Success. How do you define it?

If you’re the Merriam-Webster dictionary you define success as “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.” That’s how most people think of success, if only because they’ve been conditioned to think that way.

But what if success were defined differently? Imagine how you’d approach success if it were defined as “happiness derived from good relationships, and achieving personal goals.”

That’s what Strayer University hopes to achieve with their Readdress Success program. Strayer launched a petition through Change.org to change the Merriam-Webster definition and inspire people to join in. Sign the petition, and Strayer will donate 50 cents to Dress for Success, a non-profit that promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire and a network of support and career development tools to help them thrive in work and life. (That alone makes signing the petition worthwhile.)

While I’m often skeptical of the power of grassroots movements, this is one I love. Success in business and in life means different things to different people. 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 your own definition of success.

What do you want to achieve for yourself and your family? What do you value most, spiritually, emotionally, and materially? Achieving those things will make you happy. If you aren’t doing those things you won’t be happy--and you won’t feel successful.

"Today's official definition of success doesn't reflect the reality of how Americans think about, discuss, and ultimately pursue success," says Brian W. Jones, president of Strayer University. "If we take it literally, it would mean people who love their jobs, have happy families, or help their communities aren't successful… a dangerous notion, as it can lead people to believe they are unsuccessful because they haven't amassed a certain amount of wealth or fame. Our belief is that there are many definitions of and paths to success, and that all journeys to success are unique and should be celebrated.”

The Merriam-Webster definition fails to touch on a key issue. Where success--and life--is concerned, tradeoffs are unavoidable. If you’re making tons of money but are unhappy, then you haven’t embraced the fact that incredible business success often carries a heavy personal price. Other things are clearly more important to you than making money.

If, on the other hand, you have a job you don’t love that you leave every day at 4 o’clock to pursue a rich and varied personal life and you’re still unhappy, then you haven’t embraced the fact--and in this case it is a fact--that what you chose to do for a living is not helping you achieve your personal and professional goals. Satisfaction with your relationships is great, but it’s not enough for you.

We can try to compartmentalize all we want, but business success, healthy relationships with family and friends, working towards achieving personal goals…no aspect of our lives 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.

And that’s why Strayer’s definition of success is much better than Merriam-Webster’s. Success doesn’t just involve wealth or fame or respect. Success lies in achieving personal goals and enjoying rewarding personal relationships.

So every Monday I’ll run a new installment in a series of interviews with celebrities and luminaries including Bob Johnson, the founder of BET; Joe Gibbs, Super Bowl-winning coach and NASCAR team owner; Joi Gordon, the founder of Dress for Success; and Dr. Marcus Elliott, the founder of P3.

Each will describe what success means to them--and how their definition of success provides the foundation for happiness through building personal relationships and achieving personal goals.

A Strayer survey recently found that 90 percent of Americans define success as more about happiness than power, possessions, or prestige. I’m guessing you do too, so why not start changing how you approach your professional and personal life?

After all, you only get one life… so make sure you live it in the way that makes you as happy and fulfilled--and therefore successful--as you can possibly be.

Published on: Aug 24, 2015
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