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Top 10 Ways to Define Success--and What Each One Says About You

Updated on July 16, 2011

What does success really mean?

We all want it. Success is desirable, tasty. It lends purpose to our lives, we think. But what does it all mean?

In the contemporary western world, we're born and bred with a mission to succeed. The educational system we go through--elementary, high school, college--is designed to reward the acquisition of knowledge with ego-stroking grades, honors and acceptance to other, more "elite" schools. The American dream, for many, consists of a dog, a white picket fence, 2.5 kids (although we feel really bad for that half-a-kid) and credit card debt. Ahhh, the life.

Some of us, however, aren't satisfied with such pastoral visions. Some choose to be "successful" by acquiring fame and fortune. To others, success is roaming the green earth, and yet for others, it's adding their own special drop of insight to the vast cauldron that is human knowledge.

However you define success, it says more about you than you might realize. Here are the top 10 ways of defining success. They're not in strict order of "worthiness"--I'm trying not to make moral judgments here--but they increase in a general sense from least to most fulfilling.

Eh, just read on and you'll see what I mean.

No matter which way you define success, you have to admit--it feels pretty good.
No matter which way you define success, you have to admit--it feels pretty good. | Source

In this video, Lady Gaga talks with Anderson Cooper about the "Art of Fame." Definitely not the easiest art to master.

10. Fame

One version of success is being famous.

When we think of fame, we think of the personalities who inhabit it (that is, celebrities), and perhaps the medium which most viscerally engages our senses and imaginations, namely, Hollywood films. Remember what it was like as a kid, when you looked up to the movie stars? Some you admired, others you had a crush on. As you grow into an adult, you might have still daydreamed from time to time about what it would be like to be one of them. To have a red carpet rolled out for you, thousands of adoring fans, living in luxury (we'll get to the money part in just a bit).

In reality, the awesomeness of being famous fades against the backdrop of a lack of privacy and/or normalcy. They're household names, we talk about them as if we know them personally, but all we really know about celebrities is what's filtered through the tabloids and gossip websites. We've seen numerous stars fall from grace because of the pressures of dealing with all the crazy human stuff we all go through, but in the public eye. Imagine not being able to buy a bottle of Coke (the drink, of course) from the supermarket without a long line of paparazzi speeding by to capture your every move. I mean, it's nice to be liked, but c'mon...

If you define success this way: You want to be noticed. You have something to say, and darnit, it's gotta be heard 'round the world. You crave the limelight; you like being the center of attention. You'll increase your chance of attaining fame by honing a creative skill--be it acting, music, dance, art, writing, photography, filmmaking--or perhaps more succinctly by contributing to something huge in the worlds of science or engineering. etc. And then, of course, network like crazy and take advantage of every good* opportunity to be in the spotlight, especially in big cities. A few caveats, however: fame is promised to no one, you might (not always) have to abandon some good friends and make moral compromises on the way to the top, and it can be exhausting to maintain. You know what they careful what you wish for.

* Not all opportunities are good ones, so choose wisely. Beware of people setting you up for a fall--whether they're scamming you for all your worldly possessions, or simply doing it out of envy.

This is a picture of money, not the real thing...please don't try to reach through your computer screen.  (I wish it worked that way too.)
This is a picture of money, not the real thing...please don't try to reach through your computer screen. (I wish it worked that way too.) | Source

9. Money

Who hasn't ever dreamed of being rich?

While some want fame, others find themselves wanting fortune. As kids, we often dream of having the biggest house on the block, or perhaps being able to afford all of the cool gadgets we want.

As we grow older, we might still hold on to the dream of becoming a millionaire, but we tend to move towards the ideal of financial security and freedom--that is, having enough to keep us satisfied, safe and secure, while giving us enough room for play. It's a tough economy out there right now, and just about anybody could use a few extra bucks.

If you define success this way: You're a practical person, concerned with the necessities of life and providing for yourself (and possibly, a family). Try not to make money your main focus, however--financial woes sure can suck the energy out of you. Life isn't all about money, anyway. Want to know what it IS about? Read on...

