you happiness...and success.

Published at Careergasm and Entrepreneur.

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