We tend to think about success as the pinnacle of achievement. It's what we supposedly experience once we get everything we think we want. We get into Harvard Business School. Our startup goes through an IPO. We marry the person of our dreams.
Yet traditional markers of achievement are not actually correlated with happiness. And some of the most "successful" people repeatedly experienced tremendous falls from grace.
Over fifty years ago, Winston Churchill came up with a definition of success that integrates both sides of the coin. It remains one of the most ingenious explanations of the concept ever put to words:
"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."
According to the leader who helped the UK get through a war with the actual Nazis, success is not about winning. It's not about popularity. It's not about putting out the best MVP possible.
It's about moving from one failure to the next ... with grace.
There are two reasons this is brilliant. First, it reminds us that success is not about what you have (or achieve), but how you live.
It's far too easy to believe, in our modern world, that you can graduate from a top 10 school, flawlessly establish yourself in the corporate world or with your own startup, build the perfect team, and either invest in perfect stocks or sell your own company for billions of dollars by the time you're 27.
This is, quite simply, a fantasy. Yes, it does happen for some people. A miniscule number of people. But judging yourself by the same standard as something that happens to 0.0001% of the population is not smart.
Plus, according to Churchill, you wouldn't actually be experiencing success if things only went well. Your perfectionism must be punctured again and again for you to become truly strong. Real success is resilience, not some outside achievement.
Practically speaking, this means not spending weeks, months or years beating yourself up for a mistake you made, a bankruptcy you went through, a test you failed, or a startup that crashed and burned.
Rather, it's experiencing that event, then moving on--cheerfully. Because the brilliant part of adding "with no loss of enthusiasm" is that it intimates a certain level of jauntiness. It acknowledges that you will want to take life too seriously ... and that you shouldn't. It suggest you adopt the attitude of, "OK, that didn't work out. Onward!"
The fact is, failing feels bad. And after a few consecutive failures, it's easy to become bitter. To close your heart off, become protective, stop dreaming big to avoid the pain of not getting there.
But that's not succeeding either. In the words of Robin S. Sharma, "Don't live the same year 75 times and call it a life."
So: Bombed a presentation? Learn from what happened, then enthusiastically present again. Going through a divorce? Get therapy, forgive yourself, and move on without losing your enthusiasm for love and connection. Got fired or had to shut down your startup? Grieve, then move on to the next company or job with just as much enthusiasm as you had the first time around.
Success isn't never falling down.
It's falling down, getting up, and moving on with a swing in your step.