Personal Interpretations of Success


A large home, a corner office and a healthy bank balance. These are traditional markers for success in many Western societies. Over the decades, society has become accustomed to equating success with wealth and power. This was supported by and based on the American Dream, the belief in upward social mobility deeply rooted in the experiences of first American settlers’ during the frontier times. Any diligent and hard-working man could rise above his station and become prosperous and successful. Career success, as well as personal success, meant achieving wealth and prestige.

While one may be quick to judge and consider wealth, power and prestige the one definition of success, the universality of this definition is flawed. In fact, success can come in many shapes and guises.

1. Cultural Success

Culture informs the way success is defined. While the collectivist culture, common in East Asia, tends to prioritise the collective, individualistic culture such as in the US and Europe is more centred around the individual. People in the West are therefore more likely to value self-fulfilment over adhering to the needs and goals of a group. Studies have shown that Americans tend to prefer being ‘a big fish in a small pond’, while the Chinese tend to prefer the role of a ‘smaller fish in a big pond’. To those following the individualistic culture, wealth equation is likely to be more prevalent as a measure of success and define success in individual accomplishments. Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, are likely to consider interpersonal relationships as a large part of their definition of success.

2. The Happiness Factor

Instead of focusing on just wealth for success, try moving the focus towards happiness and purpose. According to a 2014 study conducted by Strayer University, 90% of Americans believe that success is defined by happiness more than money, power, and fame. As Dr Michael Plater, president of Strayer University, says: ‘Success today is much more about setting personal goals and achieving them, than anything else’. Furthermore, issues such as having a healthy mindset, and respect in one’s career and personal relationships are becoming a bigger part in our perception of success. Millennials, in particular, are moving away from solely defining success in monetary terms. Influenced by the circumstances they grew up in, they seek to affect positive change. The numbers of young Americans working in the public sector and non-profit jobs have been rising, further triggered through the economic crisis. Millennials are doing good because the economy did them wrong. In 2009, 16% more college graduates worked for the federal government than in 2008 and 11% more for non-profits. Making a difference and fulfilling a purpose has become integral to this younger generation’s definition of success.

3. Raising the stakes

For many engaged in international relations, the goal to serve a higher purpose has become a defining factor of success more than the accumulation of wealth. Success is becoming more about moving towards the realisation of one’s goals. Therefore, to understand what success means to you, it is important to understand your motivations to gain a clearer roadmap about yourself.

US President Barack Obama serves as an example of somebody who defines success as the achievement of his goals. Michelle Obama has explained that: “For Barack, success isn't about how much money you make. It's about the difference you make in people's lives.” Similarly, Nelson Mandela said: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

4. What is your success?

Your success is yours to define. Nobody can impose a definition of success upon you when it’s your life to live. Life is about much more than just becoming wealthy. Consider what success means to you beyond the accumulation of wealth. Would you rather be a small fish in a big pond or a bigger fish in a small pond? What are your motivations? What do you hope to achieve? How do you wish to spend your time?

Redefining what success means to you can help you realise that there are many different paths to success. Your path and your success are yours to choose.

When thinking about what success means to you, also look beyond your career and ask yourself: how do I define success in my personal life and how can these definitions become complementary? Ultimately, being satisfied and happy at work, and subjectively successful can have a positive influence on objective success.