8. Luxury

Ahh, luxury. The word conjures up images of leaning back in an expensive leather recliner, nibbling on chocolate-covered strawberries (yum), or caviar (yuck), or both together (super yuck). Everyone, of course, has their own vision of what luxury really is.

Luxury is closely tied to an aspiration for wealth, of course, because you need money to pay for it. But some people launch headfirst into luxury without necessarily having the financial resources, such as buying the biggest house on the block, the nicest car, the coolest gadgets. As much as I hate the term for its judgmental quality and hint of self-righteousness, there are people out there who "live outside their means." And indeed, industries are leveraging the power of media and pop culture, broadcasting images that make our mouths water for the next big thing.

If you define success this way: You have a taste for the finer things in life, which is your prerogative. But be careful about abandoning the simple things in favor of materialism. Objects that show off wealth only serve as an illusion thereof; the real thing has everything to do with your mindset.

Your mansion might be a tad bit smaller than this one...but choosing to SEE it as a mansion is what makes all the difference.
Your mansion might be a tad bit smaller than this one...but choosing to SEE it as a mansion is what makes all the difference. | Source

7. Living Space

Breathing room--we all need it. Being a homeowner comes to mind when we consider the American Dream, and with good reason. A house is a place where we can be secure, let our guard down, and just be ourselves. It solidifies our identities as unique, (hopefully) financially stable, self-reliant individuals who have a small corner of the world to call our very own. It's a launching pad for all our hopes and dreams, goals and aspirations--a place to venture out into the big, wide world in the daytime, and a place to return for sweet rest at night. And of course, the breathing room.

If you define success this way: You need your personal space. Or, perhaps you need to be able to lay claim to a part of the world, however small it may be. Perhaps you're not feeling so independent right now, or maybe you're a city slicker who's ready to stop paying rent and take in a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively. Don't forget, however, to appreciate where you live now. It may not be ideal, but chances are you're better off than many others, and perhaps there's at least one nice thing to be said about the place you call home, no matter how humble an abode it is.

6. Education

Whether you take delight in being somewhat of a smarty-pants or you actually are looking for opportunities to expand your employable skill set, education is a great goal to have. It's probably firmly planted in our minds as a prerequisite to any real success in life, unless you're a prodigy in some special area. Plus, it always feels good to be able to add a few letters to your name if the occasion calls for it. Hiring managers are likely to take you more seriously (good luck in the current job market, though), and you're pretty sure to make more money than if you didn't pursue higher education. But again, not having a college degree or not going to college at all doesn't mean you can't shoot for the moon.

If you define success this way: You value learning and knowledge, things which no other human being can take away from you. You want to expand your understanding of the world. Or, perhaps you just want to prepare yourself for an awesome first and second career. Whatever your reasons, education is an exciting aspiration that has a touch of "adventure" to it. Simply put: you can't go wrong in learning. Just don't let it go to your head! (Well actually, you do have to let it go to your head if you want it to stay know what I mean.)

Learning is the way to achieve lots of your life's goals.  Value your education, whether you're in high school, college, or the good ol' school of life, and make the most of it.
Learning is the way to achieve lots of your life's goals. Value your education, whether you're in high school, college, or the good ol' school of life, and make the most of it. | Source

5. Influence

What comes to mind when you think of influential person?

It could be the guy who runs the show, the CEO of a small company--he has a definite influence on the general atmosphere of the workplace and the direction of the business. Or an elementary schoolteacher--she influences the kids she teaches not only by doling out information, but by caring about whether the kids understand the material, watching to make sure they get along with each other, imparting discipline and structure, and making the classroom a safe and fun place to learn. (Seriously, we ought to thank and support our teachers and recognize them for the great human beings they are.) You might also think of a broadcast journalist who influences people and motivates them to take action, whether it's through hard investigation or an intriguing case study of a subculture.

In any case, being a person of influence means you can change the world, both by virtue of what you do and who you are.

