What's the definition of success? You might not feel like this is a sufficiently difficult question for you to bother pulling your dictionary off its shelf, but if you did, you'd probably find something like this: "the accomplishment of an aim or purpose."

At first blush there are no surprises there -- I'm sure you all got this one right on third grade vocabulary test -- but take a minute and think a little deeper about that definition. If success is the accomplishment of an aim, you therefore need to have a specific aim in mind. There can be no success without a clearly defined goal.

Chasing "success"

It's a simple reality but one that gets lost in a lot of 'how to be successful' type articles. Google around looking for success tips and you'll find a vast ocean of results, many of which jump in to the advice immediately, assuming that every reader is on board with the same idea of success, that we all agree on our definition of the term.

That's dangerous.

Without spelling out what we mean by 'success,' we're in danger of simply reverting to the usual status symbols of grand-sounding job titles or expensive cars, etc. For some people success could mean flexibility and freedom rather than a sky-high salary. For others it might mean living according to certain ethical ideals. The meaning of the word can even shift for a single person over the years. A lot of success advice avoids this discussion, strengthening stereotypes of what counts as success by pretending only the most obvious definition is clearly the right one.

Impact for its own sake

Which is bad enough, but a recent, fascinating post on blog Dumb Little Man takes matters a step further. In it writer Jeff Moore argues readers should just think more deeply about what they mean by success, but that they should stop focusing on the idea entirely. Instead they should aim for impact.

What's wrong with wanting to be successful as long as you define what you mean by the term? As discussed above, no matter what you choose as your personal definition, success is about something besides itself. Your work, therefore, won't be inherently fulfilling. It's only as fulfilling as it moves you towards your goals. For example, if you're starting a business with to be successful, you won't find satisfaction in opening your doors each day, in the work itself, you'll only find satisfaction after you cash your customers' checks and buy yourself whatever lifestyle you've decided equals success.

And that's pretty depressing, Moore argues. Too often, he warns "we see our days... as things we must 'get through' in order to get something else. The pursuit of getting through something can be very motivating, but it leaves us empty and unfulfilled."

Swap the pursuit of success for a focus on impact and things look very different. Instead of "grinding it out, looking for our break, our shot--we can try to be a break for someone else. Instead of just hunting down our prey, and closing a deal, we can help someone else be successful--which will feed our own success," he writes. "So, let's change our focus a bit. Instead of it being all about me and what I want to accomplish what of I asked, what will be better because of you?"

In other words, if the point of your days is impacting the world or other people in a positive way rather than a paycheck or a particular lifestyle, you'll be both happier and more likely to build something of lasting value.

Do you agree with Moore?

Published on: Oct 13, 2015
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