Rethinking the Meaning of Success

Moving from ‘What We Have’ to ‘Who We Are’ and ‘How We Feel’

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”

― Epictetus


How do you define ‘success’? If you had to respond right now, without too much reflection, what would you say? 

If someone then asked you to think about your children or your aging parents. With either or both of them in mind, how would you now define ‘success’?

Would your answer be quite different? Mine would be. I default to professional / business measures of success when first asked. 

Upon reflection, my answer changes from a list of ‘what we have’ (external measures) to a list of ‘who we are’ and ‘how we feel’ (internal measures that involve feelings and relationships with others.)


The Immediate Response

When asked to define success, the first thoughts that come to mind include many of the following:

  1. Wealth (total financial assets)
  2. Fame / Popularity (likes, followers)
  3. Credentials (university affiliations, prior companies worked for)
  4. Job Title (founder/CEO, C-Level, or similar)
  5. Visible material possessions (esp. luxury ones such as 2nd homes, boats, sports cars, etc.)

(I acknowledge this may be biased due to my being raised with the male role model being a person who succeeds professionally and provides for the family.)


Why We Think This Way

Why do these professional markers of success typically come to mind first? Because they are:

  • Easily comparable
  • Have a scarcity attached to them
  • Are often mutually exclusive (i.e. meaning that generally two people can’t both have the same thing at the same time.)
  • We are encouraged from childhood to think about ‘what’ we want to be (external markers to compare ourselves to.) and/or
  • They are a signal about wealth (the most common societal marker of success.)


These Indicators of Success are More Pervasive Today

The digitization of our lives (online only products or physical products with online connections) has made it easier to measure behavior, track outcomes and rank things/people relative to each other. The gamification of many shared, online resources with public leaderboards or equivalent (i.e. top 10 lists or good/better/best) has increased status seeking, because now everyone can potentially showcase their status. 

Lots of what we do involves performing for others to gain status and approval. It’s really, really hard to avoid performing and seeking status in at least some aspects of your life or some of the time. At least that’s been my experience. 


The Considered Response

After being primed with ‘think about your children and/or aging parents’, the answer to defining success typically changes.

Here is my revised list:

  1. Good health (both physical and mental)
  2. Strong friendships (you only need a small number)
  3. A caring romantic partner
  4. Free time for hobbies and other meaningful activities beyond work
  5. Satisfaction with what we have (able to live comfortably) while avoid comparison with others

Money, fame, brand, and material possessions are low on this revised list. Undeniably, having more money helps increase life satisfaction by making it easier to achieve the above and/or outsource unpleasant tasks that take up time. But, money doesn’t matter that much if several of the items on the list above are not met. 


Pivoting from External Goals to Internal Identity

It is common to set goals in work and life (measurable targets) and then figure out what we need to do to achieve them. I support having goals and I realize goals are critical to every business venture. 

However, I keep learning and relearning that figuring out my desired identity is the more important first step for increasing satisfaction. Each of us have multiple identities at any given time that matter a lot to us across our work (e.g. teacher or coach), our relationships (e.g. loving partner), and our personal wellbeing (e.g. healthy person). With our desired identities set, we can then frame the activities we undertake as either supportive or detracting from our identity.

If we know who we want to be, we can take regular actions supporting that goal. And celebrate small wins, when we take steps that reinforce our identity. In addition, knowing who we are will ensure we are less disturbed by the status driven world around us filled with constant comparison, leaderboards, and the message that if you only try this or buy this you will feel better.

Aditya Dehejia

Adi’s experiences as a CFO and HR leader in start-up companies inspired him to start the CxO Leadership Accelerator. He saw firsthand the challenges in building a satisfying career, the importance of leaders in developing people, and the difficulty in building broad business acumen while excelling in your functional role. Prior to his operating career in start-ups, Adi held roles in a growth capital investment firm and in the corporate development and strategy department at a Fortune 500 company. Adi is an active volunteer mentor in the FirstRound Capital and TechStars networks as well as within his University alumni communities. Adi was born in India and immigrated to the US at age ten. He attended Princeton University (graduated with a degree in Politics) and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He lives in the suburbs of New York City and has two adult sons and two lovable, crazy dogs.

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