If you define success this way: You want to feel like your journey on this earth matters--and it does, but you want proof. You want to know that you're making a real difference in the world, or at least in the lives of some. It's an awesome thing to desire. Remember though that you don't have to be rich, famous, or insanely talented in some area to achieve this; it simply requires being compassionate, empathetic and an overall good person.

Check out this homeless guy who was discovered on a radio show. Maybe rough around the edges, but there's no denying that he's got a heck of a lot of raw talent. Being really good at something, especially something that makes people happy--like music--is a great way to earn respect

4. Respect

Respect is another one of those things that just feels good. Just ask Aretha Franklin. It means that your opinions are valued, your presence is appreciated, and people want to please you. It often comes as recognition for who you are or what you've done in life: being a loving grandparent, a doctor, a teacher (again, they deserve it), etc. If you're a teenager or young adult, you might feel an awful lot of respect for your parents, and then again, you might not. You might be yearning for a little more respect from them, especially if they don't trust you or if they still are treating you like a little kid.

Respect is akin to admiration, but more personal. We respect artists, writers, musicians--people with extraordinary creative talents that we wish we had (and no, they don't necessarily have to be famous). It's almost as if we'd bow down to them--when we're in their presence, we feel privileged to be there.

It's a little different from influence though, because influential people don't always garner respect. An oppressive dictator can be extremely influential, but is only truly respected by the few who envy his position. Earning respect means you're a classy guy or gal in some way, whether through your personality, your pursuits, or a winning combination of both. It's also a fundamental human right. Since everyone has the potential to contribute value to the world, unless he or she deliberately commits indignities or injustices, everyone has a basic right to respect.

If you define success this way: Not only do you want to change lives, you want to be recognized for it. You know you have worth in this world--that's a good thing--so you want people to give you at least your due kudos. Here's my warning for you: Respect can create uncomfortable power dynamics between people, and the lesser party will be inclined to "hide" his or her less appealing aspects. Make sure that you're still down-to-earth and on the same level as those you're seeking it from--in other words, respect everyone else for who they are. Why? Because people will be more likely to be themselves (that is, honest, authentic, and genuine) around you, and mutual respect makes relationships more "real" and satisfying.

"Sometimes you wanna go...where everybody knows your name!"

Theme song from Cheers, a classic American sitcom that discussed the ins and outs of friendly relationships. Hope it brings back some memories, even though some of the lyrics are rather...offbeat. ("...and your husband wants to...WHAT???")

3. Friends and Relationships

Friends are, in so many words, the spice of life. They're not only there to help you when you're down, but to help you back up and enjoy the fun stuff in life.

It's not surprising at all that people define success by their popularity. If you don't have that many friends or close relationships, it's easy to feel like a failure. On the other hand, if you're phone is ringing off the hook everyday because you're too interesting to be left alone, you might feel quite satisfied--at least, as far as people liking you is concerned. (Or you might begin to feel like flicking them off of you like flies. Hey, too much of a good thing...)

Then there's romantic relationships--it's where we hope to find love and to fulfill some of our deepest needs for companionship, intimacy and validation. If you go too long lacking a relationship or the hope for one, it can be troubling. If you've been fairly lucky and consistent in the love department, some would say that's success right there.

If you define success this way: For one, you're a normal human being who needs companionship. We're social animals, of course, and associating with other people is essential to our well-being. So, it's safe to say at least that you're in touch with your primal needs. The one thing you have to be careful of is dependence on others for your ultimate happiness. Your full potential resides within you, not within others. When people let you down (which you can expect, even from your "soulmate," because nobody's perfect), it's your knowledge of your life's purpose and passions that will carry you through.

Freedom is the essence of life.  That's why we curiously find ourselves seeking it all the time.
Freedom is the essence of life. That's why we curiously find ourselves seeking it all the time. | Source

2. Freedom

Freedom can mean many different things to many different people. To the prisoner, it means the lifting or the fulfillment of his sentence. To the college kid it means having a later (or no) curfew and being able to hang out without parents knowing every detail. To the unsatisfied worker, it means being able to quit her lousy job and make a bold career change towards something she actually likes and would do for free. To the person suffering from mental or emotional distress, it means having the peace and clarity of mind to actually live life and accomplish the basic things others seem to take for granted.

