Maybe you’re like me and you get a little bit annoyed whenever you see a headline about 'how to be successful' or 'secrets of success.' Of course, just about every one of us would like to be successful in life, so what could be wrong with a story about what successful people eat for dessert or how they organize their days?

Nothing, as long as first you define what it means to be successful.

Successful is not a word with a simple or self evident definition. If that’s a statement you agree with then Wharton professor G. Richard Shell‘s new book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for Success might be for you. Shell recently gave a long interview to Knowledge@Wharton explaining what his book has to offer those looking to think more deeply about success, as well as his own experiences around success as a teacher and as a person.

The meaning of success, he says in the course of the interview, often changes over time, and he uses different sorts of students he has taught to illustrate the point.

[Wharton undergrads, MBAs and senior executives] are at very different stages of life, and so each one of those groups has a different question in their head when you ask them, "What do you mean by success?" For undergrads, they are standing right on the edge of adulthood, very anxiously awaiting the real world after being in school for 16 years. It’s the first time they are seriously addressing the issue of what their life goals might be. They begin thinking about family, about career, about how to balance those things...The MBAs are a little bit further down the road. They have a more career-directed focus to that question. They’re all thinking very directly about the kind of professional niche [they want] and what kind of success that may hold for them.

And then for the executives, it’s much, much different. The senior executives are more mindful of issues like family, work/life balance and the kind of mentoring that they can do for younger people, helping them think about what a meaningful career might look like or how they can carve out a life that will make sense to them.

Success, in other words, is a moving target and if you don’t take a second to locate it’s current position relative to where you are in life, you’re extremely unlikely to hit the mark. It’s also helpful to interrogate where your notions of success are coming from, Shell continues:

Whether we like it or not, our surrounding culture is going to create a lot of expectations for us. When we filter that culture through the prism of a family and how we grew up, where we grew up and the peer group we grew up around, it’s going to have almost a hypnotic effect on what people think they ought to be pursuing. With our media and celebrity-heavy culture, it’s very, very common to see people unconsciously adopt a frame of reference that if they’re not famous, they’re not successful. If they’re not wealthy, they’re not successful… I try to give people a chance to gain a little perspective. This means looking at the sources of those early messages that they may have internalized… So instead of fame, I try to get people to start thinking about gaining respect -; earning it from people you know and who know you, as opposed to getting recognition from people you don’t know.

Intrigued? Then you might want to check out the book, or to get a fuller picture of Shell’s thinking, watch the complete interview below: 

Have you taken the time to sit down and consider your personal definition of success lately?