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Why Success is Not Like Pornography

Can you specifically define success or are you just hoping you'll know it when you see it? Here are five questions that will help you identify the success you really want.
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In 1964, when Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart, tried to explain "hard-core" pornography he said, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced...but I know it when I see it."

I hear this same phrase from many people about success. They can't define it but they'll know it when they get there...well, maybe, or maybe not.

Some claim success means money or materialism. But, many people achieve fame and wealth, only to experience the darker side of materialism. Others claim success to simply be happiness or contentment. Yet, many poor people are genuinely content, but would not consider themselves successful.

Life is too complex to let just money or basic happiness determine whether or not you are successful. These may be elements of success but only within the context of your life choices.

Recently, I set out with a close friend on a highly structured 4-day retreat to plan our preferred future when we turn 60. We are 47 now. We quickly realized that achieving a successful future had no benefit if we couldn't recognize and enjoy it when we got there.

After energetic discussion (and a great bottle of wine), we established our own definitions of success. Here is mine:

A daily abundance of legitimate opportunities come to me without effort, so I can enthusiastically pick and choose the ones that are best for me, in a relaxed and thoughtful manner.

Now granted, I am a writer, so I enjoyed playing wordsmith, making every word meaningful in this statement. But you can take my same approach and clearly define your desired success by asking yourself these five questions:

1. What are your true materialistic needs?

There is nothing wrong with wealth and toys, but after winning and losing several times in the collecting game, I have found experiences not stuff to be my prize collection. Specify the minimal house, car and bank account you need for true contentment and then everything above that is a true sign of success. Wealth and stuff adds complexity to life. Some value simplicity and others enjoy the challenge of managing chaos. Decide where you are on the spectrum.

2. What is your most valuable commodity?

For me, money by itself has little intrinsic value. Nothing is wrong with money but it comes and goes, almost with a will of its own. Time, not money, is precious in my life. There is only so much and I cannot save it for a rainy day. How I spend my time is my most important consideration when choosing people and activity. Success means the freedom to choose. Figure out what gives you freedom.

3. What is your potential for accomplishment?

I love what I do, and I love creating opportunities and wealth out of my brain. However, I still work very hard to meet the right people and figure out how to convert ideas and actions into wealth and time. When I achieve credibility and stature where smart capable people come to me with more legitimate opportunities than I want, only then will I claim success. Then, I can relax, and choose all the wealth or experiences I want, at my discretion, and on my terms. Determine your desired abundance.

4. How do you feel about the people around you?

Those who know me understand that I'm not a "people person." In fact, most people annoy me. I'm not a recluse. I like my people, people who aggressively pursue their potential in life. I don't judge those who don't, they are entitled to live the life they choose. And most likely, they would not choose my company, since my energy and approach greatly annoys them as well. (My ex-wife can attest to that.) Success is very much about having the right people around you. Figure out who they are, and more importantly, who they aren't. (This thought process includes consideration of relatives and children.)

5. How do you most like to feel?

A great mentor once told me he would teach me the virtues of boredom. I tried it his way for a few years and learned there are virtues to all states of being. Happy and content are nice, but I can't live on boredom alone. I also thrive on excitement and passion. Of course, these emotions generally come with some degree of risk. You can't achieve your optimal emotional state without vulnerability. Take some time to consider and list the various emotions you need in your life to feel complete. Then you will have a better understanding of your emotional success.

Hopefully, you now see how these questions shaped my success statement to be descriptive and meaningful. The process of defining your success should be fun and thoughtful. Take the time to consider all aspects, and engage in a spirited discussion with the people who love and know you best. Ultimately, they'll be the ones who will be most proud of your success.

Note: Many have inquired about how to structure a "preferred future" retreat like mine. In response, I created a detailed document you can download here for free. I hope it helps guide you to your clearly defined success. Let me know how it works out.

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: Aug 31, 2012

KEVIN DAUM | Columnist

An Inc. 500 entrepreneur with a more than $1 billion sales and marketing track record, Kevin Daum is the best-selling author of Video Marketing for Dummies and the executive producer of Amilya! on 77WABC New York.

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



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