However you look at it, there's no denying that freedom is a visceral concept, a profound need. We all seek it in some way or another. Some roam the earth, some rebel against their parents, some break out of prisons and hospitals, some end their relationships. Whenever freedom calls, it's a powerful draw indeed, one that we can't help but respond to in some way.

If you define success this way: You're responding to a fundamental human need. Just think about your proposed course of action and really decide whether it will hurt you or others in the long run. Achieving real freedom is about enhancing yourself and your capacity to contribute to the world without any side effects.

The #1 Way to Define Success (Drumroll, please...)

Are you determined to be an ambassador of happiness?  If so, you're in luck--NOBODY can take that away from you.
Are you determined to be an ambassador of happiness? If so, you're in luck--NOBODY can take that away from you. | Source

1. Happiness

Happiness doesn't mean having a smile plastered on your face 256 days a year. I know it only takes 19 muscles (or some odd, relatively-low-but-as-of-yet-indeterminate number of muscles) to smile, but you've gotta figure you'd be worn out... It's not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy, either. It's not something that only kids in their elementary school playground are entitled to.

As you've probably guessed by now, I don't believe that fame, money, or material things can bring you happiness either. Maybe a momentary semblance of it, but nothing close to the real thing.

Happiness is a self-sustaining synergy of inner peace, satisfaction, self-confidence, and fun. Can we be in that state 24 hours a day? Probably not. But you CAN make it a consistent theme in your life. It all has to do with your outlook of the world, your attitude towards life, your willingness to accept and change reality, and your openness to new ways of thinking. It means making the world a better place to live in, both for yourself and for others around you. Happiness entails daring to imagine that the state itself is possible, and to put that imagination to action.

If you define success this way: You're on the right track! You're on the cusp of discovering what success is all about, and when you achieve this goal, you really will feel like you've done something grand. Fortunately, the time frame for such achievement is perhaps the most flexible among those for all other goals; you can determine to cultivate happiness a minute from now, by tomorrow, in two weeks, six months, 10 years, or for a lifetime. There aren't any drawbacks to least, none have yet been discovered, and I have a sneaky suspicion that none ever will be.

So there you have it, 10 different and wildly popular ways of defining success, along with some helpful cautioning from moi, Benny, your friendly neighborhood Writer. We probably adopt a mix of all these perspectives throughout our lifetimes, adjusting them as our attitudes and responsibilities change. But success will always be a personal thing, no matter how many other millions seem to abide by a predefined notion of it.

And now for the question I leave you to ponder...What's your definition of success?

Poll (because now I'm curious)

How do YOU define success? Be honest!

See results

Share YOUR secrets to success right here!

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    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks so much Tankadin! Yes, yours would qualify as a success story. Onward and upward!

    • Tankadin profile image


      10 years ago

      Great hub! Happy and grateful here so I must be successful! Rated up and awesome :)

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks so much ar.colton. I love the way you put that--life "finds its own beautiful symmetry," so true--and your positive outlook. I can tell more success is coming your way!

    • ar.colton profile image

      Mikal Smith 

      10 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

      I feel pretty succesful because no matter what life has thrown at me (a fair bit) I have learned to just keep swimming. Life rolls on and finds it's own beautiful symmetry. Lucky us :)

      Great hub Benny!

    • BennyTheWriter profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

      Thanks b. Malin! I'd say you have a winning formula working for you! Much continued success.

    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 

      10 years ago

      I'm successful because I have my HEALTH, We have a few dollars in the Bank, I am with a Wonderful Husband who truly is my BEST friend and Lover...And the Hubs I write are ENJOYABLE for others to read and Laugh, or Smile at, or give some thought to. A good Hub on this Subject, Useful, and Thought Provoking, Benny.


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