OWNER'S MANUAL

The Only Definition of Success That Matters

To a small business owner, to an employee--to anyone--there is only one way to determine success.
Advertisement

That's right. One. No kaleidoscope, no cornucopia, no "we're all snowflakes," no we're all individuals.

One.

Sure, success in business and in life means different things to different people. (Very different things in some instances; check out some of the comments on this article about the beliefs of remarkably successful people.)

And success should mean different things. Whether or not you are successful depends on how you define success, and on the tradeoffs you are willing to not just accept but embrace as you pursue that definition of success. We can have a lot but we can't have everything.

I get that, but I also get this. To a small business owner, to an employee--to anyone--there is only one way to determine success. The answer lies in answering one question: How happy am I?

That's it. How successful you are is based solely on the answer to that question.

How happy are you?

Extremely successful entrepreneurs--at least in terms of traditional business success--work impossibly long hours while focusing almost exclusively on building their business. In many cases (some would argue most cases) their personal and family lives are to some degree a casualty of that focus.

Is that a fair tradeoff?

Fair or unfair is beside the point.

Tradeoffs are unavoidable. If you're making tons of money but are still unhappy, you haven't embraced the fact that incredible business success often carries a heavy personal price. Other things are clearly more important than making money, and that's okay.

If on the other hand you leave every day at 4 o'clock and pursue a rich and varied personal life and you're still unhappy, you haven't embraced the fact--and it is a fact--that what you chose to do will not make you wealthy. Personal satisfaction is nice but it's not enough for you... and that's okay too.

Try to compartmentalize all you want, but business success, family and friends, personal pursuits... no aspect of your life can ever be separated from the others. Each is a permanent part of a whole, so putting more focus on one area automatically reduces the focus on another area.

Want to make more money? You can, but something else has to give.

Want more time with family? Want to help others? Want to pursue a hobby? You can, but something else has to give.

What motivates you? What do you want to achieve for yourself and your family? What do you value most, spiritually, emotionally, and materially? That's what will make you happy--and if you aren't doing it, you won't be happy.

Sound simplistic?

It is--but think of all the people you know who complain about the results of the path they have clearly chosen.

For example, I know teachers who constantly complain about the low pay. Constantly. Eventually I say, "Maybe you should change jobs."

"Oh no!" they cry. "I love teaching!"

No you don't. If you truly love teaching you would better accept the inevitable--and it is inevitable--financial trade-offs.

So are you happy?

Defining success is important, but taking a clear-eyed look at the impact of your definition matters even more. As in most things, your intention is important, but the results provide the real answer.

If helping others through social work is your definition of success, you may make a decent living but you won't get rich... and you must embrace that fact. If you're happy, you have.

If building a $100 million company is your definition of success, you can have a family but it will be almost impossible to have a rich, engaged family life... and you must embrace that fact. If you're happy, you have.

If you're not, rethink your definition, because it's not working for you. You can't have it all. You shouldn't want to have it all, because that's the best way to wind up unhappy and unfulfilled.

Ask yourself if you're happy. If you are, you're successful. The happier you are, the more successful you are.

And if you aren't happy, it's time to make some changes.

IMAGE: Flickr/Pierre-Yves Sanchis
Last updated: Jun 28, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: