How can you ever really know if you're truly successful?

Maybe you're rich. Maybe you're famous. Maybe you've built something that improves the lives of people you'll never even meet.

Or, if you're Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, maybe you come to believe that the real definition of success has to do with your answer to a nine-word question.

Here's the question, how to answer it--and, while I'm nowhere near as successful as either man by most standards--here's where I think you'll agree that both Buffett and Gates got it at least partly wrong.

Nine simple words

Last weekend, Gates published an essay on his blog: "What I learned at work this year."

He's been taking stock of his life on an annual basis like this for years. Over time the questions he asks himself have become more existential and profound.

Two people have honed his thinking most, he writes: his wife Melinda Gates, and Buffett, whose contribution is his soul-rendering, success-defining question: "Do the people you care about love you back?"

"I think that is about as good a metric as you will find," Gates writes.

Fascinating, right? Start with the fact that Gates, the second-wealthiest person in the world, still ponders whether he's truly successful. And when he does so, he turns to the thoughts of the third-wealthiest man.

The places it takes them both are intriguing, too.

Money, fame, innovation -- all of it takes a back seat in Gates's and Buffett's minds to how well you've managed your personal relationships. Do you truly love anyone, and do they love you back in turn?

"The clearest message" (and one little problem)

But, I think there's a problem. I think the nine-word question is a bit insufficient.

Sure, it squares with what we've heard time and again in almost every research study that has examined these kinds of questions. Take the Harvard Grant Study, for example, the 80-years-and-counting longitudinal study of 724 members of Harvard University's class of 1938.

"The clearest message" of the study, according to the Harvard professor running it, "is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period."

But the nine-word question about whether other people love you puts the definition of your success in their hands (or maybe their hearts).

It judges you by others' reactions, not to what you do yourself. I'm not even sure it's answerable, anyway. Can you truly know what someone else feels?

You can have faith, and trust, and I hope that most of us do. But knowing is a different matter.   

The true beauty

Perhaps that's why after posing Buffett's question, Gates never actually answers it.

He talks about other worthy questions, of course: "Did I devote enough time to my family? Did I learn enough new things? Did I develop new friendships and deepen old ones?" 

And he talks about progress in five worthy, practical areas he's worked on:

  • supporting Alzheimer's research;
  • helping to eradicate polio;
  • working toward breakthroughs in clean energy;
  • staving off the next health epidemic; and
  • exploring the ethics of gene editing. 

They're all admirable endeavors. They're all unfinished.

And they make me think that maybe Gates (and maybe Buffett) understands something else that isn't quite articulated here.

It's that the "Am I successful?" question can never truly be answered. Not while we're still alive anyway. Not while we're still working. Perhaps not finally, definitively, ever. But that's the true beauty, right?

Because if you can never quite define total success, it means you also probably cannot ever truly, finally fail.

You can only keep doing the work, making progress, and maintaining your trust and faith--and your hope. The only answer that emerges is that you have to keep going.