For Steve Jobs, the answer was straightforward: Being able to change the world, or "poke life," as he put it in one interview. "Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it. You can influence it," he said. And once you've had that experience of changing the world, there's never any going back.
I've been thinking a lot about what success means lately, mainly because a lot of projects I've been working on (such as being president of ASJA and moving to the Pacific Northwest) have come to an end in the past year or so, leaving me some decisions to make about the next goals I set. I'm having a hard time making some of those decisions.
As soon as I started thinking seriously about goal-setting, I realized part of the problem was that I wasn't quite sure how I define success. But as I began asking myself how people I know and people I know about have looked at success, the more I realize it's not one-size-fits all. What success means to you or to Jobs may not dovetail with what it means to me, or to someone else.
Definitions of success can vary widely. But most of them fall into one of these categories, or some combination of them.
This is what Jobs was getting at when he talked about poking the world around you and reshaping it into something you think is better. Jobs did exactly that in several industries. He essentially launched personal computers, then digital animation, then MP3 players, then smartphones, then online app stores, and then tablets. Though Apple's products weren't the first to market in all these categories, they were the ones that led to widespread consumer acceptance.
Not all influence is around products. I recently talked to an executive from Rotary International, an organization that's very proud of its role in helping to eradicate polio in Africa as the continent nears celebration of one year without a new case of the disease. For non-profit leaders and others who want to make the world a better place, influence can be especially rewarding.
Is influence important to you? How would you change the world if you could, or how are you changing it if you can?
How many people buy your products/visit your website/read your blog? Widespread name recognition, large numbers of social media followers, or a wide array of stores that carry your products can all mean that you have a lot of reach. Reach is not the same as influence but the two often go together. If you're well known, have a large number of social media followers, or many customers, you can use that as leverage to try and change the world. Newman's Own is one obvious example of turning reach into influence.
How important is reach to you? And if it is, how do you extend your reach?
How many customers you have is one metric that may measure success in your world, but there are lots of other possibilities, what people in the tech world call KPIs, or key process indicators. For instance, at the American Society of Journalists and Authors, we keep a close watch on how many members we have throughout the year, and especially at renewal time.
This is different from reach--many more people know about and respect ASJA than are members--and it's different from influence, too. And although membership dues are certainly a big part of our bottom line, they're far from our only source of income. But, at least to me, a healthy membership count indicates that we're providing freelance writers with the networking, information, and career support they need and want. It tells me our organization will remain relevant for decades to come. On a particularly dangerous section of Route 2 between Snohomish and Monroe, Washington, the highway department has a sign telling motorists how many days it's been since the last serious crash. That's a great example of a metric that measures success.
What metrics spell success in your world? How are you doing on those metrics? And what are you doing to improve them?
Money is one metric most of us watch--without money, our businesses can't survive, let alone succeed. But for some it's just a byproduct of success, while for others success itself is measured in dollars. My stepfather, now 102, had a long and highly successful business career, but he once told me it was a difficult moment for him when his grown children surpassed the highest annual income he'd ever had, even though, given the growth in top executive salaries--and inflation--that moment was pretty much inevitable.
Plenty of career experts say that doing what you do for the money alone is the wrong approach. It's certainly not the approach I've taken. And yet I've known many people who consider their income a scorecard for their success and it works for them. And if you're an entrepreneur, the bottom line is the most common measure of your company's success.
Is money how you measure success? If so, how much does it take to be successful?
Think of Sally Field in 1985, gripping her Oscar and telling the Academy, "You like me! You really like me!" The box office success of her movies, millions of viewers for The Flying Nun, and every other success she'd had seemed unimportant to her compared with that official symbol of respect from the members of her profession. That's the power of approval as a measure of success. If you care more about how your product or service is reviewed than how much it actually sells, then approval may be the measure of success that matters most to you.
Approval is an important measure of success and one I spend a lot of time chasing myself. But it's good to remember that it's only one measure and ultimately not the most important. You need people to buy your product or service and if you have to choose, success in the marketplace is more tangible than awards or reviews or other forms of recognition. Of course, it's really nice to have both.
Are approval and recognition important to you? What are you doing to pursue those things? And how do they related to actual sales?
Ultimately, this should be what we all want, right? Is there much point in being a success if it doesn't make you happy? The thing is, it probably won't. The more psychologists study happiness, the clearer it is that the usual measures of success--including everything I've listed so far in this column--does not correlate with happiness. Even money doesn't seem to make people happy, once they have enough to be reasonably comfortable.
So what does make people happy? Meditation seems to be one answer. With functional MRI technology, scientists can actually pinpoint the section of the brain devoted to happiness and measure its activity, and they've found that practiced meditators' happiness activity goes off the charts while they're meditating. In fact, the person who's been measured as the happiest on the planet is a Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard, who thinks everyone should make time to meditate at least 15 minutes a day.
Does this mean you should quit your job or sell your company and fly off to Nepal to spend your days meditating? Probably not. Even if it would ultimately make one happy, the prospect doesn't hold a lot of appeal, at least to me. But there is a lot to be said for incorporating a brief meditation practice into your daily routine, if you don't already. And whether you meditate or not, make time in every day or every week to slow down, look around, and enjoy your success. Otherwise, what's the point in having it?