4 Essential Steps to Help You Define Success

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Despite being a fundamentally broad concept, the idea of success is rooted in every aspect of our working lives. Attributes which have traditionally been associated with success such as wealth, power, fame and influence are combined with one another by the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram, creating a very small space where ‘success’ supposedly manifests itself. But this little space doesn’t have room for all of us and more importantly, it’s unlikely that everyone wants a share of this one combination in the long-run. Although 70% of both men and women believe ‘having it all’ is possible and essentially part of being successful, the fundamental clarification is still not addressed.

A more substantial idea is that success shouldn’t be defined in a singular context. Consider Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the more modern version, Netflix’s politician Frank Underwood. Both eventually achieve what they consider success but this only fuels their hunger to achieve more, holding on to that particular checkpoint of success is a full-time job in itself. Indeed, one doesn’t simply become powerful or successful through a single action or long-term goal; if you make it to CEO, you have to then make continued efforts to be a successful CEO. Working towards our targets is an on-going process which we need to guide in the right direction. In order to define success for ourselves, we need to lay out checkpoints for the journey; milestones that we personally qualify as points of success. Instead of focusing on what success is, we should focus on what it includes. When we reach the checkpoints in our journey, we can celebrate the fact that we are successful and then reassess our direction in order to continue thriving. 

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 Know Your Goals

Having a clear internal structure of goals as the foundation to our idea of success is essential. Working towards an undefined goal is just as ineffective as working without targets or a deadline at all. Our aforementioned milestones of success will mean very little unless they are relevant to our own interests and desires and our journey to being successful will only flourish if we pursue goals that are catered to our own career and self-interests. Jayson DeMers makes an excellent point about the ‘hyperbolic illustrations’ of wealth and power and how they are often illusions in defining success. He argues that they’re “alluring goals but they are often not actually what makes people feel happy and fulfilled. It’s impossible to set realistic goals unless you know which ones are going to truly make you happy”. One qualifier is measuring how much of our collective time is spent on working towards things that make us happy. If it doesn’t have any relevance, then the goalposts need to be moved. As Moria Forbes points out, a classic unit of measurement to verify your definition of success is to ask yourself whether you’d still pursue your current career path if money wasn’t an issue – would you still do your job if you didn’t need to be paid for it? If not and your current pursuits are dis-proportionally detached from your definition of success, it is time to re-evaluate.

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 Avoid Self-Comparison

It’s no secret that what we disclose to others are often only the positive points. Steve Furtick’s point example of social media being a highlight reel is not a new idea yet it still affects the self-esteem and progress of a huge proportion of the workforce. Comparing ourselves against someone else’s staged, singular moment in their life only acts as a distraction to our own progress. Steve Errey reiterates this, blaming the linguistic set-up of the word itself, arguing that seeing success as a solid and un-moving target with no capacity to evolve  is fundamentally incorrect. In turn, comparing yourself to others, he says, “suggests that other people easily achieve this thing called success, while you have to work harder to attain it” – something that is just not true. We know that success is not a singular ‘endgame’ yet we continue to convince ourselves that if we work towards the same ideas of wealth or reputation that others have achieved, we will also be ‘successful’. But the personal and evolving nature of success is incompatible with this and it makes comparing yourself to someone else nothing more than a one-sided, slightly twisted form of self-indulgence that is both counter-productive and self-destructive. Instead, choose role models who have achieved what you want to achieve and copy the attributes that can help you. Often, if you spend time studying someone’s path in depth, you can come to the understanding how rare it is for the path to success to come without its pitfalls. Do not get immersed in the stories of ‘dumb luck’ success – there is nothing to learn here.


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The Power of Optimism

Channelling the ‘positive vibes’ is easier said than done. But in approaching self-development, a positive attitude is a proven – and relatively painless – way to contribute to improving performance. It’s incredibly counterproductive to aim for success without feeling positive and motivated about it; if you do not believe you can achieve something, you won’t; or as famously said by Henry Ford, “the man who thinks he can and the man who thinks he can’t are both right”. Productivity and positivity go hand-in-hand so fix your mind-set before even beginning the journey. Self-conditioning is no easy feat but seeing the good in a situation at the bottom of the ladder is the fuel we need when working our way to the top. Samantha Tollin argued that making small changes has changed one basic but fundamental thing at work; she feels pretty happy. “I researched small ways to make a positive impact on my thinking and told myself that it would take time to condition my mind.” This is not to say a positive attitude should be traded in for an unrealistic one, but baby steps are key with new territory. Working towards being ‘more present’ in the moment and engaging with the positive aspect of a situation will always be a far healthier and more productive way to improve ourselves and the way we work. The work itself still needs to be done to achieve your goals, but if you focus on the positive aspects, say, your next promotion could bring, you can’t help but enjoy the process.


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 Quantify Failure

Failure is an inevitable occurrence. But quantifying failure can make it productive. Our set-backs can help us re-evaluate our targets. Since failure is an inevitable part of career progression, it’s logical that our definition of success will change as we grow and learn from our mistakes. Entrepreneur Penelope Trunk argues how failure is often something people shy away from unless “they have learned how to present the situation in a way that shows they have learned from it”. The same culture that has taught us to aim for 3 or 4 single (unmonitored) concepts of success has also taught us to make a quick recovery from a mistake and move on. But time invested in analysing where we went wrong is time invested in self-improvement; if we know how we failed and how to avoid it, the goal and our idea of what it is to be successful can be re-modified to avoid the same in the future. The importance of ‘micro-failures’ is directly linked to putting failure into context of self-improvement, according to VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuck. Learn – and fail – little and often he says, in order to be “less afraid of it”. Like improving a skill, if we can perfect the art of responding and quantifying failure, then our definition of success can change and adapt with it. 


Many thanks to our partner publication Your Coffee Break magazine for collaborating on this article. Your Coffee Break is a London-based lifestyle magazine for the professional woman. With representatives in New York, Los Angeles and Paris, Your Coffee Break has established itself as the go-to magazine for global businesswomen, looking for inspirational content to read on their coffee break. @UrCoffeeBreak .


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